Stepping into the quaint wooden two-storey workshop in Swanson, West Auckland, where Fenmore saddles are created is like going back in time. Traditional saddlers’ tools line the walls, the British United Shoe Machinery sewing machine is 120 years old and the divine smell of leather and beeswax lingers in the air.
Not much has changed about the way saddler Graham Moore makes his saddles since he started in the trade as a 15-year-old fresh from school: he still uses traditional, natural materials, such as imported English Beech wood spring trees and 100% New Zealand wool packing. However, when it comes to cosmetics the saddles have evolved greatly – Fenmore saddles have always been famous for their superb fit, but their latest styles have moved with the times and are almost like pieces of art. Made from fine Italian leather with exquisite stitching and detailing, they almost look too good to go anywhere near a horse.
Graham is warm and affable, with a huge amount of knowledge and passion for his trade, which he acknowledges is sadly a disappearing one. These days, most people want a saddle instantly, he says. You can walk into any saddlery and pick one up off the shelf. That saddle will most likely have been put together ‘by 100 different hands’.
Fenmore saddles, however, are lovingly made-to-measure by Graham and his son Sam, with each saddle taking the pair of them around 30 hours to complete. The 120-year-old sewing machine isn’t just for decoration – it’s used for the stitching on the girths – modern machines are not capable of the same sort of detail.
“Saddlery is a dying craft,” says Graham. “The modern-day saddler uses a screwdriver, a crescent and a staple gun.”
Sam obviously has the same clever hands as his father; he is the second-youngest of Graham’s six children and the only one to follow him into the family business. Graham and Sam share the same middle name, Fenton; hence the business name, ‘Fenmore’. Sam clearly has a great deal of respect for his dad, saying he has nowhere near the same standard of workmanship yet, but ‘I will’.
“I’ve always had a passion for everything my dad has done and I’m really proud of it,” says Sam. “We’re both creative and we have a good laugh. He’s my mate.”
Fenmore has always been a name trusted by riders. In 1984, one of Graham’s saddles went to the Las Angeles Olympics with Andrew Bennie. Incredibly, 30 years later, Andrew still owns that saddle! There aren’t actually that many used Fenmores to be found on Trade Me, as riders tend to hang on to them. “If you see a second-hand one, it’s generally from somebody telling them that it doesn’t fit their horse anymore, but we can get most things working again,” says Sam.
Graham and Sam take pride in the fact that Fenmore doesn’t just sell customers a saddle – they will literally make you one. And it’s a relationship based on trust. Sam will travel just about anywhere to see customers.
“What’s important to us is creating a relationship. We’re producing a saddle to last a lifetime, and we want to be there the whole way.”
“The saddest thing is that riders have been hurt so much that they have really lost their confidence in themselves,” says Sam.
The pair don’t re-pack saddles on site. “The saddle comes back to the workshop and we actually take the panel out. We like to spend time on our work – it’s important,” says Graham.
Fenmore also sells its own range of beeswax-based leather-care products, made by Bee Kind, a small Northland-based company. They stock a saddle soap, oil and wax. “It’s all natural, smells amazing and is completely non-greasy. It’s by far the best thing on the market and the only brand we use. We took our first lot to Horse of the Year and sold out incredibly quickly,” says Graham. “It’s also made in New Zealand, which is something we want to support.”
40 years of saddle-making
Acknowledging that he was quite possibly born in the wrong era, Graham has loved working with leather since he started making bags and belts out of a workshop in his bedroom at the age of 13. He excelled in art at school and not much else, so on leaving got a job as a saddle-maker at J Mackey Saddlers at the top of Queen Street in Auckland. Graham went on to work for John Tottenham, but when Tottenham started using plastic trees, Graham left and established his own business, Fenmore, in 1978. “I’ve always just stuck with quality,” he says. “Plastic trees are far cheaper, but wooden spring trees are traditional and they work much better for the horse.”
The biggest change Graham has noticed after four decades in the business is the type of horses he’s fitting. “Years ago it used to be all thoroughbreds and anything fitted as they were so narrow,” he says. “Now it’s all big warmbloods with huge shoulders. All the movement comes from their shoulder, so we cut the points of the tree off so they don’t dig in. As soon as you get the saddle fitting correctly, the horse moves so much more freely.
“Our saddles have changed because the horses have changed. When Sam goes out to measure up, the horses now are just enormous. And nothing fits. People ring up and say they’ve bought a saddle and had it fitted but it’s pinching, and they’ll be in tears. We get our trees made in England, and we have them made wide and then we can alter them from there. The gullet is only one component; the majority of the fit is in the panel.”
One new Fenmore model is the Heritage GP, a saddle that’s been specifically designed with Kaimanawa horses in mind. The breed tends to be very short-backed and stocky, without much wither, explains Sam. Fenmore has managed to put a 17’’ seat on a 16.5’’ tree, to fit the short back, and it’s also super wide with a huge channel.
Meanwhile, their new close-contact styles, the Noveau Dressage and the Sophia Mono-Flap jumping saddle, are different from other monoflaps on the market in one important way – the panel is stuffed with wool and can be repacked.
- This article was first published in the January 2016 issue of NZ Horse & Pony