Take a behind-the-scenes look at how saddles are made.
Slinging a saddle over your horse’s back is second nature. It’s so ingrained in your routine that you could likely do it blindfolded. You trust that your saddle fits you and your horse, enabling the best performance possible. You have faith in the craftsmanship that it won’t break or fall apart mid-ride.
But how often have you stopped to consider what it takes to build the saddle you rely on for your success and safety?
The average saddle contains about 20 different parts and pieces, ranging from the cuts of leather that become the latigo, stirrup, fenders and seat to the tree, and the hardware that holds it all together. Despite the rise of mechanization, the top barrel saddle makers continue making saddles largely by hand.
Even when die-cut tools are used, not every piece can be mechanically cut. Some pieces of leather can only be hand-cut and fitted to the tree. It can take 40 hours or more of handwork to create a saddle from start to finish, according to Matt Wanner, production president for Burns Saddlery. Custom saddles can take even longer.
“There are about 16 craftsmen out in the shop just building saddles right next to those building boots,” Wanner said. “We’ve built a system where individuals specialize in building specific pieces of the saddle, making it a lot faster than one person building a saddle themselves.”
To achieve the level of quality and craftsmanship customers demand, it requires a skilled and steady hand. Longevity, a rarity in most industries, is commonplace among saddle makers. Saddle makers rely on employees who were hired decades ago to continue the tradition with their own work and by mentoring aspiring craftsmen interested in joining the trade.
“We have skilled craftsmen who have been here for a decade and longer,” explained the late Brian Peterson in a recorded interview while he served as general manager at Martin Saddlery. “Every detail must be selected, whether it is headed to a retail store order or to an individual.”
Saddle design and construction is a balance between tradition and innovation. Since the 1950s, little has changed in the way saddles are made, such as using nails, glue and hand stitching the parts of the saddle together.
While the basic process of saddle making has largely remained the same, modifications in seat shape, the arcs and angles of the trees and the shape of the fenders have been developed to provide riders with better feel, poising them for improved communication with their horse.
Trained craftsmen and -women are integral to building the barrel saddles that blend horse and rider comfort with eye appeal. In this article, we take a behind-the-scenes look at how two saddle makers approach the process and what you need to know about caring for your investment.
Choosing the Hide
Selecting the right piece of leather is an art form itself. The leather must have the proper integrity — meaning it will hold up to intense wear — and the right amount of usable space — meaning few blemishes like brands, scratches or even buckshot.
In general, leather falls into three grade classifications.
Grade A allows for one to two minor defects in the prime areas and three to four defects in the non-prime areas.
Grade B can have up to three or four defects in the prime areas, 6 to 12 inches of damage or waste, and some small holes in the non-prime areas of the hide.
Grade C has more than 12 inches of damage or waste and color variation. The damaged area might include a rancher’s brand, a blemish or a scar from when a cow got a cut or scratch. Ultimately, that mark or blemish remains in the hide and shows up on lower quality purchases.
“Grade B doesn’t mean the leather is not as good of quality, but using Grade A eliminates the problem of waste in getting all the parts and pieces needed. We use Grade B leather to make things like belts and holsters, because we can usually work our patterns around blemishes,” Wanner said. “For our saddles, we use Grade A Hermann Oak Leather and Wickett & Craig Leather, because we know it is nice leather and will last a long time.”
Choosing high-quality leather is only part of the equation. Selecting sections from within the hide for specific places on the saddle is equally important.
“We use 100% Hermann Oak Leather and Grade A pieces of leather based on what it is required to do and its cosmetics,” Peterson said. “It’s all about using the right sides of the leather and using it the best way we can. The flesh side is used for rough-out parts of the saddle, and the grain side is used in a smooth-out saddle with tooling or a stain.”
For example, the back, butt, and shoulder from a hide are considered prime areas that contain more integrity to withstand the wear and tear on the seat jockey, the fenders, and the stirrup leathers. The belly section of the hide usually becomes the swell area of the saddle because it is more pliable, given that this section of the cow’s body is constantly moving and stretching. The hide thickness also factors into where and how it’s used, because leather is naturally stiff, especially after it’s been wet.
“Our barrel saddle line uses a 12-ounce hide, and our ranch/ rope line is made with 16-ounce,” Wanner said. “We use the 12-ounce on barrel saddles to shorten the break in time.”
Hides: A Craftsman’s Canvas
After the hide is selected, it is cut, tooled, dyed and oiled as individual pieces. Next steps in the process can vary by saddle maker. For some, each piece of leather is hand cut. For others, select pieces, such as fenders, may be cut using a steel die formed into a pattern called a clicker cutter to speed up production and add an element of uniformity.
