Colonial Williamsburg Journeyman saddle and harness maker Eric Myall says different saddles are tools for specific jobs.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Eric Myall, and in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, he’s saddle and harness maker. You can see why they’d need one from the 18th century. A lot of work for you on a regular basis?
Eric Myall: Lot of work. In the 18th century, it wouldn’t have been a lot of saddle work. It’d be a lot of harness work, lot of repair work. You’ve got to realize, not everybody owns a horse. When you’re looking at a town of 2,000 people, and 52 percent of the population are going to be slaves that don’t own anything, 30 percent of us work for a living in shops, whether blacksmiths or coopers, working 12, 14 hours a day in the summer, six days a week – I’ve got no need for a horse, I’m not going anywhere. I mean, the town’s a mile long, and three blocks wide, and surrounded by water. Where am I going to go, apart from church on Sunday, right?
About 18 percent horses, possibly. These are just sort of rough figures. You get a lot of those people that have oxen. They fetch and carry. College Creek is only a mile down the road, Capitol Landing is three, Jamestown’s six, Yorktown 13. Ships bringing things in around the coastline got to get into town somehow. So, carts and wagons, and the saddle on those would be oxen. ‘Cause you know us, we’re English. We don’t eat horses, but we’ll eat an oxen when it’s dead. We like beef.
Eric: That gives you about 2 percent of the population who have all the nice things in life. So you have to do other things apart from saddles and harness. You have trunks for carriages, upholstery on carriages, armrests, mudguards, leather washers in the wheels, portmanteaus, saddle bags, sword scabbards, banded scabbards, cutlery boxes, rifleman’s bullet-bags, fire-buckets, pistol-buckets, shoes, whips, belts, pump washers--leather goods, basically. So you become a leather worker here. In England, saddles, bridles, anything to do with riding a horse. But here, different world.
Lloyd: It sounds like the only things that you don’t actually make are saddles and harnesses.
Eric: Very few of them, very few. Oh, the other thing: we don’t do gloves, we don’t bind books, and we don’t make leather breeches. A lot of skilled people do that, and the only connection between them is leather. We don’t have to mess with those at all, other people are doing that work.
Lloyd: Wait a second now, do you tan the leather?
Eric: No, that’s the tanner’s job. That’s completely separate. You are looking at 450 tanners in Virginia, 79 in the county, and two in the town by the end of the 18th century. And it’s coming in from England, Scotland. You’ve got Russian calf, Italian calf, Moroccan goat, you’ve got worldwide trade. It’s all going on out there. Anything you want, just buy it locally down the road, or get it shipped in yourself, directly to your front door.
Lloyd: I don’t know why I thought it, but I thought that saddle making, harness making, bridle making, there would be a tanner or something, and he’d make the leather, and you’d make it, but that’s not true at all.
Eric: No, it doesn’t work that way. A tanner would take the hides and skins of an animal, clean them up, get rid of the flesh and hair and membrane, the gobbledygook, all the nasty stuff. He’ll soak it in tannic acid, which is basically ground-up tree bark of various sorts, and he’ll tan it. When that’s done, you’ve got leather, but it’s got no character. It’s got to be oiled, and dyed, and pummeled to make it soft, or rolled to make it hard. So that goes to another guy called a currier. Curriers do all that work, and then I purchase it.
Lloyd: So you’re actually the third guy in line?
Eric: Well I’m about, if you start with the farmer breeding cattle, I’m about 11th down the line. (Laughs.) I’m at the end of the chain, here. I get all of the nice stuff, I don’t have all the nasty, smelly stuff. I get all the nice leather.
My job is literally to cut it up and make things from it, like tailors buy cloth, and builders buy bricks, carpenters buy wood, and blacksmiths buy iron. You know, I tell people in the shop, “This is not like ‘Little House on the Prairie’ around here.” You can come in this town and buy anything in the known world, ready to go.
Lloyd: I know it’s silly of me, but I keep thinking of Colonial Williamsburg, this 18th-century town, as this backward little place, and it’s not at all–it’s a center of commerce.
Eric: It’s a center of commerce, it’s surrounded by water, two vast rivers on either side, ships coming and going, and the whole thing is all worked on trade.
Lloyd: How did you get here?
Eric: Well you don’t want the long, sad story.
Lloyd: No, just give me the short one.
