This saddler has had some unique experiences.
Being Master Saddler to the Queen of England is not a title that many saddlers can put on their resumes. In fact, Richard Castelow was the first man to ever hold the position. When approached by the Master of the Horse, Lord Somerleyton, and requested to leave his post as Master Saddler for the Household Cavalry and move to Buckingham Palace to be Queen Elizabeth II’s personal Master Saddler, Castelow, who was nearing his retirement from military service, agreed.
“When I was asked to be the Master Saddler for the Queen, I was like, ‘Who? Me?’ I looked behind me to see whom they were talking to. I kept wondering, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ ” conceded Castelow, heavily stressing each word in his thick British accent.
Over the four years he worked personally for Queen Elizabeth II, Castelow toiled over a number of projects, from patching Princess Anne’s riding boots—the same boots she wore as a member of the 1976 British eventing team—to making a custom bridle and saddle for Princess Diana’s horse. He even fully restored a handbag that was a gift from Queen Elizabeth II to her mother.
“There were more patches than handbag,” recalled Castelow, “so I asked the Page if I could refurbish it. I remember after the Queen received the bag I got the most beautiful thank-you letter from her.”
On another occasion, Castelow was called upon to make a set of steps for the Queen’s Corgis so they could get in and out of her Land Rover.
“She would walk for hours in the woods around Windsor Castle after which the dogs would be covered in mud. The Pages were sick of picking them up to put them back in the car,” explained Castelow. “So, I made steps that were covered in leather like horse carriage steps.”
When Castelow joined the British Army as a boy soldier at age 15, he was assigned to a regiment called the “Life Guards,” which, along with the Blues and Royals, make up the Household Cavalry.
The regiment has its origins in a group of loyal royalists who accompanied Prince Charles (later to become King Charles II), who fled to the Netherlands in 1652 after his father, King Charles I, was defeated by Oliver Cromwell and later executed. The royalists formed themselves into a military bodyguard to protect the exiled sovereign. Returning to England in 1660, the Household Cavalrymen are still the senior regiment in the British Army, alternating between armored reconnaissance and ceremonial duties.
The post of Life Guard is steeped in tradition and ceremony. In order to perform the required duties to his regiment and to his Queen, Castelow had to learn to ride in the state uniform, a task, he described as “more difficult than it sounds.”
“Just the helmet itself is equivalent to two pounds of sugar—and you need to learn to balance that helmet on your head because it’s not designed to cling to your head like a normal riding helmet,” described Castelow.
Aside from the awkwardness of the helmet, the stiff leather breeches and thigh-high thick leather boots made gripping the horse’s side quite a challenge. Couple that with the gauntlets that cover the hands and lower arms, and keeping the correct contact with the horse is a delicate procedure.
Growing up around horses, Castelow was accustomed to being in the tack for long hours each day. But as a Life Guard, he spent a minimum of five hours each day in the saddle, giving him ample time to bond with his mount.
“We would ride for long hours every day, but the horses were not permitted to go further than 30 miles in a day,” said Castelow.
By the age of 20, Castelow was selected to join the Household Cavalry Saddlery shop in Knightsbridge, London. Having excelled past several other apprentices for the one open spot, Castelow was determined to hone his skills and make the Master Saddler proud.
After a year of strenuous hours and intricate needlework, Castelow was prepared for the first of three exams he had to pass if he wanted to become a Master Saddler like his mentor at the time, Colin Missington.
“For the basic level three test, I had to make a military bridle for a particular horse as well as a halter, girth and saddle,” said Castelow, who remembers the horse he was assigned.
“His name was Regent, and he was hump-backed like a camel. He had this big old church steeple that dropped off the bottom like a cow,” described Castelow, stretching out his arms for emphasis. “I can’t forget the ugly bugger. I didn’t think there was a cow big enough to cut the leather from to make the bridle fit over his head!”