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March 30, 2010

At the Atelier: The Elegant Equestrian

Hermès saddles

In his role as messenger to the gods of ancient Greece, Hermes was known for his gift for creating a clear condui between divine beings. It is fitting, then, that the French luxury-goods company bearing his name has become famous for a similar skill—namely, facilitating communication between horse and rider.

Hermès revolutionized saddle design four decades ago, after William Steinkraus, then captain of the United States Equestrian show jumping team, requested a new approach to the high-performance saddle: less leather, less bulk. He wanted a saddle that would allow him to better feel the movement of his mount through his seat and legs, so he could be more in tune with the rhythm of the horse's stride. He also wanted a saddle that would offer maximum precision when sending critical commands to his horse through his body—such as when, exactly, to jump that five-foot stone wall. With his help, Hermès slimmed down the standard silhouette, producing the first "close-contact" saddle, known as the Steinkraus. Since its introduction in 1962, it has been unrivaled as the preeminent show-jumping saddle, appearing in many an Olympic Game and World Cup.

Not content to rest on its laurels, Hermès has recently improved upon what was, until lately, considered a near-perfect design. Working closely with top American and European equestrians, their master saddle makers scrutinized the Steinkraus until they discovered ways to streamline it even more. What if, they asked, you could integrate the sweat flap into the panels of the saddle? And combine the three billets that hold the girth into a single piece of leather? Wouldn't that further minimize the barrier between the rider and the ridden? The result—the new Hermès Hunter/Jumper saddle ($3,800)— is unquestionably lighter and sleeker. Because it uses fewer layers of leather, it not only encourages unconstrained movement of the horse but is also less prone to wear.

Olympic silver medalist Anne Kursinski—the first rider to sit in its buffalo-hide seat—calls the new Hermès Hunter/Jumper saddle "ingenious" for its ability to help riders maintain their balance over the center of gravity of the horse. "Less is always better," she says. "Bareback is the perfect way to ride. But riding in this saddle is the next best thing."

Given Hermès' unwillingness to subordinate beauty to practicality in its products, it's no surprise that the new saddle is also visually stunning, echoing the lyrical curve of a horse's back. The only bad news: It is getting snapped up as quickly as it can be produced. The saddle's debut in Palm Beach in February was reminiscent of the releas of last year's Corlandus (the Hermès Dressage saddle), which was parceled out on a first-come first-serve basis to riders in order of their import. Olympic bronze medalist Sue Blinks, for example, was among the first to secure one.

For those who must suffer the woes of a waitlist there is always the consolation of Hermès' other products: ready-to-wear riding boots, hand-hewn whips, Rocabar blankets, gleaming steel stirrups, and grooming accoutrements.

Originally founded as a harness-making company in Paris in 1837, Hermès continues to craft its products with 19th-century care. Only two skins out of a hundred presented to its design team meet the strict quality standards. Each leather-goods piece is hand-cut, handstitched, and hand-finished. And every item—be it belt or handbag or saddle— is made from start to finish by the same artisan. Typical of Hermès attention to detail is the insistence on using the "saddle stitch," which takes craftsmen years to master. One linen thread and two needles are used to create an individual stitch, which is knotted in the middle to provide added strength and durability. It is no wonder those who manage to get their hands on an Hermès saddle are know to hang on to it for life.

Contact: William Whitehead, Hermès of Paris, 691 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10021; 212-835-6439.