Ever since Richard Vidinha was a boy, he decided that whatever someone else could do, he could do, too — and probably better.
“In my mind, I say, ‘If that guy can do it, why can’t I do it? I get two arms, two legs, same like him,’” he says in his strong, gravelly voice, with a hint of Pidgin English. “Maybe he going to beat me, but he gotta go like hell, you know?”
It was natural, then, that when Richard was a saddle-maker, he became known for his fine quality and craftsmanship. Now 89 years old and retired, he is still revered by other saddle-makers in Hawaii, and by all those who have owned Richard Vidinha saddles for decades.
Born and raised in the tiny town of Kekaha, on the Westside of the Hawaiian island of Kauai, Richard learned the art of making saddles the Hawaiian way from his grandfather, Manuel Andrade, Sr., with whom he was living.
Manuel was a “hard-headed” man who immigrated to Kauai from Portugal in the late 1800s. Their saddle-making lessons began when Manuel was 75 years old.
“The trouble with old people, they’ll do things but they won’t explain to you how,” Richard says. “It’s up to you to observe and learn from them because they’re not the talking type.”
Observe he did, but after they made two saddles together, Manuel passed away.
Richard began tinkering around with saddle-making until he created his own style — and quality.
One of his signatures is that his saddle tree, the frame around which a saddle is constructed, is created from one solid piece of wood, normally monkeypod. This is much more challenging and time-consuming than standard modern techniques, in which multiple pieces of wood are glued or screwed together.
“If the seat of a saddle is one piece, it won’t split. That’s Hawaiian style. It’s safer for the horse and for the rider,” Richard says. “When you see a horse in the pasture with a big white spot on his back, that’s because the saddle has hurt that horse.”
The curvature of the seat on Richard Vidinha saddles is also Hawaiian-style, allowing the rider to sink right down into it comfortably. To a non-rider, this sounds logical, but Richard assures that’s not always the case.
“You buy a million saddles, what the seat is? It’s rounded up. A human body isn’t curved up like that,” he says. His philosophy: “You want a saddle to fit your body, not your body to fit the saddle.”
Once the saddle tree is ready, rawhide needs to be stretched over it. Richard always did this part by hand, by himself, First, he got a hide from a slaughterhouse. Then he boiled it in a tub of water with a bit of lime, and left it to soak overnight. In the morning, after cleaning all the hair and tissue from the hide, he began sewing.
To stitch the rawhide, it takes seven hours.
“We use one long needle with a large eye, same kind of needle they use for sewing burlap bags,” he said.
It’s a lot of work to make a saddle the Hawaiian way, but for Richard, it was always worth it.
“When I make a saddle, I guarantee to the person that the saddle won’t hurt the horse and won’t hurt the rider. If it does, they can bring it back and I’ll fix it,” he says. “For 40 years, not one came back yet. Plenty people I sold to say my saddles are the most comfortable they ever rode.”
Richard’s first indication that with the proper mindset, he could do whatever he wanted, was when he was a teenager, racing horses on Kauai’s Wailua track and also around Kekaha park. He routinely won races against adult jockeys.
“I was 13 years old, 90 pounds and not even five feet tall yet. I used to ride against the professionals,” he says.
He remembers one race in 1940 as clearly as if it was yesterday. It took place at the three-quarter mile Wailua track, where the Wailua Golf Course is now located. He rode in 14 or 15 races that day.
“I used to ride a horse named Mahina Hapa. Nobody could beat that horse. Was such a gentle horse,” he recalls fondly. “Everybody was betting on this horse that I’m riding.”
In those days on Kauai, there were no starting gates; somebody walked each horse up to the starting line, and when the starter dropped a flag, the race began.
“The guy leading Mahina Hapa to the gate, he turned that horse around, so we were facing the wrong way when the flag dropped. By the time I turned the horse around, the other guys were gone!
“But when we reached the quarter-mile pole, I was leading all the horses. We won the race!” he says, with a satisfied laugh.
When Richard was 17, he took up baseball for the first time. The day he showed up on the field, he was told the team needed a shortstop, so that’s what he became, right there on the spot.
“In 1953, ’54 and ’55, the major leaguers used to come to Kauai and I played against them. Yogi Berra, Eddie Matthews, Whitey Ford, Eddie Lopat,” he says. “In one game, I made two hits against the major leaguers!”
Richard learned early to be self-reliant: his mother died when he was 10 years old; his father died when he was 14. He lived with an uncle and aunt in Kekaha until he was drafted into the United States Army in World War II, and served for 18 months. When he was discharged, he lived with his grandfather, until his grandfather died.
Along the way, he learned the value of saving his money.
“When I came out of the service, I had $300. From that I had to pay rent, buy clothing and look for a job,” he says. “When I got married, I had a refrigerator bought, a washing machine bought, a stove bought. I have a four-bedroom house and I never borrowed one cent.”
He worked for Amfac Sugar as a warehouseman, until that sugar plantation closed their doors. Then he began a 25-year career with the Kauai Police Department, earning promotions to the ranks of sergeant and lieutenant, eventually retiring as a captain.
But saddle-making has always been his passion.
“When I started making saddles, I used to sell them for $500 and it would take me about two or three weeks to complete one. Not even a dollar an hour paying myself,” he says.
“But when I see somebody who bought a saddle from me, and I ask them, ‘How’s the saddle?’ I feel good that I did something good, something that lasts.
“When I’m making a saddle, I’m making the best.”
Pamela Varma Brown is the publisher of “Kauai Stories,” “Kauai Stories 2,” and “Kauai In My Heart.” Visit www.writepath.net