How an apprenticeship paved the way to a successful new business. 

Glasgow based Emma Hamilton has been named ETN/SMS Bench Saddler of the Month for September

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

Emma Hamilton with a horse wearing a beautiful bespoke bridle, plus matching plaits.

Emma was nominated by Laura Nickel of Amayzing Saddlery,who says: “Emma was my apprentice. Always learning and hard-working, she went on to win Best Small Business Saddle at the SMS National Competition. 

“Emma qualified as a saddler in 2021 and now has her own company, Emma Hamilton Leatherwork, in North Glasgow. 

“We're very proud of her and her achievements which are a benchmark for younger people in the industry.” 

About Emma Hamilton

Emma’s parents always encouraged her creativity. The family’s kitchen table was littered with drawings, paintings, cardboard, tape and glitter – and Emma always had a sewing, model-making or woodworking project on the go. 

At school, she loved art, design and technical subjects and almost went to art school but took an equine science degree instead.

“I don’t come from a horsey family but I was hooked on horses from early on,” said Emma who enjoyed pony trekking holidays, riding lessons and volunteering for The Riding for the Disabled (RDA).

She graduated in 2017, by which time she’s already started her own business, Emma’s Rainbow Equestrian. 

“I wanted to make showing browbands but couldn't find a cost-effective supplier for the leather base to put the ribbon on, so I decided to learn to make them myself,” she said. 

In love with leather

Emma Hamilton in deep concentration at the bench

The upshot was a couple of short courses in the Scottish borders with Master Saddlers Phillip and Karen Howard. And that was it… Emma had fallen in love with making saddlery.

“Working with leather is so rewarding; it goes from being a simple material into something really sturdy and useful as well as beautiful,” she says.

After graduating, Emma wrote to Master Saddlers in Scotland and the north of England asking for work experience. Jocelyn Danby, a Master Saddler based in Ross-shire, invited her to spend a week in the workshop, but otherwise the search was fruitless.

“There being few Master Saddlers in Scotland, I widened my search as I had reached a dead end,” said Emma. “I contacted Laura at Amayzing Saddlery [near Beith], a saddler and saddle fitter quite local to me.” 

After a few months, Emma was doing some leatherwork repairs that came into the shop - and Laura invited her to become her apprentice. 

Getting funding

A Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) grant helped fund Emma’s three-year apprenticeship, during which time she passed City & Guilds (C&G) SMS Level 2 and 3 saddle and bridle making exams, the C&G flocking exam and attended the SMS Introductory saddle and bridle fitting courses. 

“While I was at Amayzing Saddlery, I learnt so much and built on my skills in saddlery and bridle making. I began to go out to do bridle fitting appointments and became the main bench saddler, as well as learning how to make a saddle from start to finish with Master Saddler George MacEachran at UK Saddlery,” explains Emma. 

Her current business, Emma Hamilton Leatherwork, specialises in bespoke bridles and tack, bridle fitting consultations, and does leatherwork and repairs.

Even in her relatively short time in the industry, Emma has seen changes in horse owners’ tastes. “There are still customers looking for traditional tack for showing, but many people now want something a bit fancier – with sparkle or colour - which makes my job a lot of fun,” she says. 

Opportunities for young people

Emma likes the way scientific research is making horse owners more aware of the need for well-fitting tack.

“It’s improving horse welfare on a wide scale. And it’s helping saddle and bridle fitters build their businesses as the public sees how necessary professionals are for the welfare and comfort of their horses.”

Training as a saddler in Scotland has had its challenges. “There’s much less support for the industry here,” says Emma. “There are fewer saddlers able to take on apprentices, and all the training courses and exams are an overnight trip away.”

Nevertheless, she sees more opportunities for young people. 

“The apprenticeship schemes and training courses available now help a lot of people get a foothold in the industry, whereas before they were only able to get into the trade by joining their family business.” 

Away from the bench, Emma loves spending time with her horse Skye and walking in the Scottish hills. She still paints and sews, and relaxes by playing video games.