A help wanted post on Craigslist piqued my interest. I hadn’t thought of saddle making, but then I didn’t know that not many miles from our place, just west of Ruckersville, Virginia, there was a saddle manufacturing shop. I pictured sewing machines like the oily industrial stitcher in the neighborhood shoe repair shop when I was a child. I imagined smells of leather and oil, and I realized that I had only a vague notion about how a saddle is made. I’d like to know more, so I answered the ad.
A welcoming response to my inquiring call turned my interest into action. I drove from our house about ten miles down side roads and highways to Tad Coffin Performance Saddle, a saddlery east of Ruckersville, a saddlery unlike any other. No flags, no identification at the roadway, but I had the right address, so I turned onto a driveway past a house and then followed the STABLE sign on back to a long low grey barn with cars parked in a small lot at the back end.
Still no shop sign, but a set of double doors with large window told me that this end of the barn must house human activity. I found a place for my car, and a young woman walking across the yard answered my query: “Is this the saddle shop? “
“Yes,” she said. “Come on in. We’re like family here.”
The doors opened to the quiet sounds of people at focused work. Some looked up, smiled, went back to work. At the far end of the central workbench sat Tad Coffin, whose revolutionary work as a saddler had drawn me to this spot.
Because horses have been so long on the earth, and because it is so long ago that horses first crossed paths with human beings, we can’t really know what life was like in the very ancient early days, and we don’t know how they all got along, people and horses.
Cave paintings found in Europe show that it was a vibrant meeting. And we know, however they met, that it wasn’t long before the horses were working for the people, and the people were working for the horses.
The horse pulled the plow and fertilized the field, and agriculture was born.
The horse carried fierce riders with weapons, and war was born.
The horse pulled loads of goods and materials, and industry was born.
The participation of the horse revolutionized all aspects of human activity.
And we have been riding them for as long as we know, 5,000 years, 6,000 years.
Though we don’t know just when. Dragging loads with horsepower probably came before riding. Technology advanced, and the harness was devised.
Riding probably came before the saddle, but eventually the saddle was devised.
Many thousands of years ago, the Chinese rode in elegant seats mounted on boards, or wide bars, that sat on the horse’s back, connected to two pieces, front and back, that spanned the horse’s spine. I can imagine a Chinese poem about the nature of the beast willing to carry heavy uncomfortable loads without complaint, though I have no proof such a poem was written.
At about the same time, tribal horse people on the Eurasian plains developed saddles that were also built as seats supported by leather pads or wooden bars fastened onto the horse’s back.
People always on the move, the Eurasian tribes covered vast territories on horseback and are credited with many of the advances in saddlery, including the addition of stirrups attached directly to the saddle tree. It is not clear, in ancient artwork or in more recent writing depicting our shared history, that the horse’s comfort was a major consideration in the negotiations.
The very early saddles gave the rider a degree of comfort and security and protected the horse’s backbone from the pressure of direct weight. The weight of the load was distributed through the supporting bars.
These supports, on which all manner of seats were built, became what we call the saddle tree.
When we look back on those early saddles, we see that they were extremely hard and cumbersome, and it is clear that saddle makers were limited by technological considerations, the tools and materials of their time.
With modern saddles the riders sit low, close to the back of the horse, usually with a blanket as interface. Saddles are built to allow the rider to be as close as possible with the horse as it moves. Modern construction tools and techniques manipulating modern materials have created saddles with sleek soft lines.
Though some saddlers now make treeless saddles, the majority of new saddles are built on saddle trees that bear remarkable resemblance to the wooden trees of antiquity. Saddle makers experiment with man made materials, but trees are still usually made of laminated wood re-enforced with steel. And the shape is still two wide rigid bars connected by pommel and cantle forms.
Thoughtful riders and craftspeople have continued to evolve variations on the surface of the saddle, the upholstery, to suit and serve human activity, but for hundreds of years the design of the tree itself and the ways it impacts the horse have barely changed.
Horseback riding requires two willful beings, the human and the horse, and in a successful ride, each moves in partnership with the other. Riders seek to improve communication with their mounts, and saddle makers continue the search for saddle design that supports performance without obvious pain to the horse.