Eric: The gentleman here that runs all the livestock, Mr. Nicholl, he asked me to come down from where I was working and come down here. I knew his brother, because his brother was at King’s Troop Royal [Horse] Artillery, I’d done work for them, and I’ve done work for the Royal Mews. So, he grabbed me and got me down here, and that was 22 years ago now.
Lloyd: Well, you must be happy with it, you’ve stayed here for 22 years.
Eric: I must be, 22 years later, I’m still doing it.
Lloyd: Because I think I know, but I’m not sure I know–the saddle that you would sometimes make, does not look at all like a Western saddle that you would see on a TV show.
Eric: There’s no West, you see, to start with, in our time. Well, there is, but it’s Spanish territory. The Western saddle was only developed for the Spanish vaqueros, the way they deal with cattle. You’ve got to remember: everybody is English. We do it in an English way. We’ve got the Church of England, right? We speak the language, read the books -- Shakespeare, and watch the plays, all that good stuff. Eat English food. And how’re we going to deal with cattle? We keep them in the fields, and we go call, and they come to you. If you want to move them, you’ve got drovers. And everything’s a short distance. You can go out there today, in the early part of January, and there’s always green out there, they’re always managing to eat.
Once they start getting way out West, you’ve got all this vast, open space, and not a lot of food. You’ve got to let them go, and then you’ve got to go collect them. So they have a roundup, so you’re dealing with the Spanish way of doing it--conchos, ponchos, tapaderos, lariats, rollos--all developed with the Spanish way of dealing with cattle. And it becomes a Mexican saddle, then the Western saddle as we know it today. Different world.
Lloyd: It makes sense.
Eric: You said movies--that’s when they start to become popular here with a lot of people. It’s the first time they ever saw them. You wouldn’t see anything like that around until 1820s, or thereabouts, when people start coming back from the West, bringing these things with them. People look at them and say, “What’s that?” It’s a tool for a particular job.
Lloyd: You don’t make those.
Eric: No, I’ve got a little sign in my workshop at home that says, “Remember, you don’t work on Western saddles.” They’re a completely different animal, they really are. I stay away from them. They weigh a ton, these great big heavy things.
Lloyd: OK, then what does an English saddle weigh? I’ve never ridden a horse in my life.
Eric: How much the person weighs who’s sitting on it is what you’ve got to think about. A saddle only weighs between 12 and 15 pounds. Western saddles can weigh 40 pounds and up. They’re a tool for a job, they’re a big chunky thing. It’s like taking a John Deere tractor, and how much does that weigh, compared to your Volvo? Big tool for a big job. They get beaten up pretty bad, those Western saddles, but they’re doing a basic tool for a job.
Lloyd: So the English saddle is not so much a tool as it is a convenience.
Eric: That’s right. It’s to spread the rider’s weight over the horse’s back to make it comfortable for the horse and the rider. So, when you need a saddle, you come into our shop. We measure you, measure the horse, take those measurements, and then we’ll ask if you want a doeskin seat, a pigskin seat, steerhide seat, do you want the flaps on it round, do you want them square? It’s going to be made for you, and your horse.
Lloyd: OK now, I have a saddle made for my horse, and we’re very happy with it, and we ride on it for years, and my horse dies.
Eric: Get off very quickly.
Lloyd: (Laughs.) Jump.
Eric: You don’t want 1,200 pounds of horse to fall on you.
Lloyd: Will the saddle go on another horse?
Eric: Now, with the English saddle, you see, you’ve got panels underneath that pad it out with wool. Now they can be regulated. I can move them in and move them out, I can do things with them. But, if your first horse you came in with had a very high wither, and the next one’s flat as a pancake, I can’t do much about that. We just take it apart and make another one. They can be regulated, you can do things with them.
But you wouldn’t ride it for years and years, you’d possibly come in every six months and have that padding regulated inside that saddle, because horses will change their shape as the year goes on. In the spring, they get on the fresh grass, you start riding them and they muscle up, and in the wintertime they’ll start to change again.
Lloyd: Never knew that, either.
Eric: They change a bit, yeah.
Lloyd: Just like people, we don’t stay the same.
Eric: Yeah, we put on more clothes in the wintertime; horses grow more fur. And if you’ve got a hunter, then usually they’re going to be clipped out, and kept in a stable with rugs on him to keep him warm. When you take him out hunting, he’s going to be galloping around, so he doesn’t need all that hair on him. But keep him muscled up, you see. But they will change.
