The Ride Stuff
The custom saddlemaking has mostly gone the way of gunfights at high noon. But a small cadre of saddlers still ply their trade despite dwindling demand and competition from mass-produced saddles.
Using considerations such as intended use, proper fit, client preferences and budget, local saddlemakers transform leather, rawhide, wood and stainless steel into heirloom-quality functional art.
For third generation saddlemakers Bret and Greg Mock of Sand Springs, the start of any custom build begins with a discussion about what type of riding a client does. After all, the saddle requirements for an occasional trail rider won’t be the same as those for an arena competitor or working cowboy. The intended use dictates the type of saddle needed.
Most saddle clients at Mock Brothers Saddlery fall into three categories — working cowboys, team ropers and barrel racers. Each requires a slightly different set of saddle criteria to satisfy the demands of their respective discipline.
Working ranch and roping competitors need a heavy-duty saddle designed to hold up to hard riding, which includes roping cattle. A barrel racer, whose goal is to turn three barrels in the fastest time, needs a lighter saddle with a close-contact, secure seat.
Once use and the type of saddle have been determined, a saddlemaker looks to fit both horse and rider.
The origin of Western-style ranch and roper saddles can be traced to the Mexican vaquero saddle of the 1700s that was an updated version of the Spanish war saddle that evolved from those used by Moorish horsemen.
As in the past, saddles used today need to feel comfortable to both horse and rider, and what the horse and rider do together may vary from a gentle trail ride to barrel racing, reining, cutting, roping, and more. Maybe you need it only occasionally. Maybe you sit in it eight hours a day, seven days a week. And a custom handmade saddle will buy you all the difference in the world.
The bottom line is, if the saddle doesn’t fit well, you won’t have a great working horse. It’s like if you have a pair of shoes that don’t fit right, you won’t want to run in them. It’s the same with a horse. If a saddle doesn’t fit properly, that horse isn’t going to give you 100 percent.
The saddle tree is the foundation of every saddle and one of the most customizable pieces of the saddlemaking process. It distributes the rider’s weight over the horse’s back, making it more efficient and comfortable for the horse.
A tree is comprised of several basic parts — a pair of bars, which run parallel and connect the front swell to the back cantle, a horn and an open space beneath the swell called the gullet. Each part can be adjusted for best fit, as well as discipline suitability.
Saddle trees are made of wood, plastic and composites. The four most commonly used include:
- Traditional: handmade, rawhide- covered wood like Ponderosa Pine, Beachwood, Ash, Cottonwood, Douglas Fir, etc.
- Synthetic: Factory molded from materials like plastic, Rawhide or fiberglass.
- Treeless: A factory crafted, rubber pad type tree.
- Flex Tree: Manufactured with floating polyurethane bars designed to flex and move with a horse’s back.
Bret and Greg prefer a traditional saddle tree for their customs.
“Synthetics are good for certain aspects of riding. They’re fine for endurance, barrel racing or occasional riding, but they don’t stick nails very well, and things are kind of glued together. While it provides a lighter, cheaper saddle tree option, a synthetic tree doesn’t seem to last as long. We’ve seen people trading them off after only five to 10 years of riding them,” Bret shares.
“The bars move in a flex tree; they’ll flatten out and sway. Personally, it’s not for me. Speaking from an old cowboy perspective, we replace trees that move; they’re called broken.”
There are a myriad saddle trees available. And while the dimensions and names can vary from each maker, the name usually refers to the swell of a saddle.
“Generally your swell, by the name of the tree, is always the same — Association, Bowman, Wade, etc.,” Bret notes. “From there, you can adjust the whole thing to whatever you want — cantle height, seat size, type of horn, length, depth and shape of the bars.”
The bars are another important aspect of saddle tree fit. As the weight-bearing surface of the saddle, they are in constant contact with the horse. In a well-fitting saddle, the bars are in even contact with the horse’s back and wide enough to keep pressure off the spine. The gullet height and width is equally important, as it keeps pressure off the withers and shoulders.
