May 2017 - Horse People: Mary Jensen
Written by Kim F. Miller
Friday, 28 April 2017 20:21

Unique leatherwork becomes all the rage in equestrian circles.

by Kim F. Miller

It all started with a dog collar. That was the first leather item Mary Jensen set out to make just for fun on her boyfriend Allen Clarke’s new sewing machine. “I’m like, ‘This is kind of fun!’” she recalls.

Mary Jensen and Allen Clarke

She still feels that way even as her Mary AnnToinette Leather Studio in Temecula has become a booming little business producing hand-crafted, creative and colorful boot tops, spur straps, brow bands, half-chaps and belts.

Mary’s favorite materials are exotic hides from farm-raised animals like ostrich and crocodile and her trademark is intricate layers of carefully cut pieces fit together into various designs. Show jumping star Kristin Hardin wanted bright green snakes with red eyes curling around and down her boot tops. Kristin’s son Zacko saw them and wanted dragons. No problem on either count for Mary.

Camouflage is a popular scheme for belts, patterns derived from dragonflies found their way onto the latest batch of spur straps, and a current project involves a finely wrought design of “ombré roses.”

That first sewing machine is now one of seven in the studio Mary shares with Allen. Allen, of course, is the horseman well known for starting young horses and helping trainers and owners work through issues with challenging horses of every age. It was actually through a “naughty” horse that he and Mary met. Allen is also an accomplished saddle maker, having apprenticed with Alan Hartley in his native Australia before moving to the States.

When his schedule working with horses allows, Allen “loves to get into the leather room,” says Mary. He makes his own bridles and they both work on leather and tack repair projects that are another part of the business.

But it’s Mary who happily spends the most time in their 2,000-foot studio. Ranchy antiques share space with hides hanging in wait for Mary to use them in fulfilling customer requests.

Everything is custom made by hand. The protocol for each new piece typically takes 24 to 30 hours. “The different types of exotics can be hard to work with,” Mary explains. “It depends on how they are tanned and often they are so full of cartilage they can mess up your needles and dull your knives.”

Once she has worked her way through the challenges of each new design, the “production” phase for each piece varies from 12 to 18 hours. Camouflage belts are an example of items from Mary’s production line and they are similar yet unique because they’re made of different parts of the hide and are hand cut and sewn.

She began making these accessories a few years ago and quickly became happily swamped with orders. Show jumping and event riders leapt right on the bandwagon, loving additions like spur straps with bright red undersides inspired by Christian Louboutin’s stilettos and boot tops with leather work that appears to be dripping down the leg. Mary has also tricked out some beautiful western bridle headstalls incorporating special leathers and silverwork.

Prices correspond with the amount of time required to produce each piece. Spur straps are $160 and can be made in a wide range of colors. Basic boot top extensions are between $200 and $250, then up from there for more complicated requests like snakes and dragons.

An astro-physicist by education, Mary admits she’s not sure where her creative instincts came from. “I used to draw a lot as a kid,” she recalls. “I liked the details in the feathers of hawks and eagles. Maybe that has something to do with it. But if somebody told me I would have been doing this now, I would have thought they were crazy.”

Raised in Huntington Beach, Mary put her astro-physics degree to use in that field after graduating college. “It’s the physics of stars and star systems,” she explains. One of her jobs entailed contract work for the Hubble Space Telescope Institute for whom “we did circuit boards that analyzed the light collected by the telescope.”

Once she got involved with horses, however, they took over. “I completely dropped out of that community and ended up with a stallion and a breeding farm.” She no longer rides, but very much enjoys being part of the horse world.

Mary has often thought of marketing her work on a broader scale, but she has reservations. The first is that custom orders keep her too busy to accumulate much stock and that any stock she can store up is snapped up whenever someone visits the studio. “It’s a great problem to have!” she acknowledges.

The other issue is that entrusting the creation and care of her pieces to others is not appealing. “Each piece is kind of my baby. I cut pieces to fit with each other, and I cut the leather free form, not with a pattern. You almost don’t want anybody else touching it,” she says. She follows that with a laugh, asking “Is that weird?"