Long-time Australian saddler finds renewed purpose in full-time book authorship
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Rick Allen, who lives in the Levendale area of Tasmania, retired last year after a three-decades-long career in saddlery. “I built my first saddle in 1989; I built my last saddle in 2019,” he said. Reflecting on his many years as a skilled leatherworker, he added, “I’m probably an all-around saddler.”
Tasmania is an island state of Australia. Roughly the size of West Virginia, it is located about 150 miles south of the Australian mainland. About 45 percent of the rugged mountainous island, with its spectacular coastlines, forests, beaches, bays and lakes, is preserved as World Heritage Sites, national parks and reserves.
“I was born and raised in Tasmania, just north of Hobart, the island’s capital and most populous city,” Rick said. By way of contrast, the rural locality where he lives with his wife, Lesley, is home to about 180 people.
“Our piece of land is all bush,” he said, of their 160-acre property set in a region thick with gum trees and other dense vegetation, making it a home for abundant wildlife. “Our driveway is one kilometer long. Kangaroos are everywhere.”
Around the property, he rides an electric mobility scooter, which runs quietly and doesn’t scare off wildlife. “When I look up on the bank, I see 20 kangaroos sunning themselves. They feel safe around here,” he observed. He also described teeming bird life — tiny, robin-like birds, finches, ravens and, yes, the iconic kookaburra. “It’s in the kingfisher family,” he explained, “a big bird with a loud laugh.”
That day, the region was in winter, which in the U.S. was late summer. “Today, we’ve got snow and ice. This morning, there was frost on the ground. I’ve got a heater on in the office. Even with the sun up, I can see steam coming off the roof of the workshop set beyond the house.”
For several years, Rick has been a member of the Saddlers & Harness Makers Association of Australia (SHMAA). Founded in 1895, the association is dedicated to the preservation and development of saddle and harness making skills in Australia. “Lesley and I are now life members of the association,” he said.
His most recent leatherwork enterprise, which he and Lesley ran together, was a resourceful saddle repair business, a workshop on wheels dubbed the “Mobile Saddler.”
“We used to take the truck and do repair work in Victoria (a state in southeast Australia) and all around Tasmania. We lived in the truck like a mobile home,” he said of the fully fitted, 2007 Mitsubishi Fuso Fighter, a 10.5-ton vehicle.
Living quarters were in the front. It had hot and cold water, a full shower, marine toilet, gas stove, kitchen, dinette, king-size bed, two freshwater tanks and two holding tanks — one for gray water and one for black water. The workshop was in the back, equipped with two leatherwork machines, tools and workbenches.
“We took it all with us,” Rick, 64, said.
He began to teach saddlery to Lesley, shortly after they married in 2004. Their on-the-road workshop venture began in May 2005. Her prior job experience had been working in an office as a receptionist. Needless to say, she had scant experience in repairing saddles or tack. “We were newly married. We wanted to do things together,” she said.
“At first, she didn’t like the leatherwork, but she did it to help me. She became more and more proficient on the big sewing machines,” he said.
“To me, they were big, powerful industrial machines, quite scary and overpowering. Rick showed me what to do and then it took practice. It took me about two years to get good at it. I enjoyed learning how to use the machines.”
In the mobile workshop, they repaired “pretty much everything,” he explained, “from new zippers on oilskin coats to covers for quad bikes (off-road, four-wheel, powered vehicles). And we did all saddle repairs, like replacing girth points and pump-ups on English and stock saddles or putting latigos on western saddles.”
The repair service also offered general tack repairs, “bridles, reins, breastplates, harness, lead ropes (including making rope harness), tie- downs and more. If someone wanted a rear girth for a western saddle, and I could match the color, we would make it and fit it on the spot,” he said.
“We earned a reasonable living. Tasmania is a small place,” he noted. “There’s not as much money here. We had to mend things smarter and faster. And price what people can afford.”
After about 16 years, the saddle repair business was forced to take on a new shape to accommodate a significant change in Rick’s health. In February 2020, he was diagnosed with a debilitating illness that forced the Allens to close the traveling side of the repair business.
Since 1998, he had been coping with peripheral neuropathy, a condition that caused numbness from his knees down to his feet. But in February 2020, he was hit with an unwelcomed diagnosis: bilateral midfoot Charcot arthropathy, a rare but serious complication of peripheral neuropathy.
Charcot particularly affects people with diabetes mellitus. If not detected early, it can weaken bones, which can break and deform the foot or ankle. The disease often goes undetected and worsens, due to lack of feeling in the feet.
One treatment for Charcot is to wear a close-contact cast for six months. Rick wore that type of cast for 10 months. Then, doctors built him a custom, carbon fiber Charcot Restraint Orthotic Walker (CROW) boot.
Currently, his condition is stable. But he must keep off his feet as much as possible and limit walking to 300 steps per day. Since his right foot is more compromised than the left, he was unable to drive, operate a sewing machine or bear weight on that foot. On certain occasions, such as medical appointments, he uses a wheelchair.
