In the late 1800s, Kentucky saddle maker Eugene Minihan created and marketed an innovative product that would give the horse-dependent population a more comfortable way to ride. In 2019 the Kentucky General Assembly dedicated it as the official saddle of the commonwealth.
“He is credited with coming up with what we call a spring seat saddle,” says saddle maker John Goble. “He learned that he could take a tree—the frame that a saddle is built on—cut a piece of the branch out, and replace it with a leather hinge, and the saddle would be flexible. Today they’re called flex trees. But he was the first guy, as far as we know, that came up with this idea.”
Minihan grew up on a farm in Nicholas County. At age 14, he moved to Covington for an apprenticeship in Cincinnati, where he started his vocational education in making saddles. He later moved to Owingsville to establish his own business in the trade.
“He didn’t want to just make a saddle and say come in and buy it,” says Goble. “He wanted you to come in and to see your frame, and then he would build a saddle that he thought would fit you best and fit a horse the best.”
A printed history of Minihan’s business still exists in the archives of Owingsville’s historic newspapers.
“He was a pretty sharp guy,” says local historian Tom Byron. “He’d been in the advertising business as well. He always had, in the Owingsville Outlook, the upper right-hand spot, every week. He had a different little ad every week. ‘Yours for the best saddles and harness.’ He was a marketer, that’s for sure.”
In addition to the revolutionary spring seat, buyers could identify a Minihan saddle by their quilted seats.
“Each saddle maker usually had his own [quilted seat] pattern… Mr. Minihan seemed to use more than one pattern,” says Goble. “A quilted seat is particular to a Kentucky stich seat saddle or some plantation-type saddles. There’s some cushion, and you really appreciate that on a long ride. These little raised places will let some air under there, which causes it to ride cool. It also gives some texture that you can ride against. It’ll keep you secure in that saddle; it’s not just a slick seat.
“There was a purpose [to the quilting] besides being beautiful,” says Goble. “But when you get them done, I think they are beautiful.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2519, which originally aired on July 18, 2020. Watch the full episode.