Mother-daughter duo Abby and Amber Wighton have built a kid-empowering business and a powerful relationship, and it’s all thanks to horses.
By Rachel Griffin
It’s 6 a.m. and 10-year-old Abby Wighton is up before the California sun has kissed the horizon. While her brother, Beau, is still snoring away inside the house, Abby’s already in the barn, currying circles into the copper-and-white coat of her best friend, Bandit.
Once Bandit’s coat is groomed to Abby’s satisfaction, she swings her saddle onto his back in one effortless move. Slipping on his bridle and smoothing his forelock over the sequined cutouts of his browband, Abby leads Bandit out of the barn and toward adventure.
Sunlight shimmers off the saddle as Bandit’s hooves mark an easy rhythm down the grass-lined path behind Abby’s home. Bandit knows the way, so Abby loosens his reins and lets her thoughts roam free, pondering her pre-teen responsibilities and all the opportunities her future might hold. Anything is possible, and Abby knows it. After all, she’s already an entrepreneur, riding in the saddle she designed and sells herself.
Abby wasn’t always such an independent rider. From age 5 to 8, hoisting up a heavy Western saddle—without waiting for her mom, Amber, to come help—required some ingenuity.
“My first horse was really tall, and my mom’s old saddle was so heavy and plain-looking. I’d have to put my saddle up on top of my head, then jump up and fling it on my mare’s back. Then I’d climb up on a stool to move it into the right place,” Abby recounted. “I wished I had a fun saddle that was easy to put on my horse without having to call for my mom to come help me.”
Surely, Abby thought, she wasn’t the only kid struggling with her saddle.
“We were listening to a business podcast in the car one day, and Abby tells me, ‘I want to start a business,’ ” Amber said. “I asked her what she would sell, and she said, ‘I want to make lightweight saddles for kids.’ ”
But Abby’s idea didn’t stop there, and she described a saddle with unique designs—ones with unicorns, coral-colored cutouts, built-in pockets for treats and more—that only a child’s imagination could conjure. The depth of Abby’s dream made Amber, who’d successfully built a product business before, sit up and take notice.
“I heard the passion in Abby’s voice as we talked, and she described things I’d never seen before on a saddle and solved a problem,” Amber said. “So, I decided to help her pursue the business and use the opportunity to show her the ins and outs of starting a company. More importantly, I wanted to show her how to take action on a dream; even though we didn’t know all the correct steps to take, we would figure it out.”
The mother-daughter duo launched Riding Free Tack in 2017 with three designs for their cornerstone lightweight, synthetic saddle: The Unicorn, Coral Dreamin’ and the baseball-themed Home Run. Since then, the business has grown by 120 percent and swelled to offering 39 different products including full tack sets, cowboy boots and more.
Newer designs include iridescent inlays of “mermaid skin,” embroidered florals and—Abby’s current favorite—“flippy” hearts made of the virally trendy two-sided sequins, which let riders change the hearts’ colors with a brush of their hand.
“Abby’s designs put a lot of the magic and fun of being a kid right into a physical product; she takes all the things that little kids dream of and brings them to life,” Amber said.
The child-friendly features, though, add up to something more magical than sparkles: empowered pint-sized riders. The saddles’ synthetic, leather-like material holds up for rainy playdays or spilled drinks, padded seats make longer rides more comfortable, built-in pockets hold riding necessities safely, and buckle-style stirrups mean even younger riders can adjust to the right length. Best of all, the saddles are only half the weight of their traditional 30-pound-plus counterparts.
“We made saddling so much easier; I don’t even need a stool anymore! Now, I can get to the riding part faster,” Abby quipped.
That independence is a powerful feeling for youth, and Amber knows it—plus having the tools to help them be successful in the first few minutes spent with their horse—can make the difference between a child becoming a lifelong rider or losing interest in the sport.
“It can be so discouraging to struggle with saddling for a child, especially when they haven’t quite developed that do-anything-for-horses passion yet; Abby had that passion from the start, but my son, Beau, didn’t,” Amber said. “We’ve kept Beau engaged in horses through our saddles because now he can go out with his horse and be an independent young man.
Customers agree, and Amber fields dozens of daily messages raving about parents’ delight in seeing their children flourish while using their Riding Free saddles.
Rancher and businesswoman Mary Heffernan uses her account @Fivemarysfarm to chronicle her business adventures and life raising four young daughters on her family’s cattle ranch in Fort Jones, California, to more than 122,000 fans. She became an instant enthusiast of Abby’s lightweight saddles after watching her girls—who are hardworking but still no match for cumbersome traditional saddles—flourish with their newfound tacking self-sufficiency.
“My husband and I almost gave up on our dreams of our girls riding horses on the ranch; we just didn’t have the time to be out there to tack up all the horses every time they wanted to ride,” Mary said. “[Riding Free Tack] changed the whole game. All of the sudden, the girls could head out to the horses themselves, tack up, grab their helmets and ride in our round pen to their hearts’ content.
The saddles gave them so much confidence and the ability to ride their horses independently.”
This is an excerpt from the Spring 2020 issue of Chrome—get Chrome magazine by becoming an APHA member at apha.com/join.