The standard tree has become smaller and lighter, and modern materials such as plastic, fiberglass and aluminum have joined wood as foundational material. Often metal supports are added to maintain strength.
However skeletal modern trees have become, they are still rigid and design hasn’t strayed far past the form of the early trees in history. The modern trees still distribute the weight of the rider to the horse’s muscles along the back.
The horse’s back is of constant concern to equestrians world wide, a sore back making a quality ride impossible. The profession of saddle fitter developed to help riders learn where and how to arrange padding on rigid tree saddles to suit each horse. But aggravations still exist, and saddle makers continue to explore and redesign, now using modern technology, looking for ways to make a better saddle.
And it was into this historic continuum that Tad Coffin stepped into saddle making.
A rider first, and then a teacher, Coffin could see and feel the difference the saddle made to the quality of ride, for horse and rider both. As the horse teaches empathy, one could say Tad Coffin was an exceptional student, and thinking of the well being of his horse, over time he looked more and more to the saddle itself for the key to an harmonious ride. The winning margin may very well come from the spirited response the horse can give the rider when the saddle isn’t causing pain.
Successful in the world of equine competition, with gold medals at the Pan American Games in 1975 and the Olympics the following year, Coffin became professionally involved with saddle design in 1976 when he was approached by Miller Harness Co. to endorse an all purpose saddle for event riders. The popular Crosby Lexington TC was the result of that collaboration, and in the late 1980’s he developed another best seller for Millers, the Equilibrium close contact saddle, which was also released by Crosby with his name.
In the early 90s, a quest for improved saddle performance developed into a passionate pursuit, and Tad Coffin gathered a team to work with him in research and development at his farm near Charlottesville, Virginia.
“The saddle,” he recognized, “is our interface with the horse as we ride. It is the one piece of equipment with unexplored potential.”
In order to study that interface directly, Coffin took saddles apart, studying multiple designs from the outside to the core. Part of what he discovered in that study is that though saddles look different on the outside, the design of the saddle tree had not changed significantly in the past 100 years, despite the major changes in technology and the use of modern materials and construction techniques.
Focusing on the tree, Coffin proceeded to construct what he calls a “biomechanically more sophisticated” tree.
Working in the tradition of saddle making, he started with wood and metal. But he did not stop there. Soon he and his team, including east coast physicist Stan Yavoroski, were experimenting with other materials, and they found the carbon fiber reinforced polymer that was in a parallel track of research and development in science and industry at that time. Carbon fiber could give multiple angled flexion to the tree, and it seemed worth exploring.
Carbon fiber was invented by a physicist at the National Carbon Company in Ohio in 1958. Five years later a manufacturing process was developed at a British research center, and the U.S. government and the aeronautics industry began exploring uses that took advantage of carbon fiber’s high strength to weight ratio. Carbon fiber is versatile in application because it can be used with a wide variety of materials to form composites with particular characteristics.
In the 1970s carbon fiber began to be used in the manufacture of bicycle parts. In the early 1980s the carbon fiber tennis racket was introduced, and composites with carbon fiber are now used in ski poles, fishing rods, sailboard masts, tent poles, bows and arrows and snowboards. And saddle trees at Tad Coffin Performance Saddles.
Tad Coffin’s saddles look elegant and complete, but his interest in improvement keeps research alive at the saddle shop. As he works with his saddles and his horses, he maintains the experimental outlook that led him to begin the study 28 years ago. He is always looking for changes to make in the saddle to allow the horse to move more comfortably and freely while being ridden.
Made with fine quality materials and fine leather work, the saddles that leave his shop look elegant and traditional, not unlike well made saddles coming from other quality saddlers. What can’t be seen is what lies beneath the surface.
“The tree is really where we’ve done our work,” Coffin explained.
And the work continues, in his shop, in the community at workshops and presentations, and in communication with collaborators who share his interest in the well being of the horse and rider in the world of equine sport.
Coffin’s manufacturing shop is a few feet and just an interior door away from the horses in his barn, and he keeps five horses on his diagnostic team. He rides them all, able to tell with his own skill and intuition which changes in saddle design help the horse relax and move more freely, with full power and grace.
