Fine Saddles and Harness
By Gene Fowler
The worlds of leathercraft arts and equestrian culture are blessed with many a legacy enterprise. But few combinations of those worlds can boast a family tradition that goes back six generations and two centuries. In fact, there may be only one. David Freedman, of Freedman Harness in Toronto, traces his family business back to Warsaw, Poland. There, David’s great-great-great-grandfather, Mordechai Freedman, began crafting harness for Polish and Russian czars in 1802. As the business grew, Mordechai expanded to more utilitarian, or street equipage.
Throughout the 19th Century, generations of Freedmans continued establishing a tradition of fine craftsmanship. In 1910, Isaac Freedman, David Freedman’s grandfather, sailed for the New World from Ivansk, Poland, settling in Toronto. Schooled in the family arts by his elders in the Old Country, Isaac set up a harness-making shop in Kensington Market, a district of the city heavily populated by European immigrants of the Jewish faith. Isaac concentrated on utility, or street harness, then known as express harness. Partly due to the continuing spread of the horseless carriage, the automobile, he specialized in harness repairs rather than the crafting of new harness. As David Freedman noted in a 2013 issue of the Ontario Equestrian Federation’s magazine, Whoa, there would often be a dozen or so wagons lined up in the morning, waiting for repairs, when Isaac opened his shop.
David’s father Sam, born in 1926, made his first harness at the tender age of 10. Though Isaac had other sons, Sam seemed to have a special knack for the business and was schooled in the family artisan tradition by Isaac’s only English-speaking employee, Eddie Godfrey. Eddie was a veteran of the Chicago stockyards and knew the whole process of crafting a handmade show harness, including cutting, fitting, hand stitching and finishing. In the Whoa profile, David remarked that craftsmen in Eddie’s day specialized in one of those functions, and as he told Martha Stewart in a 2002 interview, that remains the case with the skilled artisans in the Freedman’s factory today.
Independent-minded from a young age, Sam sought a job with a larger Toronto company in 1943. The chronicle in Whoa notes the job interview as an occasion when “the ‘magic’ that is a part of Samuel Freedman’s lore appeared.” Given a stitching horse and asked to demonstrate his skills, young Sam amazed the manager with his skills and was hired. But because World War II was raging overseas and ethnic tensions inflamed even Canadian society, young Sam was let go after three days on the job.
Most likely, the rebuff inspired Samuel to work even harder to make the family business one of the best—some say the best—in its field worldwide. David told Martha Stewart that Sam really awoke to the potential of the family business when he attended Toronto’s first post-war Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, described on its website as “the largest combined indoor agricultural fair and international equestrian competition in the world.” The Freedman’s website notes that at the fair, Sam saw “the opportunity for a new business in making show harness.”
In 1954, when night harness racing under the lights became the newest thing in Toronto, Freedman’s production stats ballooned to more than 1,000 sets of Standardbred race harness annually. The company’s client base went international in the 1960s, when horsewoman Cynthia Haydon – trainer for Toronto tycoon and Thoroughbred owner John Angus “Bud” McDougald – introduced Sam’s work in England. And in 1973, Freedman’s won a prestigious commission when the Danish mega-brewer Carlsberg selected the Toronto company to craft harness for its teams of magnificent Belgian horses.
Teenaged David spent summers and weekends working with his dad and went to work at Freedman’s fulltime in 1982, at the age of 18. “I think you have to be a little bit unconscious about being second, third, fourth, fifth—in my case sixth—generation doing the same thing in your family,” he confided with a laugh to Canada’s Global News in 2015. “If you think about it too much you probably wouldn’t be able to carry this on because it’s a pretty daunting task.”
Two years later in 1984, influenced by French and Italian harness and saddle makers who addressed the needs of fashionistas, Freedman’s added lines of bags and belts, a move that had long been a dream of David’s father. Mainstays of the business during Sam’s day had been Standardbred race harness and Hackney harness, supplemented by a rise in the need for Carriage Driving harness from the mid-‘80s to the early ‘90s.
