How writing to ‘every saddler in the book’ kick-started a successful 20-year career.

Jo Dennison has been named ETN/SMS Bench Saddler of the Month for May.

The award, presented in conjunction with the Society of Master Saddlers (SMS), recognises those who uphold the highest standard of leathercraft skills.

Wiltshire based Jo Dennison is an SMS Qualified Saddler and Harness Maker – and was a winner at the 2024 SMS National Competition. 

How it all started

“I’ll give most jobs a go,” says saddler Jo Dennison, pictured in her workshop. 

Jo always had a keen interest in working with animals, and a love of art and design at school. But it was a fortnight’s work experience crafting leather that made her realise a career in the saddlery trade was for her. 

Thus inspired, Jo wrote to every saddler in the SMS Handbook - and was rewarded with an interview and a week’s trial with Laurence Pearman of Stroud Saddlery.

“At the end of the week, I was offered an apprenticeship with Laurence,” said Jo. “Once I had finished my GCSEs, my family relocated to Gloucestershire so I could train.” 

Jo completed her apprenticeship, including spells for training and exams with Mark Romain at The Saddlery Training Centre in Salisbury. She then continued to work for Stroud Saddlery for another five years before starting her own business. 

Last year, Jo celebrated 20 years in the saddlery trade. 

Equine models

Jo’s parents had horses and she rode from an early age. At 17 she was bought her first horse, a two-year-old Irish sports horse called Huckle, soon followed by his full brother and sister, Bow and Moon. 

“As a family, we broke them in to ride and entered them in various showing, dressage and show jumping competitions,” says Jo. 

“Sadly, we lost Huckle to colic at a young age, but I had Bow and Moon for 18 years, and they were with me through my saddlery training. They were great models for the items I made.”

Passing on skills

Jo loves having a wide variety of clients, including many in the polo industry plus a busy riding school. She will give most jobs a go, she says, including repairs to riding and polo boots, motorbike leathers, gun slips and shooting equipment.

Harness work is a particular passion. One customer has had a great deal of success in decorated harness classes at local and county shows.

“What’s really special to me is being able to keep the tradition and skill of the trade going,” says Jo. “My eldest daughter is already showing an interest in what I do, and even if she doesn’t follow in my footsteps as a saddler, I hope to pass on lots of skills to her.” 

Winning ways

Jo Dennison was a winner at the SMS National Competition with this clincher browband.

Jo is currently on maternity leave, having had a second child in February. Although she’s enjoying time with her family and a short break from day-to-day life in the workshop, she admits she’s itching to get back to the bench very soon.

Shortly before having her baby, Jo won the Special Open Class at the SMS National Competition. She was 39 weeks pregnant, so very close to the baby arriving, when she made her winning straight clincher link browband.

“It was a complete shock to win,” Jo says. “I had a six-hour window to make the browband while my daughter was at pre-school, so to be presented with first prize was amazing. 

“It has given me a lot of confidence in my ability as a saddler and has reinforced my desire to continue with the work after my maternity leave has finished.”

A special saddle

Jo has made a few unusual items over the years, including a belt for Santa Claus. But a job that was particularly special was re-purposing a saddle that was left to her by her husband’s late grandmother. 

The saddle had seen better days, so Jo stripped it down and used the leather to make two matching saddle-shaped handbags to be gifted to her two daughters. From the remaining leather, she made a photo album cover and a guitar strap for family members.

Harness work is a particular passion for Jo Dennison.

Time to relax

Jo shares two Fell ponies, Ted and Bell, with her mum. She also enjoys gardening and trying to grow her own vegetables, as well as “just sitting and relaxing in the garden with a cup of tea.” 

Always keen to learn and keep her skills up-to-date, Jo says she would love to do more harness work, including taking a collar-making course. 

“I love teaching, so that’s a possibility for the future,” she adds. “I hope to gain my Masters [Master Saddler] soon as well.”

How to nominate a bench saddler:

Everyone is invited to nominate bench saddlers they feel deserve to be named ETN Bench Saddler of the Month. Candidates for the award must be a member of the SMS and based in the UK or overseas.

To nominate a bench saddler or more than one), email and tell us why this person deserves to be put in the spotlight. Please include the bench saddler’s name and business name too.