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Forty years ago, a former Lexington paramedic decided he was going to try his hand at leather work. Now he runs a leather shop that has served Triple Crown winner Secretariat, and brings in customers from as far away as Dubai, Australia and France.
Quillin Leather & Tack opened in 1982 in a two-story wood framed house that was converted into the workshop-office-showroom hybrid that it is today. The company was founded by Ralph Quillin, a Lexington native and former paramedic with the Lexington Fire Department whose interest in custom leather goods began as a side hobby.
The first thing Quillin made was a leather belt. Everything Quillin knows about customized leather goods was self-taught, so when he bought a farm and moved in Bourbon County, he thought he could give customized horse halters a stab.
A halter is a piece of headgear used to hold, lead and tie up an assortment of animals, including horses. Key tags, belts, dog collars and horse halters are some of the custom products offered by Quillin Leather & Tack.
Horse halters are the company’s featured item, as they’ve made halters for premier stallions in the horse racing industry, including Flightline, who won the 2022 Breeder’s Cup. Other former customers include Secretariat, the winner of the 1973 Triple Crown, and Storm Cat, a successful racehorse and sire whose stud fee once reached $500,000, one of the highest fees at the time.
HOW A HORSE HALTER IS MADE Quillin said it takes 156 steps to make a halter. There are also 150 variations of sizes, colors and styles that could go into a halter, which makes Quillin’s halters even more special. “If things go smoothly, the two halter makers that are down there can probably produce 75 to 85 halters a day,” Quillin said.
The halter making process starts with the shipment of 25-square-foot leather sheets from a distributor in Louisville called Thoroughbred Leather. Quillin Leather & Tack has a machine that will cut the leather into straps, then the straps are cut and altered to make them the proper size for a halter. The edges of the straps are then smoothed, folded and stitched together.
“Every piece of the cow makes a different part,” Quillin said. “It’s not like making a table out of plywood where you can just cut the board up and go to town. It’s ‘this part of the cow goes here’ and ‘this part goes there.’” Once the halter is made, it’s dipped in dye to give it color. The leather originally comes in a manila color. Using dye allows the makers to color it the way a customer wants. “It’s an English bridle leather but we still end up dipping it because we just like the flavor and the color and the warmth that we get out of the leather once it’s dipped,” Quillin said. The dye and customization of the halters also help with the longevity of the product. Quillin said they’ve repaired some halters that were upwards of 20 years old. “It’s one of those things – we got to grow the business because we’re not going to get repeat customers because the stuff lasts so long,” Quillin said laughingly.
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