Lloyd: So your job is not only to know leather and saddles, but animals. If you don’t know the animals, you can’t do a thing about it.
Eric: That’s it, yeah.
Lloyd: Well, that completely changes my opinion of saddle makers.
Eric: You’ve got to know a little bit about it. It’s like going to the gunsmith, and saying, “Can you make me a gun?” and the gun can’t even shoot. You’ve got to be able to know how a gun operates, and how it works.
When I came in the trade, about 55 years ago, one of the first things I did, unbeknownst to my boss, I went out and took riding lessons. And when he found out, he said, “Why’d you do that?”
And I said, “Well, I’m making stuff to go on a horse, I need to know where it’s gonna go, and how it fits, so I’ve got an idea when somebody comes and asks me to make something, I say, ‘Now, is this going to do this, or that?’ so I’ve got an idea where it’s going to go on the horse.”
Lloyd: You said, “a hunter.” So, there are hunting horses. What other sorts of saddles would you make in the 18th century?
Eric: In the 18th century, not much, really. Ladies’ side saddles, for the odd lady that might wish to ride, but she’s only going to ride in and around town at a fairly sedate walk, being escorted by a groom or a gentleman. You’ve got jockey saddles, for the horse racing was big. It’s basically a regular saddle that you’re going to use to hunt, or ride with, but slightly smaller to cut the weight down for horse racing.
Lloyd: I have seen a saddle somewhere--I think it was in a museum--where the center was cut out.
Eric: That’s possibly that horrible American-y thing, oh God, I’ve forgotten that guy’s name, yeah, I’ve forgotten his name. I should know, and I can’t remember it. I’m having a senior moment, you see. I’ve forgotten the name of the thing. Everyone’s going to say, “You idiot, you know what it is.”
But they cut the centers out of them, that gives you ventilation, top and bottom, for you and the horse. That was a military saddle, and I’ll think of it as we go along. In England, when they made the military saddles, they literally suspended the seat from each end, so you got like a big gap sideways, and not up and down, if you can see what I mean. It went through that way, instead of coming down that way.
Eric: McClellan, McClellan, it was McClellan’s saddle. A lot of those were done for use in military purely, way out West where it got very, very hot desert conditions, so you had the air circulation. Some of them that went further up North, where it’s going to be colder and everything else, they didn’t put that gap in the middle, they left it filled in.
Lloyd: Well wait a second, you just told me something else. You’ve got that gap in the middle of the military saddle, out West, where you think they’d ride Western saddles, but they don’t. They ride these little military saddles.
Eric: They’ve got a horn on them, too, a lot of them. A lot of them put a horn on there. McClellan, see, apparently went on over to Europe, because they’re always fighting somebody over there, and he went as an observer, and he watched the wars going on. He came back and developed that saddle. In my opinion, it’s a horrible thing. A lot of people ride them, and they get one and say, “I love it, I wouldn’t ride anything else,” but eeahh.
Lloyd: Well, that’s what makes horse races, I guess. I always thought, for some fool reason, that it was a jockey’s saddle, but no.
Eric: No. No, no. Nope.
Lloyd: So, it’s a military saddle. A jockey’s saddle is just …
Eric: A big saddle, just made small.
Lloyd: A small big saddle.
Eric: I’ve seen them for flat racing, the guy’s only got, what, four minutes in the derby in England, and they only weigh eight ounces.
Lloyd: Good heavens.
Eric: Well, he’s not sitting on it, he’s just standing on those irons. And the stirrup irons are aluminum, and the stirrup leather that’s normally about an inch, comes right down to a half-inch, or something like that. Just cut all the weight down, chop the weight down. If you ever see a jockey get on the scales, he always gets on with his tackle in his arms.
Lloyd: So it’s the more weight you can take off the saddle, the more the jockey could weigh, if you wanted him to.
Eric: Then, of course, he’d say, “I have a handicap race, and I have to put weight on.” So, he’d put a weight cloth underneath. It fits under the saddle, and they’ve got pockets on either side, and they put slabs of lead in there.
Lloyd: The first thing, I want to congratulate you on knowing everything there is to know about horses.
Eric: No, I only know a little tiny bit.Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.