Coronavirus restrictions have changed work and life – but I’m forging ahead, says business owner.

Springtime is usually busy at Essex based Karen Lewis Saddlery. But not this year, thanks to Covid-19.

Karen Lewis

“Clients were looking forward to warmer weather and more riding. My saddle fitting diary was booked from March until May,” says business owner Karen Lewis. 

A Master Saddler and Registered Qualified Saddle Fitter with the Society of Masters Saddlers (SMS), Karen has a workshop in Abberton near Colchester.

In normal times, she travels to clients four days a week and spends two days at the bench working on repairs and made-to-measure bridlework and leathergoods.  

“Spring is typically the time that clients start to order new show bridles or replace tack after the hard work of winter,” she added.

In addition, Karen was planning a series of lecture/demonstrations later this year, to be delivered in conjunction with veterinary and human physiotherapists and riding coaches. 

My last client

On 20 March, three days before lockdown was imposed, Karen Lewis Saddlery saw its last ‘live’ client. 

“I had some final repairs to finish in the workshop and posted them back to customers. Then I spent that first week mostly at home with my mum, contacting clients and making sure we had the food and medicines we needed,” said Karen, recalling those uncertain early days of restrictions.

“Luckily my workshop is on a private farm; and with strict control measures, I’ve been able to get there most days. In fact, I’ve tried to keep a regular routine of weekdays at work and the weekends at home.”

Stress busting

At a time of turmoil, Karen says the farm’s allotment has really come into its own. Her display of flowering hanging baskets and pots is particularly impressive this year. 

“I’ve always made use of a polytunnel for planting vegetables over the summer and bedding plants during the winter,” she says. “My landlord jokes that it’s like Chelsea Flower Show.   

“I’d not thought too much about it before, but gardening is a great stress buster. It’s been of great benefit to my mental health.”

Workshop projects

During lockdown, Karen completed projects in her workshop that, she says, “I would never normally have had time to do.”

She’s been making patterns for hunting canteens by replicating antique originals and perfecting her box and case work. Making leather headcollars, bridles and restoring a Mayhew side-saddle has also kept her busy. 

As to what she’s missed the most in lockdown, Karen singles out the horses. “I don’t have [my own] horses anymore, so I’ve been missing the contact with them,” she says.  

Keeping a distance

With a view to getting back business, Karen has re-arranged her workshop to create another workbench.  

“My sister used to come in weekly to help me, and of course I will need to ensure we can work while distancing,” she explains.  

Meanwhile, a saddlery pupil will be learning remotely, Karen is currently writing up instructions about how to stitch a headcollar at home.

Saddle fitting resumes

The nature of saddle fitting means that Karen has had to give great consideration to safety precautions as she tentatively goes back to this part of her work. 

“I’m ensuring I have sufficient stocks of gloves, sanitiser and washing facilities. I’m also sending clients a pre-appointment risk assessment and information form so they know what to expect,” she explained.  

“I imagine that the distancing method of visiting clients will be in place for some time to come. I certainly don’t expect to be able to see as many clients in a day as I could before.”

Covid-19 has initiated another new arrangement whereby Karen is working much more closely with a local equine physiotherapist. The idea is to prescribe exercise and posture improvement to horses that have had prolonged periods off regular work.  

Future plans

Covid-19 has given many business owners the head space to think and plan. “I’d like to spend more time at the bench as I’ve enjoyed getting in-depth projects completed,” says Karen. 

“And I have a few clients who would love to be able to come and do some short leatherworking courses; so that is something I’m planning for later in the year.”

Attending harness-making courses to refresh her skills in that sphere appeals to Karen too. “And I wish to spend more time designing my own saddlery items and looking at new saddle designs coming onto the market for my clients.”

Taking on an apprentice and enabling saddle fitting clients to visit her base – where she has a riding arena and horsebox parking – are also on Karen’s post-Covid-19 to-do list. 

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