From there, intricate designs are hand tooled onto the skirting, fenders and other areas of the saddle. Artisans use tools the size of a fountain pen to add the floral, acorn, roses and other patterns to the leather.
“Our craftsmen free-hand one of the 15 styles we have tooling patents on,” Peterson said. “Then, they use hand stamping tools to create the picture on the leather. We also hand-paint the buck stitch rather than putting in buck stitch, because it is pushed into the leather and doesn’t wear off and can easily be touched up. If you don’t like it, you can always change the color.”
Six full-time toolers carve each intricate design into the leather at Burns Saddlery. Wanner and his colleague Lexi Hall draw all the new patterns that guide the craftsmen’s work. Tooling for every piece, except for the swell, is completed before assembly.
“[The toolers] are talented and work so hard,” Wanner said. “It is really cool to watch them work.”
The Tree Shop
The tree is as critical as leather. Building one is an artform, and explaining the process could fill a separate article. Saddle makers either build the tree in-house or buy from a specialized tree maker. For example, Burns Saddlery partners with a skilled tree maker, whereas Martin Saddlery makes the trees in-house using patented templates to cut the wood into specific sizes and angles.
“The tree is the most important part of the saddle for the horses,” Wanner said. “The bars are made into different widths and can fit the majority of horses. We don’t claim saddles fit every horse, so sometimes we do a custom tree to fit a specific horse.”
Pine is the preferred wood. While the majority of quality saddle trees are made from wood, they may be covered in fiberglass or rawhide covering to protect the wood.
“Once the wood is cut to size and assembled, it is kiln dried to reduce the moisture content so it does not twist or move,” Peterson said.
The ground seat, which puts the rider in the correct position for their respective discipline, is built on top of the tree and requires multiple layers of leather to achieve the desired thickness. In barrel saddles, the ground seat is typically flat with a mid to deep depth.
“Leather for the seat is hand cut, the edges are burnished, and it is submersed in water so the craftsman can begin forming the flat piece of leather into the ground seat,” Wan- ner explained. “The ground seat and the cantle are the hardest pieces to do without creating wrinkles or flaws. It’s a two-hour ordeal to get a seat in and to add the pad- ded, inlaid piece.”
Once the seat is in, it’s time for the cantle binding — a hand-stitched step that brings multiple pieces of leather together. Then, the saddle goes to the dry rack, and a draw down strap is applied for at least 24 hours.
“I implemented this a long time ago, because it helps keep that seat tighter and less floppy,” Wanner added.
While the tree and seat are being built by select craftsmen, others are working on assembling the fenders, stirrups, billets, back cinches, latigos and latigo carriers. Oiling, a multi-day process, also occurs at this stage. The oil is applied, allowed to sit and dry, and applied at least once, sometimes twice.
“We watch where the coloring is settling to make sure it is even,” Peterson said. “We oil all leather with 100% Neatsfoot oil, including any areas with a weathered, antiqued finish to make leather more supple, a little easier to break in and get rid of the squeak so that you’re not spending two months breaking it in.”
An application of polish and lacquer occur in the final stages. Rough-out areas do not get polished but are still treated with a lacquer shine to protect the leather from the elements. One final inspection for quality and accuracy is completed before it leaves the shop to ensure the customer receives what was ordered.
Making it Last
A properly cared-for saddle can last a lifetime. Keeping it in top shape includes maintenance, like repairs to ripped or torn leather, cleaning and oiling. The care required can vary based on how frequently you use the saddle and how it is stored.
“If it’s stored in a tack room that is not hot or in a lot of wet and dry conditions, you can use a mild oil or light conditioner to keep it at that pliable level. A light conditioner is not drastic; think of it like something you would put on your skin,” Peterson said. “In extreme cases, like being stored in the back of a hot trailer or getting soaking wet 10 times a year, you need to replenish it with a heavier oil like Neatsfoot oil. Horse sweat does the same thing to a saddle as moisture.”
Wanner cautions that before oiling the saddle must be cleaned, otherwise trapped dirt prematurely breaks down the leather. He explains the process for thorough cleaning and conditioning and acknowledges that most riders who follow these instructions for a deep clean typically send the saddle in for a clean-up rather than taking a DIY approach.
“We use soap and water, preferably warm water, a medium bristle scrub brush and Dawn dish soap to scrub out the grime,” Wanner said. “Then we let it dry out and put Neatsfoot oil back on, just like when it was new.”
This article was originally published in the November 2023 issue of Barrel Horse News.