But David’s task became even more daunting in 1991 when Sam died, leaving the 27-year-old to run the now global business on his own. To make the situation even more dire, there was a recession at the time and the company did not have any pending work orders when Sam passed. So David got busy and hoofed a trail around the equestrian circuit, culminating in an especially successful visit to the 1993 World Pairs Driving Championship in Gladstone, New Jersey.
“I knew that the world would visit that show,” David told Whoa. “Everybody in driving would come, and I knew I could reposition the company and show the world that we are leaders in harness making.”
By 1995, Freedman’s had rebounded and introduced a cutback saddle for the saddle seat disciplines, and by the end of the century the six-generation family business had added the famed Budweiser Clydesdales to its harness customer list. Today, while continuing its custom work, the company concentrates on providing exemplary show harness and cutback saddles for Arabians, Saddlebreds and Morgans. From its factory in Toronto, the equestrian enterprise serves thousands of international customers. A Freedman’s retail boutique in Midway, Kentucky—located in the state’s bluegrass horse country—carries a full off-the-rack line of the company’s premier saddles, harness, tack, bags, belts and accessories.
Discerning customers can sense the legacy of Mordechai, Isaac and Sam in every Freedman’s product, but the company’s traditions are not static and staid. David explains on his website, for instance, that the newest Freedman’s innovation is the World Cup SG Saddle. “This saddle features a higher cantle couple with our super-grip leather on the seat, skirts and flaps, which greatly improves rider timing and performance,” he explains. “Extra tight close-contact panels make this saddle ride to an all-new, high-performance level.” The saddle also features “shock-absorbing tree points, deep recessed adjustable stirrup bars and a double ‘v’ billet balancing system.”
The World Cup SG Saddle is one of Freedman’s best sellers at $2,995. “I’m proud to say that we were the first Arabian exhibitors to start riding Freedman saddles,” says Gary Dearth of New Mexico. “The fit for both horse and rider is superior to any other saddles available. All Freedman products reflect an Old World craftsmanship that is nearly impossible to find today.” Gary even credits the excellent fit with curing his own back problems.
According to the Freedman’s web site, the $4,500 standout in their harness line, the Hackney Horse Show Harness, “has been subject to more attempts at imitation than any other piece of equipment in the equestrian world. But the methods of creating this harness are closely guarded, passed down from generation to generation, and its perfect fit and stunning detail remain unduplicated.”
That claim is backed up by a chain of commentary selected almost randomly from Horseforum.com. “A lot of ads will say something like, ‘Just like Freedman’s’ or ‘Freedman’s Quality,’” noted one veteran poster, in response to another’s query about a semi-vintage Freedman’s harness that was listed for sale. “But if it’s a true Freedman’s, the keepers will be sewn, not stapled. There will be 10 or 12 stitches per inch on the leather, not 6 or 7. The leather will feel like butter in your hands, and the edges of the leather will be finished and not rough. Both sides of the reins will be smooth, and everything will simply say QUALITY.”
That tradition of quality has not only built a thriving business, but also resulted in many distinctive honors. In 2004, the Worshipful Company of Coach Makers and Coach Harness Makers of London bestowed upon David the Coachmakers Carriage Driving Award, and in 2012, the prestigious organization swore David into the company by affirmation. It marked the first time in the company’s 335-year history that a harness maker outside the United Kingdom had been admitted.
A gig harness on display in the Midway, Kentucky, retail boutique testifies to the timeless workmanship and quality of Freedman products. It was made by Sam Freedman at the age of 12 and survived a half-century of the show ring. As David marveled in Whoa, “You can bring me anyone in the world who thinks they are good at what they do and they won’t hold a stick to this. The talent this guy had at 12 years old….”
Watch David and Martha discuss Freedman’s harness production for the Clydesdales and take a look at some of the company’s vintage tools here: https://www.marthastewart.com/911034/budweiser-horse-collars-freedman-harness
153 Bridgeland Avenue, Unit 14
Toronto, Ontario M6A 2Y6 Canada