Perfect for a long ride, and a work of art to boot

By Alexis Hooi ( China Daily ) Updated: 2015-08-22 08:14:19

Perfect for a long ride, and a work of art to boot

Zhao Xiuwen shows his work in the yard of his home. [Photo by Alexis Hool / China Daily]

Zhao's two sons and three daughters chose not to take over their father's business. His invaluable skills and experience seemed in danger of being lost, until he managed to find an apprentice, who is in his late 30s, this year.

"It's tough, time-consuming work," Zhao says. "Few people would consider making a living from this."

Zhao spends about 13 hours a day in his workshop at home, creating his saddles from scratch. He starts by chipping out the main frame, made of white birch that comes from nearby forests in the Fengning Manchu autonomous county of neighboring Hebei province. Adornments such as silver pommel-cantle linings and leather applique, delivered from the city of Xilinhot in Inner Mongolia, are then added to the painted saddles to help transform them into works of art.

Every month Zhao makes about 10 saddles with basic designs. Those that are more intricate take much longer. Collectors of top-end traditional saddles are willing to pay tens of thousands of yuan for each item, he says.

Some of Zhao's customers place orders for elaborate saddles after they are inspired by visits to Duolun's privately run Horse Tack and Saddle Museum, known in Chinese equestrian circles for its priceless pieces of antique equestrian equipment.

But Zhao puts the same painstaking care and expertise into all his saddles, including the everyday ones that local herdsmen buy.

"Every horse is different and the saddle used on each of them should also be as unique as possible," he says.

"I ask the owner about the horse that the saddle is meant for. I try to look at the animal myself, to size up its physical characteristics, so the saddle can fit comfortably."

First-time riders of Mongolian horses will quickly realize that Zhao's compact, high saddles are perfect for sitting in as the mounts, with their short backs and inimitable amble, stream across the vast steppe.

"The Mongolian horse is smaller than other breeds," Zhao says. "But it's also sturdier, tougher and more practical for herding on our grasslands.

"In that sense, the traditional Mongolian saddle is a perfect fit for our horses."

Editor's Picks
Hot words

Most Popular