By Julienne du Toit. Photographs by Chris Marais
There is a large horse standing wide-eyed but quite still on Middelburg’s main road. It is a fibreglass model, and for years has been the unmistakable mascot of GDE Leather, one of the town’s most famous enterprises.
The founder is horse-mad Engela Kruger, who used to breed saddle horses outside Olifantsfontein in the Kalahari. When a drought nearly crippled her family’s Karakul business in 1989, she started a small tannery on the farm and began to make hand-crafted leather saddles.
This bespoke saddlery business was so successful that she and her husband Gert sold their farm and moved to the Eastern Karoo – real horse country – to open GDE Leather in 1991.
Engela now employs 17 people, all individually trained. They create bridles, saddles, stirrups, halters, martingales, nosebands and saddlebags. But GDE Leather is also well known for supplying leather riempies to furniture makers, hunting accessories as well as handbags, wallets and purses.
They make shoes, sandals, sheepskin slippers and boots too, as well as a rather obscure but crucial item for the platteland: leather washers for windmills.
But GDE Leather is really all about horses. Everything you could possibly need for a horse (or a donkey) is here, including blinkers, blankets, boots, horse bandages and cart harnesses. Engela also purchases some of her goods, like cinches and other saddle parts, from an all-women Xhosa empowerment group that works with sheepskin and mohair.