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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

An Interview with Erin Pope, a saddler.

Like many pony-mad girls, Erin Pope went to work with horses as soon as she finished her A-levels. Starting out at a small eventing yard, Erin learnt the basics of flat work and the benefits of lunging, and then employment at an equine veterinary clinic all taught her skills which would prove useful in racing and saddlery in later years.

After an unfortunate accident, Erin was forced to think of an alternative career, and she found a new direction in saddlery and leatherwork. She trained whilst at the infamous Mangan and Webb (now officially Stow Saddlery, but is always known by its previous alias) between 2009 and 2012, whilst also doing “repairs” for Colne Saddlery, another saddlery close by. From 2013, Erin started in her present role as a ‘bench’ saddler at E. J. Wicks in Lambourn, Berkshire.

Erin also mixes her leatherwork and creativity as a hobby, so it is not purely a moneymaking exercise. She has experimented making many different items including beautiful handbags, wallets, clocks, belts and, for she never strives far from her roots in racing, keyrings of racehorses’ names stitched in their owners’ colours. These items are lovingly crafted from a workshop in her home in Royal Wootton Bassett, where Erin lives with Roxy, her Jack Russell cross Corgi.

Did you ride as a child?

Yes, I rode from the age of four – I had my first ever lesson on my fourth birthday. I had ponies Blaze and Dreamer and got an ex-racehorse as a teenager.

How did you get a job in racing and for which trainers?

I started at Brian Meehan’s during my school holidays and weekends. Growing up in Lambourn meant that racing was always there around me – simple as that. I worked for Kim Bailey between July 2007 and July 2009.

What was your favourite horse?

Supergrass – the ex-racehorse I got when I was fifteen. He was trained by Bryan Smart and never realised he was no longer a racehorse! ‘Soops’ was sixteen and I had him for a further seventeen years. He got to 33!

Supergrass wearing the first bridle Erin made

How did you know your time working in racing was coming to an end?

Whilst at Kim Bailey’s, I was on my favourite All About Trigger (Stigs) and he bucked me off onto frozen ground. I broke and dislocated my tib and fib, which needed plating and screwing back together. It took a long five months to mend. After the initial excitement of returning to work, my heart was no longer in racing anymore.

How did you come by the idea of retraining as a saddler?

I got a job at Mangan and Webb’s in Stow-on-the-Wold, where the workshop is within the same space as the shop. This led to an interest in leatherwork and saddlery. I was arty at school and have always enjoyed making things and crafting. It was a natural progression into becoming a saddler and I enrolled with The Saddlery Training Centre in 2010.

What did your training entail and for how long did you train?

Due to being in my late-twenties, I was too old for an apprenticeship and Racing Welfare got funding from the National Trainers Federation Charitable Trust. It took four years to fully qualify as a saddler and I worked through the City and Guilds Levels in Bridle Work and Saddle-Making. This started with making a headcollar and progressed onto bridles (including fancy stitching), girths and finally onto saddles. I learnt to hand-stitch as well as to machine-stitch. Now, not all my work is making new items, a lot of it is repairing things and making them safe again.

I’ve been at E.J. Wicks Saddlery for just over 7 years now and during this time my role has changed from trainee saddler doing the basics, to making most of the leather stock for the shop. My list of jobs entails making leather couplings, leather lead reins, chifneys, race and exercise bridles which are still traditionally stitched directly to the bit. I’m constantly increasing my skills level, just by the variety of different repairs that come in.

Since my initial training, I’ve gone on numerous different courses to continue my learning. Advanced bridle making, saddle flocking and leather bag-making courses, which helped hugely in improving my hand stitching, pattern-making and overall standard of work.

One of my favourite jobs at Wicks is making the racing breastgirths. I get a real thrill from seeing items I’ve made not just winning races, but going around the Grand National, Gold Cup etc. I’m proud to be a small cog in a big wheel!

Now that I’ve been a saddler for a while, I can apply to become a Master Saddler with the Society of Master Saddlers. There are no exams, but I will need to show various levels of expertise in certain areas when applying for approval. Maybe I’ll to gain this title one day in the future!

How did Racing Welfare assist you?

With encouragement from an ex-employer, Racing Welfare was my first port of call. They helped me fund half of my training at the Saddlery Training Centre, Salisbury and were a massive help.

I once did an interview with Alice Plunkett on the former Channel 4 Morning Line on how Racing Welfare set me up – without them I would not have known where to start.

How did your time working in racing shape your work and life now?

Racing broke me mentally and physically! I fell out of love with it but now the love is back. I work in Lambourn, so I am obviously in the thick of it. I enjoy being around the racing and love the characters who come in the shop. I watch racing on the TV most Saturdays, paying particular attention to various breastgirths flying past the winning post. Most notable are those of a certain Champion trainer!

What other interests do you have?

I’ve become completely obsessed with all things gardening! I’m now studying online to gain RHS level 2 in Horticulture. Which has pretty much taken over from making anything in my spare time.

I’m also trying to read a lot more instead of sitting in front of the tv!

If you weren’t a saddler, what would you love to be?

I think I’d have to say a gardener of some sort. Working on a lovely big, old estate preferably! I basically designed my own garden and as small as it is, I really enjoyed the design process too. Maybe I missed my calling and instead of horses, I should have been aiming for the Chelsea Flower Show, designing gardens!!

What is your favourite holiday destination?

I can’t remember last time I had a holiday as such. I tend to do days out or a night away, but many years ago I went to South Africa on a volunteer programme and I’d love to go back and do a proper safari. Or Canada would be another place I’d go. I was only eight last time I was there, so would love to see it with adult eyes!!

I’m a bit of a home bird, so don’t tend to stray too far!

What is your favourite drink?

I do like a nice cold cider!

What is your ideal day off?

Tinkering in the garden and a long walk with my dog. Plus, a Sunday BBQ with best friends after a group dog walk is also fun.

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