When Martin Zalud creates saddles and bridles, he thinks not of creating a hand-made luxury item but of crafting a carefully thought-out tool. He describes the custom-fit saddles he makes as "a means of communication" between a horse and a rider, made with the kind of care and attention that serves the needs of both. And it is work that is rewarding to him as a craftsman as well.
"Saddles are challenging, because there are always things to figure out," he said. "I've never made the same saddle twice."
Zalud's interest in fashioning leather into saddles and bridles grew from his love of animals. He grew up in the Czech Republic, in a town called Zbraslav on the southern outskirts of the capital, Prague. His mother was a jockey, and he remembers spending much of his time after school around the stables.
At around 7, he asked "why am I not riding?" and began training himself, but even though he said he was "always a skinny kid," he grew too tall to advance much further on the racetrack.
At the same time, growing up, he realized he had a knack for taking things apart and putting them back together.
"I always like doing things with my hands, so the transition to making horse tack was pretty natural," he said.
He studied at saddlery school, and he apprenticed for several years with a master saddler and tried to make a living there in the craft.
But while the Czech equestrian tradition survived state communism, it was still hard to earn a living making handmade goods.
"The tradition is still there," he said. "But even when it's not a luxury item, it's still expensive [for many]."
Zalud began to consider other options. He plays classical guitar, and he applied to the conservatory to continue his studies. But while working through the application process he needed to enroll in something to avoid getting drafted into the military. So he took English lessons.
It was there that he met his future wife, a young woman from Wisconsin who worked as an instructor. Together they decided to move back to the United States, and they settled in San Francisco, where they set up shop selling leather fashion accessories that she designed and he made. But the price of living in the Bay Area, coupled with a desire for things like four seasons, led them to consider a change of scene.
They decided to look around the Northeast, and from a base in New Paltz, N.Y., drove around checking out towns. At the time North Adams was already earning a reputation as a home for artists and craftsmen, and it was a considerably more affordable place to live.
When the marriage ended about seven years ago, Zalud reconsidered his options and decided to take up saddlemaking again.
"No one in the area really does this," he said.
Today, most of Zalud's clients live within an hour's drive away, and he gets most of his clients by word of mouth. Most of the time the decision to have a custom saddle made comes when someone buys a new horse or realizes that no off-the-rack options fit a horse.
The first step is to measure the horse and to make a plaster cast of its back. Zalud also brings leather samples and talks with the riders about what they want. This level of engagement often varies.
"It depends on how much the clients know what they want," he said.
The actual building begins with a "tree," a wood and metal frame of various sizes and shapes. Then the leather is stitched and crafted onto the frame, with wool flock padding and panels added. Zalud crafts the materials in his small studio. Much of the room is taken up with a giant table covered with pieces of leather and traces of pieces to be cut out. Hanging from hooks on the wall is an arsenal of tools to poke, cut, and shape the leather. On the floor to the side rests a large wooden clamp attached to a small bench, which is used for holding pieces while he works on them.
Zalud built this device himself, which ironically looks a bit like an abstract horse. Against the opposite wall are two sewing machines, one large and one small. He spends about a third of his time on each saddle on each machine, and the remaining third is stitched by hand. In the next room, a large closet holds shelves of rolls of leather, mostly from cows but some from buffalo. Some is domestic, but much comes from England.
He said he listens to classical music while he works, and he can only work on so many saddles at a time because of space. A project can take between two and three months from start to finish.
"It's never really been easy," he said. "In the past few years it has been hard to keep up."
But for all the work, Zalud said his favorite part is getting out and meeting clients.
"I like to go out and meet people," he said. "It's satisfying."