By Tanya Randall The Bethune family.The Bethune family.

            Jerry Bethune of Pro Rider Saddlery in Flat Rock, Ala., has one simple philosophy when it comes to making saddles. It’s a philosophy that he’s passed on to his sons—Jeremy, who operates Pro Rider Custom Saddles in Seale, Ala., and Jarret, who works with him in the shop in Flat Rock.

            “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he says. “If it works for the horse and works for the rider, then it works for us.”

            That old cliché says a lot. And, for the Bethune family, with their hands-on, non-assembly line saddles, it means the world.

“Our saddles endorse themselves,” Jerry proudly notes. “We’re not really that well known out West. We’ve never really been out that direction, although there are plans in the future to change all that.”

Bethune’s Pro Rider is a Southeastern staple when it comes to barrel racing saddles. They also have a strong following in the Northeast and Midwest.

“We don’t have them all over the United States,” he says, noting that his business is a hands-on family affair.

While Jerry builds a lot of trophy saddles and custom saddles for a client base developed over 30 years of saddle making, Jeremy does a lot of custom work, including the Brett Monroe Signature Series.

            “It’s the same product,” says Jeremy. “The best way to describe it is the same business with two locations. However, if someone is wanting a truly custom saddle, I will do all that I’m able to do to give them what they truly want.”

Pro Rider Saddlery

Jerry, now 60, was just 13 when he started building saddles under the guidance of his brother-in-law at Lookout Saddles.

            “In the summers, I’d go stay with my sister and work for him building saddles,” he remembers. “As I got older, I got more involved in it. It’s really all I know; it’s all I’ve ever done.”

            For many years, Jerry ran an Alabama-based saddle shop for Action Company in McKinney, Texas. In 1989, he went out on his own. After making numerous saddles for different barrel racers, he came out with the Pro Rider in the mid-1990s.

            “On our barrel racing saddles, we worked with a lot of people to design a saddle that would be comfortable for the horse and comfortable for the rider, too,” says Jerry, who over the years has built saddles for Troy Crumrine, Brett Monroe, Jason and Leslie Willis, Jimmy and Jamie Cagle, Jane Melby, Craig Brooks, Mike and Janelle Green just to name a few.

The secret to the saddle is the bar design in the tree. Pro Rider SaddlePro Rider Saddle

“It’s just the way it sits on a horse and the way it rides,” he says. “They don’t pitch you up out of them. You can get your feet forward like you need to.”

Jeremy elaborates, “You can easily stay in the correct position with little effort. The way the fender is designed you can easily get your feet forward. There’s time when you want your feet underneath you, but you never want them behind you.”

Jerry continues, “We’ve got our horn set to where it’s there when you need it. It took us a while to get it to be something that everyone likes. These saddles are comfortable. We try to meet the consumers’ needs—if they need a wider gullet. We use the same tree but we can have a wider gullet or a narrow gullet, a high back or lower back—whatever they want.”

Jarrett, the youngest son, also builds with his father. He started hand-carving saddles when he was 16, and is responsible for all of the hand-carved lettering on all the trophy saddles. Jarrett also recently launched a line of tack, which can be customized or built-to-match saddles.

Pro Rider Custom

Jeremy started learning the trade at 13 from his father. After graduating high school in 2001, Jeremy tried a career as a welder, but didn’t like the lifestyle of being on the road, so he went to work for his father.

            In 2011, after meeting his wife Lesley, a barrel racer, Jeremy moved to Seale, Ala., and took a portion of the saddle business with him, including the Brett Monroe Signature Series originally designed by his father for the leading futurity trainer and rider.

            Rather than a making a Pro Rider and marketing it with Monroe’s name, Jerry worked with Monroe to build a similarly functional, but uniquely formed saddle. As such, the saddle has some differences from a Pro Rider.

            “It’s got a different bar and a different swell,” notes Jeremy. “It’s different, yet it’s similar in a lot of ways.”

            Brett’s wife Nicole, who sells a lot of the saddles, explains further, “Our swells are different. They taper back just a little bit more compared to the Pro Rider. Ours has a little deeper ride to it than the Pro Rider. The Pro Rider feels a little flatter to me in the seat. The saddle rides great. Your feet don’t get behind you. Most people who sit in our saddles love them because they don’t throw them forward.”

            When Jeremy took over production in the Signature Series, he also customized the look by offering more cosmetic designs like buck stitching, alternative tooled designs and different skirt cuts.

            Jeremy also builds some all-around and cutting saddles, and would like to add a roping saddle—“when rodeo producers call to order trophy saddles, they generally want a package order with a few of everything—rope saddles, barrel saddles,” he notes—but 90 percent of his business is barrel racing saddles.

“The barrel saddles keep me busy,” he said. “The only thing that we buy that we don’t make is our trees. The saddle is 100 percent handcrafted at my shop. I do all the building, 100 percent hands-on, just me. That way I can keep tabs on everything and make sure everything’s right.”

Hands-On

            Jeremy estimates the family puts out about 1,000 saddles a year. Most of their sales are from long-term customers, by word-of-mouth or from booths at the few shows in the Southeast they attend each year. Eager to grow the business, Jeremy hopes to double that number as they expand their marketing and event exposure westward across the United States.

“If I can get someone to ride in one of our saddles, I can generally sell it to them because it’s comfortable,” says Jerry.

            Not much has changed since the Pro Rider was first developed, but Jeremy has noticed that the horses are getting broader, largely due to selective barrel breeding and improved feeding programs.

            “It used to be where you didn’t hear of anyone needing a 7 ½” gullet, but it’s pretty common now,” he says. “The last six or seven years, the 7” has become the norm and the 7 ½” is the wide tree,” said Jeremy, who noted that larger trees are in the works but not on the market yet. He also cautioned against getting too caught up in the measurements, because each saddlemaker is likely to measure differently.

            The best way, he says, is to have the maker personally fit your horse if at all possible.

            “We have a lot of people come by to have their horse fitted,” he says. “My wife Lesley has barrels and poles set up here to where our customers can actually try the different saddles to make sure they get the perfect fit for them and their horse.

“You always want to get the right fit. If you don’t have the right fit, it’s all downhill from there. I’ve had people drive 10 hours with one horse to have their horse fitted. I’ve had people try to send me pictures, but that’s almost always impossible. It’s always best if you can be there in person to fit that animal.”

            Aside from a few variations in gullet with to meet an expanding range of horses, the Bethune saddle has remained the same.

            “There are so many philosophies on saddles out there,” says Jeremy, “and I don’t know which ones are wrong and which ones are right. I know with us, we have this one tree, and we can change the fit, but we hardly have to get those forms out. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s been working for us since 1997. We don’t really advertise anywhere, except for on my wife’s Facebook page. Our saddles are practically selling themselves.”

            Jerry says the family has been blessed with a successful business.

            “We’re not the biggest name in the business,” says Jerry, “but here in the Southeast, Pro Rider is a big name.”

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