“Clients from Scotland to the Isle of Wight.”

Michael Jennings has been named ETN/SMS Bench Saddler of the Month for March. 

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

Michael Jennings still has a passion for saddlery.

Michael was nominated by Jill Harris of the Spanish Bit Riding Centre who says:

“Michael has been providing a high-quality saddlery repair and maintenance service for us and for many other riding schools the length and breadth of the country, for more than 40 years. 

“If we have one worry, it’s that at 72, Michael might be thinking of retiring soon.”

Climbing fences

Growing up in Boreham Wood, Hertfordshire, Michael always had a love for animals. 

At the bottom of his back garden were the Home of Rest for Horses paddocks. He would climb over the fence to see the horses - and to collect manure for his dad to use on their garden. 

Michael’s van is kitted out as a saddler’s workshop, with added home comforts. 

The young Michael also bagged up the manure to sell to neighbours.

“I used to go to my local riding school with a friend from school to watch her ride,” he recalls. 

“This moved on to me helping with odd jobs at the yard before I was offered a weekend job. It was quite a long way from the field back to the yard, so I used to climb on board one of the ponies, rattle a bucket of pony nuts and the rest would follow. 

“I taught myself to ride by watching others have lessons, then trying to copy them.”

Joining up

Michael left school at 15 with no academic qualifications. He continued to work at his local riding school before joining the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) when he was 17. 

During his stint in the army, Michael experienced working with saddlery. So, when he left in the early 1970s, he took advantage of a government training scheme to hone his leathercraft skills at Cordwainers College in Hackney.

Under the guidance of Mike Huline-Dickens, a tutor at the college, Michael qualified as a saddler with a City & Guilds Certificate in Rural Saddlery. He is also a qualified SMS Saddle Fitter.

On the road

Bedfordshire based Michael started working for himself from a fully-equipped mobile workshop. He was doing saddlery repairs and producing high-quality headcollars, bridles and dog handling equipment for customers. 

He was asked to make some unusual items, too, such as halters for camels at London Zoo and film props including chariot harnesses. 

Michael Jennings heads out in all weathers to fit and repair saddles for riding schools and other clients.

Finding a niche

Before long, he found a niche providing a saddlery service to riding schools.

“At one point, the majority of my time was exclusively serving riding schools,” explains Michael. “I had clients all over the UK, from Scotland to the Isle of Wight. 

“I’d spend weeks at a time travelling in my van that’s kitted out as my workshop; just me and my dog visiting riding schools and trekking centres, repairing and fitting saddles.”

Supporting the unsung heroes

Michael’s mobile service means he does virtually all repairs on-site.

“Any saddles that need repairing are sorted there and then, so the riding schools aren’t without them for any length of time,” he says.

“Riding schools are the backbone and unsung heroes of the equestrian world and enable aspiring equestrians to learn and develop riding and horsemanship skills which, for many, last a lifetime. 

Michael Jennings’ mobile saddlery service visits riding schools the across the UK, including this one in central London. 

“They don’t always have the money to invest in new saddles, so ensuring the ones they have are in good, safe condition is what I do.”

Michael is sad that over the years, quite a few of the centres he used to go to have fallen by the wayside.

“I don’t travel as far now, which suits me, but there are some customers who I’ve known for years that I do still make the trip for,” he adds.

Signing up again

Michael still has a passion for saddlery and his work, and has no intention of retiring. 

In his spare time, he loves doing DIY jobs around the home and spending time with his family. He has been married for 16 years and has a 14-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son. 

Michael has just signed up again, too - this time as an adult volunteer for the Army Cadets. His daughter is already among the ranks and hopes to join the regular army as soon as she can.  

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 editor@equestriantradenews.com and tell us why this person deserves to be put in the spotlight. Please include the bench saddler’s name and business name too.