By Toby Raymond
Photography by John Gessner
With more than 4,000 acres of public horseback and hiking trails, Southern Pines ranks among the equestrian community’s elite outposts. Which makes Moore County the perfect headquarters for Stackhouse Saddles — many of the customers who pony up $6,500 to $7,000 for one of its custom-made saddles live nearby. But it was golf, not horses, that drew David Stackhouse here. He and business partner Lesley Ellis travel as far west as Texas and north to Wisconsin measuring horse and rider before returning to Pinehurst, where they perfect their “one-stitch-at-a-time” Old World craftsmanship.
Few, if any, other U.S. saddlemakers are involved in the entire process, measurements to finished English saddle. Their customers are in the elite world of equestrian eventing and dressage, which have grown in popularity (and prize money) over the last several years. For the non-horse crowd, eventing is what you see every four years at the Summer Olympics — last year’s Rio games were a platform for attracting new fans to the sport.
Many of them find Stackhouse and Ellis, seeking a unique saddle. The duo creates up to 80 handmade saddles a year from a studio attached to the home Stackhouse shares with his wife, Christine. He began making saddles more than 50 years ago as an apprentice at the legendary Barnsby Saddlery, once a supplier to the queen of England. “There was a legal contract that stated I was to be ‘indentured’ for six years while I learned the trade from the ground up.”
Stackhouse worked under the greatest master saddlers at Barnsby for another five years before striking out on his own in 1974. He emigrated from his native England for the U.S. in 1999, bringing his business — and Ellis — with him. Stackhouse had been traveling across the Atlantic for years when a recession in the U.K. prompted him to make the move permanent. He chose North Carolina because he and his wife had discovered Pinehurst while on a golf vacation.
No stranger to the horse world, Ellis grew up riding in Bristol, England, and though she did not actively compete, she became an accomplished equestrienne. While riding was a passion, she also loved to make things by hand, which ultimately led her to study in Walsall, an English Midlands town famous for its leather goods, and find work at Barnsby.
“At college, we were taught modern production-line methods when it came to making saddles, so when I came to Barnsby I was eager to learn hand crafting and was promised an opportunity to do so as soon as a position opened up. However, after nine months, it became clear to me that they were not going to honor their word, especially when they took on two young men instead of me.”
Around the same time, Stackhouse found himself with more orders than help. He hired Ellis on a two-month trial basis. That was 23 years ago. Today, the company is rebranding itself as Stackhouse & Ellis, a nod to plans for Ellis, 47, to eventually succeed Stackhouse, who is 70.
“Not everyone is cut out for this type of work,” Ellis says. “It takes a certain temperament, patience, thoroughness and having an eye for detail — traits that naturally suit me. As a result, I was drawn to putting my hand to the little things that will enable a saddle to fit horse and rider perfectly, and also will stand out from the off-the-rack variety.”
The process begins not with leather or metal but a detailed conversation with a rider. Stackhouse and Ellis then fit the rider’s horse with a “tree,” the saddle’s frame, or skeleton, taking measurements at 2-inch increments. Templates are marked out on paper to create a pattern. Once verified, the leather is cut. The bulk of Stackhouse’s materials come from the United Kingdom with the remainder of the leathers imported from France. They also have recently introduced a few U.S. suppliers into the mix.
The tree is prepared, or “strained,” to create the balance that will position the rider in the seat. This is the most important step in the process, Stackhouse says. “Our goal is to achieve the perfect balance for both horse and rider. The correct fit combines a tree that supports the horse so that he or she can move freely together with a properly constructed seat and flaps that put the rider in position. If the balance is not correct, nothing else matters. Even if everything is beautiful, it just won’t be right.”
All the other parts are made next — flaps, top, panels, blocks. The top of the saddle consists of the seat and the skirts, which are sewn together by hand. The process of making the individual parts takes between three to four hours, depending on the type of saddle. Once the parts are made, it takes about a week to put them all together.
“Oftentimes, riders will come to us with concerns about how their horse is doing,” Ellis says, “but after being fitted with a new saddle, they’ll frequently say it’s like they’re riding a different horse. We are always so gratified to hear such stories. It’s at the heart of why we do what we do.”
David Stackhouse has been crafting custom saddles since 1962. He brought on Lesley Ellis, left, in 1994, and five years later they moved the business from their native England to the pines of Moore County. Photo by John Gessner
Ellis and Stackhouse spend much of their time on the road measuring horses and riders but return to their Pinehurst studio overlooking a golf course. Photo by John Gessner
A saddle begins with the ‘tree,’ or skeleton, which Stackhouse measures. Before any leather is cut, paper templates are used to sketch out the saddle’s shape. Photo by John Gessner
Stackhouse cuts the leather, most of which is imported from the United Kingdom with other materials arriving from France and domestic suppliers. Photo by John Gessner
One of the most important steps in the process is straining the tree to form the shape of the saddle’s seat. Photo by John Gessner
Stitching completes the base of the seat. Done correctly, a seat should be the conduit between horse and rider. Photo by John Gessner
Most of the work at Stackhouse & Ellis Saddles is done by hand, only about 30 minutes of a process that can take several hours is spent on a machine. Photo by John Gessner
A sewing machine is used for some work, including stitching on a saddle’s flaps. Photo by John Gessner
After Ellis cuts the billets, top left, the final step is punching holes into them. Billets are the straps that attach the saddle to the girth. Photo by John Gessner
‘I remember all the saddles that we’ve made and look forward to seeing them again; they’re like long-lost relatives,’ Ellis says. Photo by John Gessner
‘Where else can you meet so many fabulous horses and meet so many terrific riders, many of whom have become great friends in the process?’ Photo provided by Stackhouse & Ellis Saddles