The five horses have been an integral part of the research at Tad Coffin Performance Saddles from the beginning. Careful study of old saddle trees had revealed many imbalances, and Coffin’s team used engineering to fine tune the basic geometric shape of the Tad Coffin saddle.
As the initial research and development took place, Coffin and his team relied on the horses for guidance in their work.
They designed many saddle trees, using computerized systems in the search for balance, strength, and flexibility. As each iteration of the saddle was made, Coffin tried it on each of the horses in the string. In these research tests, he relayed messages from his mounts to his human manufacturing team, they tweaked the design and sent it out again for testing.
Horses do not live long enough for Coffin’s original five to still be with him, but he replaces them as they leave and keeps five always on the research and development team. He rides them regularly and still listens carefully to what his horses tell him in response to every change that is made in the saddle construction.
The early research in the design of the saddle tree that is the foundation of Coffin’s saddles must have been an exciting time. Modern technology was rapidly expanding manufacturing possibilities, and suddenly saddlers had strong lightweight man-made materials that could be molded with precision. Balance was no longer strictly palpable and visual. It was now possible to measure with computer accuracy, and balance grew more and more refined in the saddles coming from Coffin’s shop.
As saddles emerged from this work, each was tested by Coffin and his horses. While the horses were all reacting with the honesty and direct response of a horse, the human team members were keeping notes and taking measurements, watching with satisfaction as the horses agreed with one another in their response to the tests. If one horse liked a change that had been made, the other four horses liked it as well. The saddle researchers- riders, engineers, designers, fabricators- were pleased to find confirmation of their work. They weren’t surprised to see improvement in the horse’s way of going; they were aiming at that.
But they did experience a degree of surprise at the less measurable phenomena they observed.
“There seemed to be some kind of magical energy coming from the horse,” Coffin related. It was more than just a good ride.
He named the saddle the SmartRide Rx, and, continuing with the research, the team began looking at things in pieces. They were looking for the source of the magic.
Experimenting with the saddle, they put it on a horse in its stall for studied periods of time, and they observed things that on most days in the horse barn would have seemed just weird.
Simply standing in a stall with a SmartRide saddle on its back the horse was simultaneously calmed and energized. Ailments diminished and the horse’s interest in the world increased. The researchers looked at the physical responses from the animals and realized they needed to learn still more about their saddle.
They discovered that the carbon fiber in the saddle tree was emitting constant low voltage electricity, creating an electric field about nine square feet. The horses were responding favorably to the mild charge, and it soon seemed that people too were experiencing an increased feeling of well being when working near the tree.
Horses are energetically perceptive, and they are happiest when everything around them is in balance. Providing that balance begins with primary physical care, including consideration of the equipment that is used on and around the horse. The Tad Coffin saddle developers started with close and careful measurement of the physical tree, and they soon realized there were other aspects to keep in balance as well.
The choice of materials the developers had used in making the Coffin tree raised their design considerations to the plane of the invisible. They were now considering energy fields, and they met the realization that the energy fields of the horse and the equipment, both saddle and bridle, that are used in activities with the horse, were significantly important.
Coffin offers the image of the horse as a large water battery. Standing for hours in a stall with rubber mats , the horse experiences a build-up of an electric charge. Time under a SmartRideRx proved a grounding experience for the horse, and that grounding promoted a sense of well being.
Additional tests convinced the researchers that the equine response to the SmartRideRx included improved digestion and heart rate. Water retention was affected, as well as mood. Horses who wore the saddle demonstrated measurable changes in a wide range of ways; feet, coat, appetite, food conversion, heart rate – all improved.
With two major saddle designs in production, Tad Coffin Performance Saddles added the Thera-Tree to the line, a more focused therapeutic application of his saddle. Simply the wrapped tree, it has no upholstery, no seat, pommel or cantle. He is finding that people also can feel therapeutic benefits, and that is inspiring further inquiry.
As part of the continued study Coffin and his team have been considering interesting aspects of water, electricity and light, finding that they all impact the vitality of the horse. They continue to apply their findings to the saddle making process.
“We are past the major problems and working now on fine tuning,” Coffin said. “Part of the problem that we’ve encountered in figuring this out is that the people we’ve approached in academics don’t know the answers to our questions.”
But on the other hand, approval from the horses tells Coffin he is on the right track.