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February 7, 2008

Richard Castelow Creates Saddles Fit For A Queen

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. 

He was awarded the luxury of designing his own shop at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace, where he was charged with refurbishing the Queen’s harnesses and other fittings regularly seen on occasions of pomp and pageantry such as the Royal Weddings, Trooping of the Color and the opening of Parliament.  

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.”

Saddlery 101

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.

As a Life Guard, Castelow was instructed in public duty, attended farriery lectures, veterinary lectures, as well as lessons in show jumping and cross-country. At the end of his horsemanship training, he had to “pass-out” in front of a commanding officer, who happened to be Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles’ great uncle.

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!”

The Right Touch

When Richard Castelow arrived in the United States with the dream of designing saddles, he knew the basic commandments of making a great saddle, which included:

•    DON’T pinch or press on the withers
•    DON’T apply pressure on the central line of the back—the spine or withers
•    DON’T let the loins carry weight
•    DO allow free and uninhibited movement of the blade bones
•    DO evenly distribute weight across the horse’s back

“When I design my saddles, I keep in mind that there are three moving objects, and my job is to eliminate as much movement as I can with the saddle to make the horse, rider and saddle move in harmony,” conceded Castelow.

Whereas many saddle trees are made of plastic, a material that has very little give to it, Castelow’s saddles contain five layers of laminated Beachwood to absorb movement.

“What I’ve done is I’ve taken the unique parts of French and German saddles to create an American saddle that is unique to the American market,” said Castelow. “I tailor saddles that fit the rider as well as the horse and that look nice and are durable as well as compatible to the rider’s look.”

 

Marked on the workmanship, leather cutting, stitching and ability to fit the animal, the first bridle Castelow made for Regent didn’t impress the current Master Saddler, Phil Richards. So, before Castelow had a chance to submit the tack for the test examination, Richards cut the bridle in half.

“The Master Saddler was responsible for me and my training, and if my work wasn’t up to standard, it put his name down,” said Castelow.

The Royal Road

It wasn’t until he passed his basic level three test that he was permitted to work on saddlery in the shop. But just because he was a saddlery apprentice, Castelow was not exempt from other army duties.

“I still did general exercise in the mornings four or five days a week which required waking at 6 a.m., being ready for parade at 6:45 with two horses, then going out in the streets and riding for an hour,” said Castelow.

“When we got back in, we’d have to rub down, feed and water our horses, rush upstairs to the barracks to change into general attire, have breakfast and be back in the shop by 8:30 to make the Master Saddler a cup of tea.”

And although making a cup of tea for your superior may not sound like the most glorious job, Castelow was granted plenty of other opportunities that allowed him to rub elbows with royalty. He helped prepare the tack for Princess Anne’s Royal Wedding in 1973 as well as for Princess Diana’s wedding in 1981, in which he rode as part of the Royal Escort on both occasions.


But like any apprenticeship position, Castelow was still in training, working toward his ultimate goal of “Master Saddler.”

“All the while, I was still taking basic saddlery courses working toward my basic level two test,” said Castelow. “I had to take this test with a different horse, and unlike Regent, this one was flat backed with no withers. I had to fit a wool saddle to his back and make a double ceremonial bridle. He had a petite head, making it hard to tailor a bridle with lots of brass to such a small-headed horse.”

Once again, failure was not a possibility Castelow would entertain. After passing his level two test, he started training his own apprentices.  Upon the completion of his level one exam, Castelow was sent to trade school to complete a year-long course on civilian tack, where he received his City and Guilds in Lorinery (bits, bridles, spurs, stirrups, saddle trees and the minor metal items of a horse’s harness), and furthered his understanding of how to custom fit all forms of tack.

Due to the Queen’s enjoyment of riding side-saddle and Princess Michael of Kent’s keen interest in the same, Castelow was sent to Wooley’s of Utoxeter, where, over a period of three months, he was taught how to manufacture and repair side-saddles.

Earning his licentiateship from City and Guilds was the highest qualification he could achieve in saddlery. Finally, during his 18th year in the army, Castelow was selected to become the Master Saddler, a title he had set his sights on more than a decade earlier.

“I was so proud to have finally accomplished what I was aiming for,” said a jubilant Castelow. “It was really flabbergasting to wear that appointment for the House of Cavalry.”

But things did not become easier for him when he reached the top. “I was inspected even more so than when I was an apprentice. If the apprentices under me did a poor job, it came down on my head. If anything was wrong with any of the tack—and mind you there were 250 horses, each with custom saddles and double bridles that had to be inspected every time they went out—I was the one held responsible. They could have taken the appointment away from me at any time,” revealed Castelow. “At this level, it was no surprise Phil Richards had cut my first bridle in half!”

New Appointments

The road to becoming Master Saddler is so long that by the time the goal is finally achieved, the saddler has very little time to actually fill the position before his retirement from the army.

Just four years into his appointment, Castelow was contacted by Somerleyton and asked if he was interested in working as the Queen’s personal Master Saddler. In the past, the work had always been contracted out, which was expensive and inefficient. Members of the Royal Palace worked personally with the Army to assure Castelow of an early retirement from duty.

After agreeing, Castelow, despite having served 22 years in the Royal Army, endured a lengthy process of security vetting through the Royal Protection unit within Scotland Yard in addition to stringent health scans before he could begin work in the Royal Mews. 

