Beauty that can be both seen and felt is what Jeff Habighorst is creating through JH Leather Works and Saddlery. Whether he is crafting a saddle or a halter, Jeff is embracing his artistic gifts to give his customers one of a kind pieces. As a horseman that has grown up in the industry, he understands the value of form to function being the foremost priority for the foundation of his masterpieces. Jeff’s new endeavor is a labor of love that he is happily sharing with his children, both of whom are his greatest inspiration. By combining hard work and passion for his craft, Jeff is building a legacy that his daughters can carry on for years to come.
Jeff was born into the horse industry and has had the fortune of experiencing multiple facets of it. “I was blessed that my parents supported my horse career as a youth.” Jeff shared, “In my last year of youth I took five horses to the Youth World and showed them in ten or eleven events.” He was driven by teaching a horse new things and then showcasing that in the arena. This passion led him to explore a career as a horse trainer once he graduated from the youth events under the tutelage of Doug Lily. “I graduated a year early from high school, so during my final year of youth I was basically doing everything for my horses with Doug’s guidance. After that year, I thought to myself, well that wasn’t so bad, and things just naturally progressed to taking a role as an assistant trainer for Doug.” Jeff explained. A car accident cut his time with Doug short, but the lessons learned would last a lifetime. It gave him a firm foundation of horsemanship that would benefit his future career as a saddle maker.
Jeff then decided to come back home and explore different sides of the horse industry. His family not only had a leather shop, but they managed several successful horse shows such as the Budweiser Classic and Blue Ribbon Horse Show. “They would give away over 80 bronze trophies and 20 blue ribbon saddles.” Jeff said. By spending time in the shop and at the shows, he found his calling in leather work and customer relations. “My dad had the best leather crafters working for him at that time in the industry. The main crafter took an interest in me and shared his craft. He showed me how to do all the small things, including the hand stitching and all the intricate work. Because once you master the small stuff, you can easily go on to bigger things.” Jeff recalled. He took an instant liking to it, and within a few years the student became the teacher. Jeff was creating works of art in the leather shop that melded both his horsemanship and leather skills. However he found an even greater calling as he was working for the family business when it came to customer relations. “I was good with people, and eventually I became the one that everyone would call when there was an issue. I did my best to listen and to try to offer a solution that would make everyone happy.”
After working in the family business for 30 years, Jeff felt compelled to go out on his own and begin crafting his own path. “I got to the point where I felt myself and my kids needed a fresh start.” Jeff revealed. Jeff’s top priority in life is being there for his two girls and trying to be the best version of himself for them. “I learned after really giving up as much as I had in my personal life that my kid’s needed me more than anyone in the family and to be more present for them.” He is already seeing benefits of the switch as he can now attend his girl’s functions, spend long dinners with them and just listen to them chat, and even spend time with them in his shop teaching them a thing or two about leather working. “My little one challenges me more than anybody, both of my kids are very crafty, very artsy. Last year for Ftaher’s Day my oldest daughter made a t-shirt that was embroidered with ‘Dad established 2006’. I taught them how to hand stitch and work with leather. They would draw and I would teach them how to bring it to life through leather.” He even branded his business in their honor. “Both the girl’s names begin with the letter J, which was why I named my company JH Leather Works and Saddlery. So now they can use the brand as their own logo or use it just to learn.” Jeff explained with audible excitement in his voice. “My oldest is already taking college credit classes for photography and graphics. So between her mom and myself, she can start working on our social media and websites.” Both of his girl’s have a wonderful example in their father of someone that has taken the initiative to find their own niche and venture out to make it their own.
Jeff combines years of leather working experience and horsemanship skills to make his craftsmanship stand out from the rest. “There is 100% an aspect of horsemanship to creating a saddle. It’s hard to design something if you don’t have knowledge of all the different aspects of it and what it affects on the horse and rider.” He explained. His years at Doug’s taught him to pay attention to the tiny details and to realize the cause effect of making a change in equipment. The heart of a saddle is the tree, and Jeff takes pride in the process that he uses to create trees at JH Saddlery. “The groundwork is made from plugs, pieces of leather that we glue and nail on the three. We take knives and little slicing tools and that’s how you form and create the pocket on the tree. A lot of saddle makers don’t do that because of how much time it takes.” The benefit is getting consistent fit. The tree is your skeleton and it’s only as good as what you do with it afterwards. I have some who like a high rise, other’s like a low rise. By understanding the tree I can easily adjust to a client’s needs.” Jeff offers three different trees to his clients: the JH Vintage, JH Classic and JH Junior. The JH Vintage is his main all around tree. It rides as if you were riding a horse bareback, it will give the rider a more horsemanship type locked in feel. The JH Classic provides a higher rise feel and gives the rider a greater range of motion in their legs and seat. The JH Junior is the perfect in between of the first two trees, giving riders the best of both worlds between freedom and seat position.
One of his favorite parts of the process of designing a saddle is to sit down with his customer and listen to what they are dreaming of. He believes this process is such an integral part of creating the right piece of art for his customers that he built his home saddle shop around it. “I’m old school, and it felt like the industry was just becoming a machine that popped out cookie cutter saddles. I wanted to create a personal touch, which is why I built my shop with a bar in it so I could say to people, ‘Come to the shop, let’s have a beer together and build something really cool’.”
Most would describe Jeff’s saddle as works of art. They are crafted with rich, supple leathers in unique stains with skilled tooling that are sure to be one of a kind. Oddly enough, Jeff would not have described himself as an artist until he began working with leather in his later years. As he took to the tools, he found himself imagining different design combinations, and each saddle inspired him to create something more. “I want to do some different stuff, make it a little funky but still classy.” He said. “If I can’t make the best saddle and make it better than everyone else, then what’s the point?” This has given him a lot of freedom to explore the artist in him and to be able to explore techniques that may be outside the box. “The new saddle I made for Ryan Kail has a really cool tooled seat. I made another saddle for Troy Compton with an antiqued leather finish and dark floral accents.”
Although he is new to the scene, his fresh take on leather works is exactly what the industry is looking for. AQHA Professional Horseman and Judge Ryan Kail shared his experience with Jeff’s saddles. “We have loved everything we have gotten from Jeff. We have 8 to 10 saddles and versions of all three trees. The quality is second to none. His designs are innovative and a modern twist on quality western traditions. I love that I can ride in them all day without getting body sore. Also, these saddles are 5-10 pounds lighter than the ones we have used in the past.” Ryan isn’t the only one singing Jeff’s praises, multiple World and Congress Champion Troy Compton has worked closely with Jeff to bring his perfect seat to life. “Jeff understands the needs and wants of today’s modern horseman.
His key to success will be his open mindedness and his ability to cater to the customer’s needs. We changed quite a bit to get the perfect saddle for me and Jeff hit the mark spot on. His quality workmanship and attention to detail are second to none.” Troy shared.
The future of JH Leather Works and Saddlery is surely going to be one to follow. Jeff is going to lean into his creative side and allow the world to give him inspiration to shape whatever he makes next. “I’ve got all the pressure that I want to put on myself now. I’m having fun with what I create. I want to make the best product out there and if I decide I don’t want to do that anymore, I’ll just go be a greeter at Walmart.” Jeff said with a laugh. “The biggest force behind the brand is truly the girls and I’m looking forward to creating something great with and for them.”
By Lauren Stanley