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BETA International 2019

It’s that time of year again! Last week I took a trip back to the NEC in Birmingham for the annual trade show BETA international. It was my 5th visit to the show but unlike previous years, this time I wasn’t there to compete in the trainee saddler competition, resulting in a much more relaxing day! This gave me the time to explore the show a bit and see some of the new exciting products that will be launched into the equestrian trade this year.

The highlight for me is always the equestrian fashion show. Being a horse owner and rider myself, it is always interesting to see some of the new styles in equestrian wear but really, it’s just fantastic entertainment watching a group of models performing dance routines in body protectors and riding hats!

I spent most of my time in the Saddlery area which was considerably larger than previous years. It was wonderful to see Saddlery Businesses from all areas of the Saddlery showcasing their skills. One saddler had gone all out to draw in the crowds and made a multi-coloured unicorn saddle, complete with horn! I think it goes without saying that it turned a few heads and showed some incredible creativity and skill.

I also volunteered to demonstrate some stitching skills at the Saddlery Training Centre stand for a few hours. It’s always nice to chat to people who are considering saddlery as a career option.

Last week I also collected my new splitter machine who I have affectionately named Stanley, or “flat Stanley”. For those who aren’t familiar with a splitting machine, the best way to describe it is like a pasta machine but instead of two rollers it has one roller and then a huge blade on top. When a strap of leather is pulled through it splits the substance down (making it flatter…hence the name.) I was lucky enough to get my hands on a really old machine, as a general rule with saddlery tools the older the better! The thing about old tools is the tend to have quirks so Stanley does have the habit of splitting more off the right-hand side than the left. I’ll just have to make some small adjustments but it’s quirks like this that make me love the craft even more. No two pieces are the same and every little piece of leather has had some time put into it!

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BETA International 2018

Yesterday I was back at the NEC in Birmingham to visit the annual BETA international trade show. This was my 4th visit to the show and 3rd time taking part in the trainee Saddler competition put on by the Society of Master Saddlers.

I always have mixed feelings about the competition at BETA. On the one hand I find the whole event a little stressful, but I also feel it’s important to put my work forward for criticism in order to maintain a high standard of work and constantly strive for improvement.

This year we were asked to make a cob sized pair of cheekpieces. We are all given the exact same materials and fittings to ensure its fair and then we are given a specification for the piece we are making. Typically, with cheekpieces you are given a measurement we refer to as the “made-up” measurement. This does not refer to a measurement that you make up from the top of your head but rather the measurement of the piece when it is fully made and stitched together, and the billets (the bottom loop where it attaches to the horse’s bit) will normally be closed.

We kicked off at about 10am and pretty early on it became apparent we were having slightly different approaches. While trying not to go into too much “saddlery speak” there is no set rule for where you place the billet hook regarding the strap. The further you go up the strap the bigger the loop will be around the bit but where exactly you go is a matter of personal preference. In the end I decided to go slightly further up the strap than the other competitors as I feel that if the loop is too tight, it makes it more difficult to do up. While we are always trying to create beautiful items and are desperate to let out our creative flair, items must always be fit for purpose and this should always be the primary concern.

Anyway, I won’t bore you with the rest of the details of the entire process of making a cheekpiece, but we finished and disappeared for a quick explore of the show while the judging commenced. This year they decided that the presentation of the results for the competition would be on the fashion show stage, so we made our ways over to the stage to find some seats.

It came to the results and we were all invited up on stage to receive a certificate for participation and then the announced the winner. To my surprise (which apparently was hilariously visible in my face) I was announced the winner of the competition. It sounds like it was a pretty close call, but the judges informed me that the decider was that the preferred the distance I had chosen for my billet hook – proof that it pays off to go against the crowd!

As if that wasn’t great enough, the winner and runners-up of the Abbey England scholarship award were also announced, and I was overjoyed to hear that I was one of the runners – up and was being awarded a hide of leather in a colour of my choice! Probably sounds terribly boring but to a trainee saddler it doesn’t get much better then that!

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BETA International 2017

Last week I was a competitor in the trainee saddler competition at the BETA international trade show. This was the second time I’ve agree to take part and after the event I am always glad I went but I’ve got to be honest, I tend to find the day rather stressful. I am very comfortable working when tucked away in my little workshop but the atmosphere at BETA is a little different. The competition is usually run at a workbench in the centre of the exhibition hall, within the Saddlery area, with just a rope surrounding us so that anyone passing by can look at what we are doing. Some people will just walk past and glance in our direction, but others like to come right over and watch, ask questions and even take pictures. I find it all a bit intimidating and on top of all that we are supposed to be competing!

Luckily, we are all in the same boat and being quite a small trade, I know most of my fellow trainees fairly well and it tends to be more of a supportive atmosphere than competitive! This year we were asked to make a raised noseband, but to our horror we were informed we would have to stitch it in white! Now I will admit, I think bridlework stitched in white thread looks beautiful, but I’m not sure people understand the amount of extra work that goes into stitching with white thread compared to black or brown. Firstly, because white thread is such a contrast it really highlights each stitch, and therefore highlights EVERY imperfection. This means there is more pressure to get every stitch perfect or it will stick out like a sore thumb! Also, when working with leather we also have to stain the edges we have cut and as the name suggests, it will stain anything it touches. So, the thought of trying to keep white thread clean and get the stitches perfect, all while trying to compete for first place had a few of us sweating before we even started!

Thankfully we all finished within the time and without any major injuries or breakdowns! I didn’t envy the judges this year as when the pieces were all laid out on the bench, we could barely recognise which one was our own. Anyway, they were able to come to a decision and I was excited to learn I was awarded the runner-up award. It must have been so close to judge as I think there was only 1 mark difference between 1st -2nd place and 2nd-3rd place. It’s great to think that there is such a consistent standard of work amongst the trainee saddlers, after all, we are the future of the trade!

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BETA International 2016

Wow this week seems to have gone by in a bit of a blur…possibly because I’ve had a stinking cold and have wanted to be curled up under a blanket! On Monday, we had a college trip to BETA international which is a huge equestrian trade fair held once a year at the NEC in Birmingham.

The main reason we went is because, The Society of Master Saddlers put on a competition for students and apprentices and I was one of the students selected to compete. When I woke up at 5:30am on Monday morning to find I had come down with a stinking cold, I’m sure you can sympathise that the last thing I wanted to do was have a long day at a trade show and compete with my fellow classmates. Anyhow I filled myself with cold medication and made my way to college to hop on the minibus to Birmingham (very glad I didn’t have to drive all that way!)

Our task was to make a basic foal slip so we were all perfectly capable but in the atmosphere of BETA with all sorts of people watching it seemed an intimidating task. Nevertheless, we got to work cutting our straps. By now the cold tablets had well and truly kicked in and I was feeling much more alive, so I decided to not put any pressure on myself and just try and enjoy the opportunity. Afterall, it wasn’t that different to a normal day at college other than the fact that we were being watched! I actually started to quite enjoy myself chatting to some interesting people who were walking around the show, some interested in training in Saddlery themselves, and some who just wanted to watch out of curiosity.

As it got towards the end of our time, I was fortunate to be the furthest ahead on making the foal slip. This helped me to stay relaxed in the finishing off process while a few of my competitors where noticeably starting to get a bit stressed. Thankfully we all finished, and the judges took a look while we went off to have some food.

By the time we returned to the Saddlery area, the judges had made their decisions and we gathered for a small presentation. Firstly, we were all given a certificate to recognise are participation. Then the announced the winner…I was overjoyed to hear my name being called! I want to say a big well done to all my fellow competitors who also made some beautiful items!