In his last year of service with the army he took part in an annual event, in which he’d participated on many occasions. Along with 300 soldiers and 200 horses from the regiment, he traveled out of London to Norfolk, to allow the horses to rest out of the hustle and bustle of the city. Once in Norfolk, they took part in complex maneuvers on horseback accompanied by music from the household cavalry’s band. Little did he know when he set off on this last journey from London that he would meet his future wife.

“My friend already knew Richard because the Household Cavalry visited Norfolk every year, and I was going out with her that particular evening because I knew I  was leaving for London shortly,” said Lynn, who acknowledged that the timing of meeting her husband-to-be couldn’t have been more perfect.

Training A Master Saddler

Richard Castelow, former Master Saddler to the Queen of England, endured more training and testing than many medical doctors! Decades of instruction go in to grooming a saddler for the elite position, and very few make the final cut. Below is an overview of the education and preparation Castelow had to complete before he earned his title:

•    Three-month assessment trial prior to apprenticeship from applicant pool.
•    Successfully appointed as saddler shop apprentice under full supervision of
qualified saddler for one year.
•    B3 Saddlery Course, which required all threads to be handmade (had to produce military saddle, halter, pair of cheek pieces for bridle, fish tail for whip and girth).
•    Further two years in saddlery shop.
•    B2 Saddlery Course in which he had to produce ceremonial black head kit for unusually large-headed horse, a military saddle for unusual body conformation, both tailored to fit, and harness bridles for Household Cavalry Horse Driving Team.
•    Three years in saddler’s shop.
•    B1 Saddlery Course where he had to make an Officers Fan & Burr Cape Town
saddle (a stuffed panel saddle made to fit unusual body conformation, such as
flat-backed or high withered) and an officer’s black bridle.
•    One year at City & Guilds for saddlery and lorinary (bits and bitting) at Cordwaineres Civilian Saddlery School (produced an Irish martingale, civilian
pattern bridle, civilian pattern saddle, civilian martingale and girth).
•    Two years in saddler’s shop.
•    Six months at Giddens of London (hand-made saddles) in order to gain experience working in civilian saddlers manufacturing environment.
•    One year in saddler’s shop.
•    Three months at Wooleys of Utoxeter (side-saddle manufacturers).
•    Three years in saddler’s shop.
•    Appointed Master Saddler in 1989.
•    Soon after took City & Guilds Licentiateship, the highest qualification as a saddler. Qualification based on Master Saddler’s apprentice’s ability and knowledge.
Life after that final ride in Norfolk changed dramatically for Castelow. After more than two decades with the British Army, he was technically a free man, but his agreement with the Royal Palace coupled with his offer of marriage to Lynn occupied much of his spare time. A little more than 21⁄2 years after his return to London, Lynn and Richard were married at the Westminster Registry Office. 

“I like to tell people that I was riding through Norfolk when I saw the most beautiful woman in a field picking carrots, and I asked her if I could have a carrot for my horse,” said Richard, giddy with his own joke. “But it just sounds better than saying we met at a pub.”

The Queen allowed the Castelows to expand and modernize their apartment within the Mews, but the newlyweds had larger dreams.

“Working for the Queen certainly had its benefits,” said Richard. “But really, the job was an old man’s job, and I was too young.”

A Fresh Start

Eager to get a fresh start, the former Master Saddler to the Queen went to work for a saddlery company in the United States.  Unfortunately, the position was not what he expected. He’d anticipated designing saddles but found instead that he was just repairing tack and living under the saddle shop because he couldn’t afford an apartment.

When, after a year, conditions didn’t change, Castelow moved on to another company that allowed him to conduct his own repair business out of their shop.

“Moving to the States was difficult in the beginning,” admitted Lynn. “After years in the Army, Richard had thought he had the rest of his life planned at Buckingham Palace, so the move was full of the unknown. But we knew that if Richard was going to be successful that this was the country to do it in.”

Plagued with discontent in his work environment, Castelow understood that if he were to achieve his dream of designing saddles that he would need his U.S. Permanent Resident Card or “green card.”

“It took me five years to get my green card because no one in the States knew what a ‘Master Saddler’ was,” explained Richard. “But finally, after I pestered them enough, they gave it to me, and I was able to start manufacturing my own saddles.”

One of Castelow’s best clients is Matthew Eliott, who, along with being a practicing veterinarian, owns River Horse Farm in North Salem, N.Y. 

“When I decided to purchase a saddle from Richard, he came out to the farm and took custom measurements of me and the horse,” said Eliott. “The saddle he made me was amazing—not only was it beautiful and affordable, but it fit my horse so well. His  saddles are works of art.”


With the help of Lynn, who assists with the administrative side of the business, Richard is pursuing his dream his way, which includes following up with customers after he delivers their custom saddles, from his bases in Lexington, Ky., and Wellington, Fla.

“A great thing about Richard is that he is always there if you need him. He comes out to the farm for touch-up work or just to see if we need saddles adjusted. He doesn’t just sell you the saddle and cut out,” proclaimed Eliott, who now owns four of Castelow’s saddles.

Richard recalled making saddles for a couple who’d had many different types of custom saddles made for them. “And none of them could make the horse and rider happy,” said Richard. “So I was called out there, and after I left, they commissioned me to make them two saddles. After a year of them riding in the saddles, I get a phone call from the husband, who happened to be a brain surgeon, and he tells me a story about how, before he performs surgery on a patient, he explains to them the procedure and then leaves the room to let the patient think about it. Well, I guess he told one patient—you know it’s only brain surgery, not saddlery!”

 
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