The saddle makers

The numbers of pack horses are surely dwindling in the face of road-building programmes that now extend ever deeper into the hills, but the days of caravans are not yet over. One of the essential trades is saddle making, and it still continues, albeit now in just a few workshops. Lin Zhi, pictured here, is a third-generation saddle and tackle maker in the old walled town of Weishan, south of Dali on the Tea Horse Road, and perhaps remarkably, the pack saddles that he makes by hand have not changed in design for centuries. This is an unsung tradition, but the ingenious design repays close inspection. The loads carried by the mules and ponies were considerable, and put great demands on a comfortable and efficient saddle. The standard load was a dozen of the seven-bing stacks, wrapped in bamboo, on each side of the saddle. As each standard bing weighs a third of a kilo, the total was just over 50 kilos, and it had to be carried on rough trails over long days. According to 19th century accounts, the caravans started early each day, rested two or three hours during the middle of the day before continuing, and could cover about 30 kilometres in around eight hours. The wooden frame features two side panels shaped to the barrel of the horse, with a central gap so that no weight rests directly on the animal’s spine and to allow ventilation. The tackle had another distinctive feature to cope with the heavy load and rough terrain: the crupper securing the saddle to the base of the tail was (and still is) strung with bobbin-like wooden wheels, and these roll comfortably over the horse’s back instead of chafing.