Yangan saddler claims national award for craftsmanship
LIKE many kids growing up in the country Tony Gifford rode to school on a pony without a saddle.
For years he knew nothing more than the bony and bumpy experience of riding bareback - that was until his father borrowed Mr Gifford's pony to work his cattle.
"When he came back he threw me up in his old Wieneke saddle and I thought 'this is better than riding bareback',” he said.
The experience set Mr Gifford on a path to become one of the most respected leather workers in Australia.
"I was fascinated. I wanted to know how they made it and from that point on it was one of those things,” Mr Gifford said.
"My school teachers reckoned I was mad when I said I wanted to be a saddler.”
That was four decades ago and Mr Gifford has been hand-crafting traditional Australia stock horse saddles ever since.
Last week he won first prize at the Sydney Royal Easter Show for a black leather stock horse saddle
It is a prime example of expert craftsmanship, trimmed with royal blue kangaroo hide lining and gold-plated fittings, buckles and stirrups.
While Mr Gifford has won first place at the Sydney Show before, this was the first time he took out the standard of excellence award and the overall winner of the equine exhibits in the arts and crafts section as well.
The win makes him one of the best saddlers in the country.
Mr Gifford took up his profession in the midst of the Australian cattle depression of the 1970s.
It was a bad time to start as no one was hiring apprentices.
This forced Mr Gifford to learn the craft on his own and he said being self-taught made the victory in Sydney all the sweeter.
"It is really nice to get that recognition from my peers,” Mr Gifford said.
There are only about 30 leather workers who make traditional saddles.
Over the past 50 years they have gone out of fashion, with riders opting for a hybrid of Australian stock horse style and the western style.
Within the industry is is known as a halfbreed swinging fender.
The new style is easier to build and requires less work to maintain, so it is cheaper.
"A traditional saddle takes about 80 hours to make and they sell for $6500 to 10,000, but a halfbreed sells for about $4500,” Mr Gifford said.
"That difference is a lot of money for most people.”
Mr Gifford said the traditional style was making a comeback, in part because of the prestige a finely crafted saddle offers its owner.
The saddle that won at Sydney will feature in a new museum built in honour of the traditional Australian stock saddle.
Mr Gifford and his wife Janice worked with horse racing enthusiast and property tycoon Michael Drapac to collect the finest examples of traditional saddles.
"About 130 of those saddles are made by some of the most famous Australian saddlers - names like Hills, Cox, Thrift, Thurlow,” Mr Gilford said.
"We have one of the saddles from just about every significant maker there was.”
Some of these saddles are more than 100 years old and harken back to the golden age of Australian drovers and stockmen.
There are another 30 brand new saddles from current makers.