The big mobile saddler truck was sold and replaced with a Hyundai I-Load van. Rick resigned his position with the saddlery company in May 2020.
“Everything I wanted to do; I can’t do now. It turns your life upside-down. I don’t have any choice. Sometimes you don’t cope,” he said, with unflinching candor. Moreover, the trauma and depression suffered during an ongoing health crisis, he pointed out, can affect the people closest to you.
“Last week, Lesley and I went to an anger management course,” he shared, this past August. “We got a lot out of it.”
“He has come away from that with a different understanding of why he feels what he does,” she said.
To take constructive action and move ahead, it took summoning the courage to face things as they are, a strong will and emotional support. “When I couldn’t do the work anymore, I qualified for hand controls on my van and had it converted. After a year of not being able to drive, I can drive again with hand controls. I can move Lesley around, who now has health issues of her own and can’t drive.
“Lesley is a saddler. Right now, she’s repairing horse blankets in our workshop,” he continued, referring to the 20×50-foot building situated near the house. “She keeps the workshop open and does the work that comes in, with mentoring help from me.”
“Rick is still the brains and I’m the brawn. His knowledge of the things I repair is tremendous. He is still my advisor, mentor and guide,” Lesley, 64, said.
These days, she is waiting for two hip replacements, but keeps busy doing whatever she can. “Now, on a typical day, I will put in a couple of hours in the workshop doing repairs on whatever work people bring us. I do a lot of repairs on horse blankets. I can handle it because I’m sitting or standing. I’m not carrying heavy things or walking far.”
And she takes on other pressing tasks. She helped to take care of Rick’s elderly father, who died this March, one week from his 92nd birthday. “I have to alter what I do to support Rick. Apart from that, my days are usually filled with what needs to be done in the house, like bringing in firewood to keep the fire going. We heat with wood.”
She also handles office work: financing and filing. “Our livelihood is not as much as before, but it’s enough. It is taking me longer to do things, but I still get things done.” And she’s a dedicated family person. “I have three grown children and Rick has two, so we have five between us. Also, there are nine grandchildren, with one due in October. Plus, my granddaughter has two children, which makes me a great-grandmother,” she said.
“I’m aware of the struggles Rick has. But I focus more on the good things. He is still the same person —6-foot-4-inches tall — a big man used to taking control. I see myself as a support person. You get your rewards from your heart. I have a faith in God. Because of that, there is a blessing each day for who you are.”
FINDING THE ACE
Despite the extreme stress brought on by illness, Rick realized that he had at hand what poker players might call “an ace in the hole.”
“I’m concentrating on my writing,” he said decisively.
Turning up that card revealed to him that the spirited energy, which he has poured into dozens of diverse and challenging career ventures over many decades, had not stopped flowing.
Rick summed up that long string of adventurous experiences in this way, “A (Royal Australian) Navy electrician turned leatherworker, turned ship captain, turned saddler, horse rider, endurance club president, saddler store owner, horseback tour guide and operator of Saddletramp Horseback Tours.” And he worked in the desert as a holistic trainer (educator) using leatherwork to teach Aborigines literacy and numeracy. “They’re great people,” he said.
His early passion for leatherwork began with the impulse to make a pouch for a small folding knife. Later, he set up a leather workshop. Over the years, he moved his workshop to wherever he was living.
Today, the dynamic energy that he put into multifaceted careers has morphed into a vocation as full-time book author. To Rick, diving into creative writing is not a brand-new idea. His first work, the nonfiction piece, Tales of a Saddle Tramp, was written in 1998 and published as an eBook in 2004. The autobiographical account relates how horses can transform a man’s life and describes the bond that can develop between horse and rider. He also wrote a how-to booklet, Saddlery Repair & Maintenance.
In 2016, he switched to fiction writing and began a seven-book apocalyptic series, titled Toast. Book 1 of the series, The Ride to Hell, was launched in February 2021.
“Book 1 has been published. Book 2 is at the publishers. Lesley is editing Book 3 and I am currently halfway through Book 6,” he said this past August. Books 4 and 5 are completed, but not edited. Book 7 is scheduled to take the series to 2023.”
To continue honing his writing, this past June, he completed a 12-month, 900-hour online course, “Advanced Certificate in Creative Writing and Editing,” paid for by the Australian Government Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA). And, he started another two books required during the course.
“I love writing. Writing has been a great stress release,” Rick acknowledged. “For example, my anger can be used to create a particular bloody fight scene or battle, or a passionate sex scene.”
“The writing is quite full of action,” Lesley said. “All of the energy he has, comes out in the writing.”
FOR MORE INFO
Rick & Lesley Allen
425 New Country Marsh Road
011 613 62545196
For Rick Allen books:
For a YouTube clip:
For more about Saddlers & Harness Makers Association of Australia (SHMAA), go to: australiansaddlers.com.au/