Breathing New Life Into My Old Saddle


Once upon a time, long, long ago, a little girl dreamed of owning her own horse. She’d keep it in the basement, teach it to climb up and down the stairs to go out to graze in the small fenced back yard, and ride it back and forth to school.

Well, that plan never panned out, but I did manage to finally buy my first horse when I was 19, at the start of my second year of college. I’d worked and saved for years to buy him, had $1,000 in the bank. He cost $600, with another $50 for shipping, and $50 for the first month’s board — out in a paddock. I couldn’t afford a stall. I bought a bridle, halter and lead, some brushes. By the time the horse arrived, the bank account had dwindled to $150. I was living on the edge.

Luckily, the barn where I kept him had plenty of school horses, so I was welcome to borrow a saddle. A few months later, the barn owner told me one of the boarders was selling her old saddle. “It’s good one,” she said. “You should buy it.”

It was a good one, and really comfortable. It fit me and my horse perfectly, but it was way too expensive: $160. However, the owner was willing to take payments. When I rode in my first show on my first horse a few weeks later, it was in my own saddle, a German-made Stubben Siegfried.

We did a lot, that saddle, that horse and I. More shows, trails, a lot of jumping. Years later, when I was in graduate school, I had to sell the horse, but I kept the saddle. I rode in it on the next horse I bought, and the next, and the next. Fast-forward to the early 2000s, when a friend started riding with me and came to love my mare. I ended up selling her the mare, along with my saddle, which she also loved and which fit the mare perfectly. “Take care of both of them,” I told her, and she promised she would.

The mare, old now but still going strong, is fine. But my saddle didn’t fare as well. My friend kept it out in her shed, and the South Florida heat and humidity, not to mention heavy usage, took a toll.

Once in a while, I’d stop out to visit, see the saddle and sigh deeply. It hurt me to see this piece of my past slowly rotting away. “Sell it back to me,” I pleaded, but my friend refused. “I still ride in it, and it’s too comfortable,” she replied. I kept begging. Finally, this year, she did something even kinder. “I won’t sell it back to you,” she said, “but I’ll give it to you.”

And so she did. My poor saddle. The bones were still good, but parts of the leather needed a lot of help. I didn’t want to just own it, I wanted to be able to ride in it again. The saddle and I took a drive over to Steve Lisi at Twin Oaks Saddlery, right behind Seminole Ridge High School.

Lisi is in his 25th continuous year in business repairing saddles and creating leather goods. He got started by repairing his children’s saddles.

“I was always good with fixing things,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so it was easier to fix things myself than pay someone else to do it.”

From that humble start was born a business. Now his air-conditioned workroom holds a wide array of leather-working machines collected from across the United States. The oldest is a Champion Harness and Shoe Stitcher, more than a century old and still going strong.

Lisi makes purses, belts, holsters, wallets and saddlebags, and can do customized work in exotic leathers such as alligator or crocodile. He loves restoring historical saddles, especially Civil War tack.

“I get them from other collectors,” Lisi said. “I have reference copies of the Civil War ordinance manuals from both North and South, so I can make each piece exactly. I do a lot of pattern-making.”

Lisi keeps his restored saddles in his collection, but he does a lot of saddle repairs. The most common: billet straps on English saddles and stirrup leathers on Western saddles. I handed him my poor saddle. He sighed.

“Well, it was a very good saddle at one time,” he said, looking at all the problems. “It has lasted fairly well through some heavy use. It pays to buy good stuff. I can’t fix junk. I won’t take money for something I can’t do.”

“Is this fixable?” I asked.

“Well, the tree is still good, and most of the leather is OK,” he replied.

The knee rolls were torn, the suede all but gone. He turned it over. The undersides of the flaps and panels were cracked and split, the gullet edges rough and loose. “I don’t know…”

“This saddle really means a lot to me,” I said quietly.

“I understand it has sentimental value,” he frowned, looking at my wreck of a saddle. “Well, I’d say it’s in fair to middling condition. It’s salvageable for moderate use. You could ride in it once in a while, but not every day.”

“That would be fine.”

And so I left my saddle with him, and a month later drove back and picked it up. He had covered all the cracked leather with new patches that matched the old leather, sewn up the gullet, and did a little oiling and restoring. No, it didn’t look as good as it had when I bought it used in November 1971, but it was a piece of my history coming back home to live with me.

I can’t wait to ride in it again, just for old times’ sake, a tangible connection with those long-ago days of my first-ever horse and all the dreams he represented.

For more information about Twin Oaks Saddlery, visit or call (561) 790-2461.