Growing up in the southern Ontario community of Fergus, Christian Lowe developed a passion for horse-riding at an early age. But when he realized he wouldn't have a professional career in the industry, he turned to the next best thing: making saddles.
“I didn't want to leave the horse business but it was pretty obvious I wasn't going to make a living as a rider,” he said. “It's kind of like growing up thinking you're going to be a hockey player; eventually you have to think of plan B.”
Plan B evolved into Paramount Saddlery, the entrepreneur's home-based business that creates custom-made English-style saddles for individual clients—one of only three companies in Canada doing so.
A decade ago, Lowe entered an apprenticeship with Paramount's original owner, who had trained in England before immigrating to Canada. When he and his family moved back to the U.K., Lowe took over the Orangeville business; six years ago he and his wife relocated to Sault Ste. Marie for an improved quality of life.
As an unregulated trade, saddle-making attracts plenty of companies who create the illusion of making saddles from scratch, but in reality it's a craft practised by a niche market, Lowe said. The three-year apprenticeship teaches the nuts and bolts of the trade, but it can take years to hone the craft and develop a finesse for the job.
“It's a trade with a big artistic side to it,” Lowe said. “I call it being able to see three-dimensionally. It's like looking at a blueprint and being able to see the finished product; you have to be able to look and see that way all the time.”
Though fashion and riding style has changed over the years, saddle-making techniques remain largely the same. Companies have tried to introduce state-of-the-art materials and techniques to no avail, Lowe said.
And despite using modernized equipment for efficiency, “it's one industry where I could be transported back in time 100 years and the techniques for making a saddle haven't changed,” he said.
Taking about 45 hours to complete, each saddle is crafted to fit the individual horse-rider pairing, and Lowe typically serves more experienced clients who want a quality saddle, or who have an oddly shaped horse for which an off-the-shelf saddle won't do.
Custom saddles cost between $4,000 and $5,000, but for people who have put thousands of dollars into their horse's care and comfort, it's a wise investment. A saddle should last about 20 years with proper care and maintenance.
Most of Lowe's work, which comes to him through referrals, is centred in Ontario, although he has worked coast to coast, and even served some U.S. clients. But as a proud Canadian, he's keen to focus on his home province and won't sell to an area he doesn't plan to service, since the saddles require modifications or tweaking about twice a year.
Lowe's production is admittedly low—he makes about three a month and estimates he's created 400 saddles in the 10 years he's been in the trade—but his work appeals to a niche market in the horse-riding industry that's not easily filled by other companies. He supplements his custom work with repairs for a handful of European saddle companies, which is cheaper than shipping them back to Europe.
Lowe is currently looking to expand the business beyond his one-man operation, but is fiercely protective of his knowledge and the Paramount Saddlery brand. The successful candidate would ideally have the same passion for and dedication to the trade, who will respect the knowledge he's being given.
Since moving to the Sault six years ago, Lowe and his wife have had two children, and the young family has found the slower-paced Northern Ontario lifestyle a balm to the frantic pace of their former life.
Lowe enjoys the flexibility of working from home—he can easily transition from tradesman to husband and father-of-two at the end of the day—but emphasized he's not the typical self-employed businessman.
“I'm not a slave to my company,” Lowe laughed. “I'm probably not going to win entrepreneur of the year award for that, but at the same time, it's quality of life.”