Ava Vettenberg apprenticed to a Hungarian saddle maker in her twenties. Years later she found herself working with master saddle maker (and former Olympic gold-medalist rider) Tad Coffin. Now Ava makes her home in Swansea, Massachusetts where she is building a reputation as a skilled saddle maker who breathes new life into worn and broken English saddles. It is a skill born of many years of working with leather and horses. “My master told me that you cannot learn all of this in the time it takes for a candle to burn down.”
At the core of a saddle, underneath the leather padding and synthetic webbing, is a structural unit called a saddle tree. In Ava’s words, “It is the heart, the engine, the center, the base, the frame of a saddle.” A well-built, well-engineered saddle tree needs to be super strong, but also have give. A saddle, as Ava points out, is really “sporting goods equipment between two living beings.”
In one corner of Ava’s shop is a saddle needing repair made by Hermés, the Parisian company known for their haute couture silk scarves. The company still hand-stitches their saddles, however most saddle makers today use machines.
Hand stitching leather requires strong hands and two needles. Ava sits at her “stitching horse” to sew two pieces of leather together, using two needles and an awl. The majority of her tools she inherited from her master, Ferenc Laszlo.
In addition to building and repairing saddles, Ava is a master of the Hungarian art of braiding leather into decorative pieces called sallang. The Hungarian word translates to scrap leather. Originally, horse owners attached leather straps to the harness as a way for horses to fling away flies.
Some 400 years ago in Europe, these functional leather scaps were developed into decorative pieces used to dress up the horse for special occasions. “It was naturally a different culture. There was no airplane, there was no car, there was no telephone. And when a prominent guest or political person came to the town, how did you go to the railroad station to pick them up? With a beautiful pair of horses, or four in hand — two in front, two behind.”
“Because the working harness is brown or a natural color, getting dusty or dirty, it’s fine when you train the horses. We don’t use decoration. As soon as you dress up your horses for parade, even today, for carriage driving presentation, the Hungarians use these sallang decorations on the harness One on the forehead, two sideways at the ears and one on the back.” The use of brass ornaments — rosettes, stars, buckles — and painted color initials represent different barns.
With Ava Vettenburg in our midst, perhaps we will see more horses adorned with sallang and more riders who are truly comfortable in their English saddles.