by

March 3, 2011

Near Ruckersville, in Greene County, an unmarked gravel driveway peels off from a country road and winds between rolling pastures. Even as daylight fades to dusk, the Blue Ridge mountains offer a stunning backdrop to a dreary day. Tucked at the end of the driveway is a cobalt blue barn. There’s no obvious workshop in sight, no sign indicating that you’ve found one of the country’s most successful saddle makers, Tad Coffin Performance Saddles. Inside the barn, owner Tad Coffin is busy adhering carbon fiber strips to a saddle tree—the unseen foundation of all saddles—made of aeronautic plastic. The advanced plastic is known for being rugged and flexible. The carbon fiber strips will add stability to the tree. Both materials are evidence of Coffin’s aim to elevate saddle design so that, he says, “horses can be their physical and mental best.”

Few things are more traditional than equestrian sports. Unlike golf and skiing and other activities revolutionized by technology, the main tool of an equestrian, the saddle, hadn’t really changed much in the years leading up to 1997, when Coffin started his business. Saddle trees were made predominantly of wood, with some later forays into fiberglass. With new designs and improved materials, Coffin figured he could build a better saddle—and, in particular, a better tree, which gives every saddle its blend of stability and flexibility. He was the first saddle maker to use computer-assisted drafting and design, or CADD, in his shop. Rarely does a day pass when he’s not working to improve a saddle’s balance in some subtle way.Near Ruckersville, in Greene County, an unmarked gravel driveway peels off from a country road and winds between rolling pastures. Even as daylight fades to dusk, the Blue Ridge mountains offer a stunning backdrop to a dreary day. Tucked at the end of the driveway is a cobalt blue barn. There’s no obvious workshop in sight, no sign indicating that you’ve found one of the country’s most successful saddle makers, Tad Coffin Performance Saddles. Inside the barn, owner Tad Coffin is busy adhering carbon fiber strips to a saddle tree—the unseen foundation of all saddles—made of aeronautic plastic. The advanced plastic is known for being rugged and flexible. The carbon fiber strips will add stability to the tree. Both materials are evidence of Coffin’s aim to elevate saddle design so that, he says, “horses can be their physical and mental best.”

Few things are more traditional than equestrian sports. Unlike golf and skiing and other activities revolutionized by technology, the main tool of an equestrian, the saddle, hadn’t really changed much in the years leading up to 1997, when Coffin started his business. Saddle trees were made predominantly of wood, with some later forays into fiberglass. With new designs and improved materials, Coffin figured he could build a better saddle—and, in particular, a better tree, which gives every saddle its blend of stability and flexibility. He was the first saddle maker to use computer-assisted drafting and design, or CADD, in his shop. Rarely does a day pass when he’s not working to improve a saddle’s balance in some subtle way.

The commitment to quality has paid off. Many of the top equestrians in America ride on Coffin saddles, including Florida-based Grand Prix rider Candice King, who has earned numerous titles both in the United States and Europe. “In the seven years I have used [a Coffin] saddle,” she says, “there has been a noticeable difference in the soundness of my horses’ backs.” The Barracks Farm in Charlottesville, whose clients compete in “A-level” shows and whose horses last year won tricolors at Devon, Harrisburg and Washington International, uses only Coffin saddles. On average, Coffin and his nine employees make 350 to 400 saddles a year—all to order for hunters and jumpers, pros and amateurs—each costing $4,500.

Coffin, 53, is uniquely qualified for the work. Growing up on Long Island during the 1960s and 1970s, he competed in equitation, junior hunters and jumpers. Coffin won individual and team gold medals at the Pan American Games in Mexico in 1975 and repeated his success the following year at the Montreal Olympics. He first became involved in saddle design in 1976, when the Miller Harness Co. asked him to endorse an all-purpose saddle for event riders. “We believe saddles, like all sports equipment, can affect athlete performance,” says Coffin as he examines a saddle tree image on his laptop. Surrounded by traditional leather-crafting tools, the computer and the high-tech graphic look out of place.

For equestrians, a perfectly symmetrical saddle is paramount—it helps to relax a horse, enabling him to jump straight and with power, and to flow around a course with rhythm. “When a tree moves in complete sympathy with the horse, it’s stunning,” says Coffin, “The horse gets larger; you feel his back come up into the saddle.”

Coffin has developed a low-cost way to make forming tools, the press molds on which the trees are built, enabling him to try new designs. After he creates an experimental saddle tree, Coffin fits it with a seat, sweat flap and stirrups, then puts the test saddle on his horses and rides. He keeps five horses of different shapes and sizes at his barn specifically for testing purposes. “The process of testing saddles is a study in horse behavior on a circle,” says Coffin.

For the last year, he has been immersed in a development project that will produce a new generation of saddles. “The saddle sits on top of the most influential part of the horse,” he says. “If you get the saddle right, all other problems may disappear.” Just ask the horse!

by

March 3, 2011

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