Missouri leatherworker’s one-man, tack repair shop is keeping him busier than ever
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Each day, when Bruce Martin greets the sunrise in rural Hartsburg, Missouri, his first chore is to head out to the barn to feed his team of Haflingers, Jim and Bud. Then, he walks back to the home he shares with his wife, Judy, to have breakfast.
Later, at around 8 a.m., Monday through Saturday, you’ll find him working at Show-Me Harness Shop, his tack repair business located only 25 feet from his residence. There, in a well-equipped 900-square-foot workspace, which occupies part of a larger building, he keeps more than busy until about 7 p.m., restoring, rebuilding and refurbishing Western and English saddles, harness and other tack.
“There is more saddle work in my shop than harness work. But every once in a while, I sneak in a horse blanket to repair. I just had a heavy winter horse blanket come in last week that needed new straps,” he said, in mid-January.
Martin, 73, founded his one-man-shop in 1983. To get started, he drove to Illinois to purchase harness shop equipment from a family business whose owner had passed away. “I loaded up the trailer and hauled it home,” he recalled.
It turned out that learning how to use all that equipment was another story. “I didn’t have a clue how to do any of the work, so I began teaching myself the leatherwork trade — the process of building new items and repairing old ones.”
At the time, he thought he had enough tools and machinery to run things. “Well, I soon found out that I needed more. So, over the years, I’d buy a piece of new or used equipment to satisfy myself. I’ve since continued to add machines and hand tools. And, I keep hardware on hand and maintain it. One is never too old to learn something new in this trade,” he said.
Since retiring four years ago from his day job as a code enforcement officer for the city of Columbia, Missouri, his tack repair business has really picked up. “It seems like it keeps getting busier and busier. I feel like I’m behind. But, I hate to think what it would be like if I didn’t have this shop to work in. I love what I do.”
He estimates that he repairs 20 to 25 items per week and completes about 75 to 100 repairs per month. “It keeps me out of trouble. I’m busy all the time. I can’t imagine going into the house and sitting on the couch. I don’t think things have slowed down,” he added, when asked if the COVID-19 pandemic caused any setbacks.
He does not have Facebook or Instagram, and doesn’t have any plans to set them up. “I get regular calls from my website. Mainly, work comes through word of mouth. We love our customers,” he said.
That feeling appears to be mutual. His well-established repair shop and long years of experience are widely appreciated. “I’m not sure how many other tack repair shops there are in Boone County. But, people tell me there aren’t many people like me. Some customers even bring in blank checks for me to fill out, once the work is completed,” he said, with amazement. “I’m thankful they have trust in me to do that.”
In fact, some customers insist on paying him more than they’re actually billed. “One lady brought me a purse that needed a small repair. “She asked, ‘Can you repair this?’ I said, ‘Yes, I can.’ I charged her $5 and she gave me $10.”
His shop rate is $15 per hour. “People say I’m working too cheap. But if you start to charge $35 an hour, you’ll have no business! Doing a repair is a little different from making something new. Sometimes repairs take more time. I do a lot of hand sewing. If I put a new piece of leather on an old piece of leather, there may be stitching holes to match up. That takes time.”
To him, the main thing is to get repairs done right. “If you work on something longer, you do a better job. For example, you don’t want to take away from the originality of the saddle. I charge so much per hour, but at times, I may work more than I charge for.”
Is all used tack worth fixing?
“I can look at a piece and tell if it’s worth repairing. I’ll give an estimate — what it’s going to cost to repair,” he said. “I do not charge for estimates. I try to treat people the way I want to be treated.”
A COMPLEX PROCESS
This past January, Martin had a 16-inch Western saddle on the rack. “I’ve got it tore down,” he said, meaning he had gotten deeper inside the repair. “When I got into it and started to stitch the old leather, it had some damage that wouldn’t allow me to stitch properly. I had to remove the leather cover off the swell — the top cover that fits over the horn. That allowed me to remove the leather horn wrap.”
Next, he made a new leather piece to fit on the bottom portion of the horn. “I first had to put the new piece of leather in warm water to soften it, which allowed me to shape the leather to the horn,” he explained.
Then, he fitted and tied down the leather piece with waxed string wrapped around the neck of the horn. “I put the horn wrap back in place and hand sewed the horn cap portion, using a long piece of waxed thread with a needle on each end. I use regular straight harness needles that have a blunt point.”
As he described the repair, it became obvious that restoring an item as complex as a saddle is not a simple operation. “You’ve got to have a lot of patience. I feel more patient with this work than I did with my own children when they were small. The older you get the more you mellow out.”
Now and then, he’ll craft new small leather goods, especially belts. “I’ve made a lot of belts for people. I don’t normally do it, but I also make cell phone cases for those who want something durable.”
His main focus, however, is not to make new leather products, but to bring new life to the worn and broken ones. “I’ve never built one brand-new saddle. But, I have torn down some old saddles completely, made the repair and built them back up.”
Most of his leather is sourced from well-known suppliers like Springfield Leather, Hermann Oak and American Leather Direct (ALD). He also does business with Hillside Harness Hardware, Ltd., Bieler’s Manufacturing & Supply LLC, and Wickett & Craig.
