Sophia Stratford is on a mission to improve horse welfare in New Zealand . . . the long way round.

The 19-year-old is about to head to the United Kingdom to start her studies to become a qualified saddler and saddle fitter. Her journey started when she was just 14 and read an article about saddle making . . . the rest is history. She started digging into how she could pursue a career that blended her love of horses with a desire to help horses in a far wider sense.

“The only full time saddlery course I could find was at Capel Manor College in England,” said Sophia. There she will study the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers’ Diploma in Saddle, Harness and Bridle Making. The college does not have international student accreditation and post Brexit, only those eligible for a five-year British visa are able to attend. Capel Manor takes a maximum of 12 students annually.

While it seems a “no-brainer” to study in the UK, it’s not cheap with a cost of nearly $50,000 for the first year. She isn’t eligible for a student loan and hasn’t had much luck applying for scholarships and grants as most charitable foundations don’t support individuals. Sophia is working full time at her local Cambridge supermarket and trying to sell her beloved horse Digger.

Ironically, it is Digger who has inspired her to follow her dreams. “I could easily go on forever about him,” she says. Sophia’s equestrian journey started when she was just five years old after pestering her parents to let her attend a riding school. She loved a few ponies as her own before buying Digger – the first horse she owned 100% on her own. “We’ve taught each other a lot and he got me into saddles and showjumping,” says Sophia.

But it has also been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. “I took him from bucking me off at the quietest of practice days to falling asleep ringside at Takapoto and competing at 1.1m. He is built like a brick and is a very expressive lad so that is how he sparked my interest in saddles. I wound up getting him something completely custom made.”

Sophia’s own journey hasn’t been without hiccups. Her dad, who had been hugely supportive of her career plans, died suddenly when she was just 17 and en route to a show, so it has just been her, elder sister Maddy, and mum Sarah Fraser for a couple of years now.

She’s lucky she has family and friends in the UK but admits living on her own in a foreign country is a bit scary. “Moving so far away from my family and having to fend for myself is daunting.”

The saddlery course is a two year full time course followed by a one year apprenticeship. The saddle fit training is made up of block courses. “I have tried to shadow many fitters but it has never really worked out so I just sneak into as many saddle fitting appointments as I can to watch and learn.”

According to the Society of Master Saddlers website there are just six full qualified saddle fitters in New Zealand. Sophia says there is so much more to saddle fitting than seat and gullet size. “Because there is no industry regulation for most measurements or really any way to measure the other aspects, it often gets boiled down to those but there is a reason saddle fitters have a job,” she says. “I would really love to make a difference and improve horse welfare but more specifically I want to make this career more accessible to Kiwis.”

Sophia has set up a givealittle page in case anyone would like to help her on her way.

Sophia with her beloved Digger, who she is selling to fund her dream of being a qualified saddler and saddle fitter in the UK. Photo by Serena Wyers of Serena Photography