Steffen Peters and Legolas getting ready to gallop back into the Del Mar Arena for the winners parade at the Del Mar National in May. Steffen is a long time Custom Saddlery loyalist. Photo by Kim F. Miller
Custom Saddlery is literally everywhere. American riders from coast to coast have sworn their loyalty to the brand for many years and it's one of few American saddle companies making inroads in the birthplace of the craft, Europe.
While it began in New Jersey and is now headquartered in Aiken, SC, the company holds a very special place for California in its history and its heart.
Founder Cary Wallace packed up and moved the fledging enterprise to San Diego back in 2001. The family-run business opened shop in 1998, in New Jersey, and Cary spent much of the first three years working the Northeast dressage circuit. One trip to Del Mar changed all that. "The response was good and I could see we needed a presence in California if we were ever going to make a go at having a successful saddle company," Cary recalls. "Three months later, I sold my house and moved to California."
The company has been on a track of gradual and hard-earned ascent ever since. Securing Steffen Peters' endorsement early on helped Custom Saddlery get the industry's attention. The three-time Olympian and World Cup champion was riding in another brand when Cary first approached him.
Custom Saddlery's Cary Wallace
"I had met him a few times before talking about saddles," Cary explains. "So this time around I just asked him point blank if he would try a few saddles with no strings attached." Steffen is both fiercely loyal and open minded, so he agreed to test ride Cary's models. "He liked what we provided him. We made some tweaks and ended up getting him a few saddles," Cary explains. "Over time we refined them to the point where he was really comfortable."
Steffen's eventual endorsement was key. The San Diego-based star has received generous offers from many saddle companies, but his loyalty to Custom has been unshakable for some time. "They are simply the best dressage saddles on the market," says Steffen, who has a signature line in Custom's Advantage models.
"That someone like Steffen trusted us enough with his riding and high level horses was a major win for us," Cary notes. "It gave our company credibility and, for us, validation."
Today, Steffen heads a very long list of riders who endorse Custom saddles. Fellow dressage Olympians Sue Blinks, Leslie Reid and Hilda Gurney and eventer Gina Miles, are just a few of them. 2012 Olympic dressage reserve rider Heather Blitz and most recent addition, Swedish Olympian Patrik Kittel, are a few more. But you won't find Cary tooting that horn. "We try to remain very grounded in our approach to working with our customers. It isn't in our nature to brag about our achievements but rather to live off of the satisfaction of our customers."
An Ever-Evolving Process
With Steffen, at the beginning of their relationship and on through to the present, there's no such thing as a finished product. It's a matter of tweaking things in response to the rider's feedback and to any changes in the horse's conformation or performance. That's the case working with Olympians, beginners and horse/rider pairs at every level in between. "We won't stop until we have made our customers feel good about their saddles," Cary says.
Every saddle in Custom's wide selection starts with the conviction that fitting the rider and the horse are equally critical. State-of-the-art facilities in Aiken use the latest technology to ensure design details that are anatomically correct for both.
Horse and rider measurements are the first step. These can be a do-it-yourself project using Custom's easy-to-follow instructions or can be determined with the help of a company certified fitter, of which there are several on the West Coast. Next, it's a statement of preferences regarding knee blocks, flap length, seat size and depth, tree type and other options that enable the saddle to be completely customized. Custom prides itself on the practical attributes of its saddles, but many leather, color and trim choices also provide ample opportunities for personality and pizzazz.
A 10-day trial period on finished orders is a unique reflection of Custom's confidence in its work. Purchases are not finalized until the trial period is over, and customers are strongly encouraged to ride in their new saddle at least five or six times during this period.
The last decade has seen an onslaught of information regarding saddles and saddle fit. The upside is that more riders understand the importance of proper saddle fit, but there is a downside in that the amount of information available can be overwhelming and confusing.
"I think there is a lot of misinformation out there," Cary acknowledges. "The problem is and always will be that horses cannot talk and that owners always write the checks. This creates tremendous conflicts in that most, if not all, professionals never attribute any problems with the horse to the way their riders are affecting them. Another problem is that some horse care professionals attribute issues to the saddle in ways that are difficult to corroborate."
Cary is not at all suggesting that such scenarios are the result of anybody purposely deceiving a horse owner, but they can further complicate the process of nailing down the source of a problem.
"The way we try to address this is just to work with the customer in an altruistic way and treat their requests as honestly and genuinely as possible," Cary explains.
"Each horse and rider combination is unique and we approach each case in a fresh and open manner," he continues. "There are always many things you can do to help a rider and/or horse be more comfortable. With so many models, along with varying methods of fitting horses, the combinations are limitless and aid us in trying to better connect our customers with their equine partners."
Cary is grateful for Custom Saddlery's success and he's constantly pursuing his definition of success: "growing and improving in everything that happens with and around our saddles. That's what success is all about." New designs and saddle trees are exciting aspects of Custom's future, Cary reports. "There are so many fronts you need to be fighting on." Expanding into new countries is one of those, but the constant for Cary and his Custom Saddlery crew is "coming up with more and better ways to make horses and riders more comfortable."
For more information on Custom Saddlery, visit www.mysaddle.com.