When it comes to tools, “I’ve got gobs of them,” he said with enthusiasm. “I’ve got a lot of good buckle punches, like an English point leather punch. I’ve got a lot of (C.S.) Osborne punches. And creasers, roller machines and skivers.”
A while back, he upgraded to an Adler 205-370 sewing machine, designed for heavy leatherwork. “I use it to sew saddle skirting, Western saddles and harness,” he explained. About two years ago, he treated himself to a new Class 20 Cobra sewing machine. “I use it on leather and fabric materials.”
COMMON TACK REPAIRS
When it comes to repairing equine tack, Martin has likely seen it all. But some items in need of repair, he said, seem to end up on the bench more often than others.
“Driving harness is one of the most common repairs to come into the shop. It could be reins, bridles, cruppers and forks — parts of a driving harness. I also repair a lot of straps on the back bands that hold shafts onto a driving cart.
“With saddles — stirrup leathers often have to be replaced,” he continued. “Or, I may have to reline saddle skirts with new sheepskin underneath. And then, saddle fenders might be torn and need reinforcement,” he said, of the leather panels that connect stirrups to the main part of a saddle. “The four D-rings that normally hold the front cinch and rear cinch might need to be repaired. Or, rigging can be rotted, damaged, torn loose or its stitching could be bad.”
Safety, he emphasized, is a big reason to keep tack well maintained and repaired. “Different parts of a saddle might be damaged or it may not be usable until repaired. It could cause an injury. If a saddle is not in good enough condition, it can’t be ridden safely.”
Reconditioning leather products goes a long way to preserving their longevity, he added. For cleaning, preserving and restoring saddle and harness leather, he uses liquid glycerin saddle soap from Fiebing’s.
Then there’s the saddletree, the frame around which a saddle is built. “It’s not unusual to find a broken tree in a saddle,” he said. “A break can happen on a performance horse or one roping calves. I’ve seen a saddle that had gotten run over by a trailer, which broke the tree.”
He does not fix saddletrees, however. “I can replace a tree, but I don’t make trees,” he explained. Instead, he strips off all the leather from a broken tree and ships the wooden pieces to a tree repair service. He uses Precision Saddle Tree in Yokum, Texas. “They will put it all back together with a Kevlar® reinforced coating and ship it back. Then, I’ll restore the leather on the tree.”
Keeping tack in good condition prolongs the life of your equipment, he pointed out. The bottom line is good maintenance saves money. “A saddle can be an expensive item. You just don’t want to throw it away! A good saddle can be worth $1,000 to $2,500. For a new set of work harness for a team — you might spend $1,500. There’s nothing cheap about a horse.”
Some customers, he added, want repairs done for purely sentimental reasons. Once he worked on a sidesaddle that had been a family keepsake for about 150 years. “The lady who owned it was well into her 80s and she remembered her grandmother riding that saddle as a young lady. It had a lot of history!”
Every tack repair job comes with its own particular problems, he noted. “Each piece I work on is treated the same. No matter what the problem, I do the best work I can in an orderly fashion.”
And, he stands behind his work. “If people have problems with a repair, I tell them to please let me know. I want to make it good. In the 38 years that I’ve been doing this, I can remember only one person who was not happy with the repair. They brought it back and I made it right.”
(Suggest using photo of Martin’s granddaughter with two Haflingers.)
HORSE SENSE IS A PLUS FOR TACK REPAIR SHOP
Every so often, Bruce Martin, owner and operator of the tack repair business, Show-Me Harness Shop in Hartsburg, Missouri, hauls his two Haflingers to an Amish community, about 30 miles away.
“I use them to put up hay, work the ground for planting corn crops, or hitch them to a mowing machine,” he said. “I’ve owned horses ever since Judy, my boss, and I got married 52 years ago,” he said fondly. The Martins have two daughters, Julie and Janice, and six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Naturally, his longtime hands-on horse sense gives him an extra boost of credibility with customers. “They know I’m familiar with horses,” he said. And, he lives in the right state. Missouri has the third largest horse population in the U.S.
His repair workshop attracts customers from all over Boone, his home county, and from seven other surrounding counties. “I do a lot of repair work for two local horse barns that board horses and have working riding rings. The jobs I get from the two horse barns are quite a bit of work and keep me very busy,” he said.
One barn, located about 5 miles north of Hartsburg, boards 45 driving and gaited show horses, the other barn, based in St. Louis, boards 65 gaited show horses, hunters and jumpers. Also, the populous city of St. Louis, roughly a two-hour drive from his workshop, boasts at least 10 horse-boarding and riding facilities, he said.
And, he pointed out that state events, like The Cattlemen’s Day Rodeo,* held annually in nearby Ashland, Missouri, attracts large crowds of enthusiasts.
— Lynn Ascrizzi
(*Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cattlemen’s Day Rodeo was cancelled in 2020, but organizers remain hopeful for a 2021 event.)
FOR MORE INFO
SHOW-ME HARNESS SHOP
Saddle and Tack Repair
Bruce Martin, owner, operator
2121 East Route M
Hartsburg, MO 65039
1-537-657-9044 — workshop
1-573-999-9044 — cell phone