While the use and fit of a saddle dictate certain elements of its design, there are more personal preferences that can be incorporated: roughout or regular saddle leather; plain, tooled or stamped (full or partial) leather patterns; square, rounded or cutaway skirts; plain, silver-laced or rawhide wrapped cantle; real sheepskin or synthetic lining; custom silver conchos; padded suede, slick or exotic skinned (stingray, gator, ostrich) seat; stirrups made of wood, metal or aluminum with leather, rawhide or metal wrap and in various styles, including roper, bell, oxbow, slanted, tapadero and more. The options are numerous and can add up quickly.
When it comes to saddlemaking, quality craftsmanship and attention to detail generally come with a higher price tag and longer wait. For example, the base price for a Mock’s saddle runs from $3,000 to $3,200 depending on the type, and it can take up to a year to receive.
“When my dad was in his prime, it would take him a week to a week and a half to build a saddle. Depending on the saddle pattern, he’d have another two weeks in the tooling, let alone putting it together. Today, these guys [saddle manufacturers] put 30 of these things together in a week. They have molded synthetic trees, machine-cut cheap leather and nail guns,” says Bret. “They’re just not built or fit the same.
“Thankfully, the investment is not without its rewards. In addition to the safety and comfort a well-made custom saddle can bring to your ride, it maintains a higher resale value and longer life when compared to its manufactured counterparts.”
At Mock’s, saddlemakers fit their hand-cut leather patterns on custom traditional saddletrees. Then, they pull it all off, tool it, put it back on — and fit it all again. Each saddle is basically built twice. Their materials are all American made from their Herman Oak leather and stainless steel dee rings to their sheepskin lining. It’s a tradition that started with Mock brothers Albert, Archie and Claude in 1941, and it’s not one that Bret sees changing any time soon.
“We build a saddle for a lifetime because we feel craftsmanship never goes out of style,” he says.
Saddle Making by the Numbers
1+ pounds of nails: Used to build a saddle.
14 inches: The average saddle seat size from the pioneer days; 15-16 inches in modern times.
2.5 cowhides: Worth of leather are used to make a saddle, not including billets, back cinch, latigos.
13 square feet of wool: Used for lining the underneath of a saddle.
40-50 pounds: Weight of a custom ranch/roping saddle; 30-40 pounds for a custom barrel racing rig.
1 year: Average wait time for a custom saddle to be completed.
$3,000-3,200: Base price for a custom saddle depending on type.
All references are for a Western saddle from Mock Brothers Saddlery
Abridged Glossary of Saddle Anatomy
Horn: The projection, positioned on top of swell in front; different styles are used for different purposes — additional support for rider, dallying a rope, etc.
Bar: Part of the saddle tree that connects the fork to the cantle.
Cantle: Arched back portion of the saddle tree.
Fender: Leather panels that connect the stirrup to the main part of the saddle; protect a rider’s legs.
Gullet: Underside of fork; keeps saddle from sitting directly on the horse’s spine.
Seat: Portion of saddle where rider sits while mounted; located directly over the saddle tree.
Seat jockey: Pieces of leather that cover the saddle bars and connect to the seat; positioned on top of the skirts.
Stirrup: A piece of equipment hung from each side of a saddle; designed to support a rider’s foot; come in different widths, styles and materials based on rider discipline and/or preference.
Skirt: Large leather panels attached to the saddle tree, to protect the rigging and give form to the saddle.
Saddle tree: Framework or foundation of a saddle; comprised of two bars connected by the swell and cantle and featuring a horn, seat and gullet; there are many different styles of saddle trees.
Swell: The front of the saddle.
Rigging: On a Western saddle this includes the cinch, dee rings, billets and latigos; used to hold the saddle on the horse along with the front and back cinches.
Lining: Covering underneath a saddle, usually made of sheepskin or synthetic material.
All references are for a Western saddle.
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