Tack time Calverton saddle maker makes sure you sit pretty Mitch Harrison points out tooling on a piece of leather. itch Harrison is a man who is not afraid to put his name behind his work. In fact, it’s on almost everything he does.
If you ride western you may have seen it stamped on a custom-made saddle, bridle or other leather accessory. The Calverton resident has been making saddles for 50 years but don’t think he’s a one-trick pony. At 76, Harrison has trained and ridden competitively, judged competitions around the country, been a rodeo rider and made more saddles than he can count. These days he’s strictly a saddle maker.
Mitch Harrison Saddles operates out of a one-story building on state Route 28 in the tiny Fauquier County community of Calverton.
He lives about 5 miles up the road in Catlett with his brother and sister-in-law. M By Andy Taylor On a recent visit to his shop, Harrison was wearing a black hat, western boots, bluejeans and sporting a big silver belt buckle that says Champion 1976, looking the part of the cowboy life he has lived. There are framed photographs on the wall of Harrison riding in national cutting and reining competitions. One is an action shot of Harrison in the saddle at the 1966 International Horse Show in Washington, when he won the cattle-cutting championship. Most of Harrison’s saddle making, competitive training and riding occurred in Oklahoma, where he lived for 35 years.
He had a saddle shop in Edmond, just outside of Oklahoma City.
Customers there included former movie and TV stars Ben Johnson and Dale Robertson.
Johnson appeared in more than 100 movies, including the Oscar-winning “The Last Picture Show” in 1971.
Robertson was in more than 50 movies but is best remembered as the star of the late ’50s TV series “Tales of the Wells Fargo.” Harrison said his saddle business was much bigger in Oklahoma than it is today. “A horse is a way of life out there.
A horse to a guy out there was like a tractor to a guy here.” A tornado swept through the area in 2003 and destroyed his saddle shop, Harrison said. He worked for a couple of companies for awhile and then decided in 2006 to return to his home state of Virginia.
That was also around the time he started having health problems.
And shortly after arriving in Virginia a doctor found colon cancer and he underwent surgery. “I feel pretty good right now,” said Harrison, whose periodic checkups show him to be cancer-free. SUMMER 2009 9 At work Harrison grew up on a small farm in Delray, just outside of Alexandria.
He dropped out of school in the fifth grade to go to work to help his family. He said that when he was a young man his grandfather gave him some sage advice: “You better learn to do something with your hands.
The smart guys don’t know how to do everything.” So, in 1957, after Harrison got out of the Navy, he moved to Richmond to study under Jake Martin at the Jim Dandy Saddle Shop.
He credits Martin with teaching him the importance of quality in saddle making. “He was real fussy,” Harrison recalls. “The first thing is to make everything as if you’re going to use it or ride in it yourself.” Harrison opened his shop in Calverton in August 2007.
He wasn’t making saddles when he first moved to the area but when he attended horse shows, people who knew him would ask him to make them a saddle. “I went out and got a sewing machine and started making saddles again,” he said. Now his shop is filled with saddles, bridles, reins and pistol holsters.
Leather scraps and various leather working tools are strewn across counters and a commercial sewing machine sits in one corner. How to make a saddle In addition to making saddles and leather accessories, Harrison sells blankets and other tack and repairs saddles.
Respected saddle maker Edward “Skeeter” Hembry of Warrenton said he got his start in the business with Harrison in 1960, helping him break horses.
Then in 1965 Harrison began to train him on making saddles. “He taught several people,” Hembry said. “He’s a real good saddle maker.” Most of his customers are competition riders and trainers but lately he’s seeing a big increase in business from trail riders who want a Mitch Harrison saddle. Harrison said his saddles start out at about $1,250 and the average price is about $1,600.
He has made show saddles that sell for as much as $8,500.
It generally takes about a week to 10 days to make a saddle, depending on how much detail is involved. Thomas J.
Mueller is a satisfied Mitch Harrison customer.
Mueller, president of Atlantic Mortgage and Investment Co.
In Richmond, has purchased two Mitch Harrison saddles. “You can’t buy a better saddle,” Mueller said. “He’s been a trainer all his life.” Mueller said he was referred to Harrison eight years ago by Tom Seay, who has a show on RFD TV called “Best of America by Horseback.” On the show, Seay leads trail riders on a journey across America. Mueller said Seay rode cross-country on a Mitch Harrison saddle.
A photo of Seay with a personalized inscription to Harrison hangs on the wall of the saddle shop’s showroom.
Harrison agrees with Mueller that the thing that has served him well as a saddle maker is his experience as a horse trainer.
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Contact Mitch Harrison at (540) 788-4260.
More on Mitch Harrison Born: Feb. 9, 1933 in Delray.
Family: Son Mike, 51, daughter Vicki, 53.
Occupation: Owner, Mitch Harrison Saddles.
Horse highlight: Various national championships in reining and cutting in the 1960s and ’70s.
Philosophy: “You’ve got to treat people right.
Don’t cheat them.
I try to build every saddle as if I’m going to ride in it.” Best horse advice ever received: “Training a horse is nothing but common sense and patience.” It starts with the tree.
This is the frame that the saddle is built on.
It is made out of wood covered in bull hide.
Then you build the ground seat to fit the rider.
It starts with a thin piece of metal called the strainer that is bent to shape and then nailed onto the tree.
A piece of leather goes over the strainer.
It also is worked into shape to fit the rider.
A section of leather is fitted over the horn and covers the front of the saddle.
Leather skirts are attached under the saddle to the sides.
The leather back housing is put on at the rear of the saddle.
A final section of leather goes on top of the ground seat construction to form the seat.
Leather fenders, which will hold the stirrups, are added to the sides.
Cleaning agents are then used on the saddle followed by vegetable oil (Harrison prefers hot olive oil) to penetrate and treat the leather. Profiles 10 SUMMER 2009 Virginia’s horse-world royalty Questions for the queens corporate sponsor, the National Wildlife Federation, is providing recycling containers for the shows. “I’m so excited about this opportunity,” Jennings said about being queen. “Growing up around the [Virginia Quarter Horse] association, I always thought the queen was the coolest thing.
They were at all the shows, they knew everybody, they got to hand out ribbons and they were so friendly.” Jennings will do the same, as well as speak to youngsters about the association so it remains strong. “I really want to make the association more wellknown,” she said. “I’ll try to get more youths into the association so that we have a future.
It’s such a great environment for kids.
It teaches them about healthy competition, teamwork and respect for one another.” Those are lessons she learned at an early age growing up on a farm near Leesburg.
Chores were a daily part of her childhood. “I can’t imagine growing up any other way,” she said. “It was great.
I formed this early love for horses.
You know how kids say they want a pony for Christmas? Well, I was the little girl who wanted a horse for her birthday and actually got one.
How cool is that?” Photo courtesy of Kendall Jennings
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