Pete Carlisle makes trees. Not the living, growing kind. Carved from wood and wrapped in rawhide, these trees are the backbones of his splendid western saddles.
A mottled logbook from 150 years ago, found by a family in a Wairarapa attic, lists a Greytown saddler’s sales between 1869 and 1875. Beautiful cursive writing curls its inky way across the columns, reading like the town’s street map.
Mr Hastwell – from the coaching stables – was a regular customer, with Bidwills, Cotters, Udys and McMasters bringing their saddles and coach collars for repairs, or buying girth straps and bridles at a time when horse was the main mode of transport. Fragile but intact, the blue logbook is proof of a thriving and essential trade in the 19th century.
Today, south of Greytown, saddler Pete Carlisle hand crafts ornate western saddles in his aromatic home workshop. Maverick Saddlery sits up a quiet rural driveway, where quarter horses graze in the paddock opposite.
Gathering the finest components – including wood, rawhide, tanned leather, rubber, suede, sheepskin, steel and silver, Pete turns out up to 20 custom made saddles a year, some fetching $8,000 from top show riders.
A century-old leather stitching machine, once owned by Greytown’s last shoemaker, sits at the centre of the workshop, its wheel turned by hand. Rows of hand tools – knives, punches and mallets – line Pete’s walls and combine with his artistic bent and modern knowledge of a good fit.
“I make saddles to fit individual horses,’’ Pete says. “You can imagine how it is wearing an uncomfortable pair of shoes – you don’t feel like moving much and it’s the same for horses.’’
Saddle trees, the inner “chassis’’ of the saddle, are his forte. Pete uses a saddle gauge, like a giant rib cage, to fit a horse up. Each tree is carved from wood, then strengthened by a rawhide shell.
Rawhide is cowhide soaked in lime to remove hair, then soaked in cider vinegar and water, before going into the freezer.
“When it comes out, it’s laced onto the wooden tree and when it dries, it’s like shrink wrapping – it shrinks into shape and gives the tree its phenomenal strength,’’ Pete explains.
“There are all sorts of trees made from plastic and other materials – but I haven’t found anything like rawhide, which people have used in different ways for hundreds of years.’’
Pete sources cowhides from a Wairarapa farm-kill business and makes four or five saddle tree covers from one hide.
This quiet man has skill and patience accrued over decades of passion for the craft. His reputation ensures word-of-mouth business and Pete’s waiting list is at least three months. As a young man, Pete was working as a farm hand north of Masterton when an interest in leather carving began.
He asked local saddlers to give him their saddles to decorate. “They all said a polite ‘no’; probably out of fear I’d pinch their saddle patterns,’’ Pete says. “So, I found a library book on cowboy gear – there was one chapter on how to make western saddles. My first saddle – well, I wouldn’t make one like it now.’’
Saddle making remained a hobby until 15 years ago, when Pete bought Ross Wyatt’s saddlery in Greytown, working from the Cobblestones Museum complex, before relocating the building to his property 12 years ago.
“I was making [plainer] English saddles, horse covers and pony club supplies until I reached retirement age, and decided to just do what I loved – western saddles,’’ Pete says. “There’s more artistic expression in them. I can make a plain one in a week but a fancy saddle will take four-five weeks full- time – about 80 hours a week.’’ A new opportunity has opened up. Long cavalcade rides in the South Island call for endurance and comfort.
“They’re using Clydesdale cross horses, which are so big they can’t get saddles to fit. We’ve found a niche market making plain work saddles for them. I’ve made modifications along the way to make the saddle better for the rider too, so they don’t get sore.’’
Pete, an ex-rodeo rider, took up western riding with quarter horses in the 1970s. He and wife Sue – who competes and trains quarter horses – included their three sons in the family sport without pressure. However, all three have learnt the skills of western horse riding at top event level, and have picked up Pete’s tools to carve leather and make saddles.
Dan and Nicky have competed at world cup events, while 14-year- old Adam is trying out for the New Zealand national team to compete at the Quarter Horse Youth World Cup in Texas next year.
Pete isn’t too surprised but is obviously proud. “There’s a bit of cowboy in everybody.’’
Down the country highway from Pete Carlisle’s Maverick Saddlery is Tauherenikau Racecourse, home of Wairarapa horse racing. Its tradition stretches back to 1874, when the Wairarapa Racing Club established its permanent home at Tauherenikau, between Featherston and Greytown.
Story by Julia Mahony
Photography by Rebecca Kempton
GLORY UNDER THE GREEN GIANTS
A track was marked out amongst scrub, flax and thistles on the Old Ferry Reserve near the river. Horses and jockeys navigated hazardous ground, the earth having been mangled from Wairarapa’s earthquake of 1855.
Today, thousands of race goers relax at the track, ringed by magnificent stands of totora, rimu, titoki, tawa and kahikatea native trees, shadowed by grand British species.
The horse racing club holds five race meetings a year at the picturesque course, highlights of the summer calendar in Wairarapa. Other events including the Country Music Festival have found a home at the racecourse.
The peaceful tree-rich venue can be hired for weddings, conferences, corporate breaks and private accommodation. For more information on using the venue, check out Rose and Smith.