Leesburg has no saddlery.

Though this town is a central part of Loudoun's horse country, the last tack shop in Leesburg closed its doors in December and horse enthusiasts are mourning it mightily.

The closure of Clifton Saddlery means they now must drive at least 20 minutes to buy riding gear.

"I will absolutely miss having them in Leesburg," said Marcia Keene, director of equestrian events at Morven Park and owner of a thoroughbred. "I've been going to them for a number of years. We purchased prizes for our shows there and would refer people from our shows there because we had a tack store right in town. There's nothing right in Leesburg. We'd love to have them back."

The popular store closed after its monthly rent was raised $900 and a former employee was charged with stealing cash and merchandise over the past four years. Sales already had been suffering because of the economic slowdown, said owner Sue Clairmonte, who could not find another location here.

"The store was doing relatively well," Clairmonte said. "It wasn't the best it had been, but it was certainly viable. . . . Leesburg is a growing area but still horsey. It's a terrible shame."

The store in the Bellwood Commons shopping center had been a mainstay for area riders since it opened in July 1996, selling saddles, horse gear, riding clothes and horse-related gifts and supplies. Now customers must drive to Middleburg for tack or to Dominion Saddlery in Chantilly or Saddlery and Such and Virginia Saddlery in Purcellville.

The original Clifton Saddlery Store, which opened in Clifton in Fairfax County in 1987 and which Clairmonte also owns, will remain open. But Clairmonte said she doesn't expect her Leesburg customers to make the trek.

Clairmonte said when she and her husband learned that their rent would rise from $1,350 a month to $2,250, they tried to find another site in Leesburg.

"We took it right to the bitter end to find another space," Clairmonte said. They found one that was not available until the end of this month, but their manager had already found a new job, making a reopening that much more difficult.

The theft problem also contributed to the closure, Clairmonte said.

"We really don't make a great deal doing this," Clairmonte said. "We had a couple years when we actually lost money. And to have this happen, when the staff was already not paid as well as they ought to be, it just kind of sealed it for us. We were just so discouraged. We're so trusting. The staff was devastated."

Running a tack store can be difficult, not only because of competition from other mom-and-pop operations such as Old Habit in Marshall and Dominion Saddlery in Middleburg, but also because of big cataloguers such as Miller's Harness Co., Dover and State Line Tack.

Clairmonte opened the Clifton store to help supplement the family income. Two of her three children, now grown, are riders, as are she and her husband, Gary, a government worker, who rode in Britain, from which the Clairmontes came. Clairmonte has horses at her house about a mile from the Clifton store but, because of the demanding business, has little time to ride.

When Clairmonte opened the Bellwood Commons store, the lease was a flat fee. Rich Vaaler, owner of Vaaler Real Estate in Leesburg, the Bellwood Commons property manager, said the couple did not have to pay the additional maintenance and insurance fees.

"They had a really, really good deal five years ago," he said. Then the landlord said the rent would have to rise to the market rate. "It was totally market driven," Vaaler said.

-- Amy Joyce

Sue Clairmonte, owner of Clifton Saddlery, helps Courtney Hyjek, 11, find the right helmet. At right is Courtney's mother, Diana Hyjek.