SHERIDAN — Gibson Saddlery owner Clint Gibson and Miller Custom Saddle Trees owner Matt Miller got their start making saddles while working with their dads.
Gibson grew up in his father’s saddle shop in Oregon. When he was 8 years old he said he would sit down at the shop tooling flower patterns in pieces of leather. During the summer months when he was in high school, if he wasn’t at a junior rodeo or team roping, he was in the shop doing repair work.
Gibson was given a full-ride rodeo scholarship to Sheridan College, which is how he came to make Sheridan his home. After school, chasing rodeos and training racehorses, he settled down and did contract work, building saddles for King’s Saddlery. He said he is semi-retired now, but still builds saddles for a few clients that twist his arm to do so.
Miller grew up ranching in Nevada and Oregon. Ranching, he says, goes hand-in-hand with saddle making. He started making saddles with his father and his brother, “because it is just something that we do,” he said.
Miller worked what he calls straight riding jobs growing up, spending six to seven days per week, anywhere from 10 to 18 hours per day in the saddle, covering 50 to 70 miles a day.
“My saddle was a crucial part of my life,” Miller said. “When your life is on horseback, you dwell on it. That is why I got started in saddle making, or tree making.”
Building a saddle starts with the tree, which is the skeleton of the saddle, provides the overall contours and fits both the horse and the rider. The purpose of the tree is to distribute the rider’s weight over the largest area possible, allowing the least pounds per square inch of pressure on the horse’s back.
Building a tree requires more than art. You must follow the mechanical principles that enable the saddle to perform its function. An improperly built tree and saddle will restrict the horse’s ability to be athletic and will make its back sore, Miller said.
Miller designs each tree for a particular body type, size and overall conformation of a horse.
Fitting a tree like a body cast will hurt the horse as it gets out of position, he said.
“It is no different than when you go out and buy a well-made backpack,” Miller said. “It isn’t made for you, it’s made for your body type, and doesn’t get in the way of you being athletic.”
Once the tree is designed and built out of wood, the leather is applied, “not really unlike clay,” Miller said.
Gibson purchases the trees, built to client specifications, for the saddles he makes. He prefers wood and rawhide trees.
The tree is covered first with a ground seat. Gibson said his dad taught him how to stretch and shape this piece of leather, taking out the high spots so that when the rider sits in the saddle it is comfortable.
Once the ground seat is done, he puts a back cantle filler on, which is tucked up underneath the lip of the cantle — the back part of the seat of the saddle. He sews the cantle bindings by hand, which is his least favorite part of the process.
Then the skirts are blocked in, molded to the shape of the tree bars. The bars contour to the horse’s back. Gibson attaches the rigging hardware where the cinch and flank straps will be attached. After that, he gets a big chunk of wet leather and stretches it over the seat. This piece of leather is rubbed with a doorknob to make sure it takes the shape of the cantle and seat. He puts weight bags on the seat to hold the leather down as it dries and puts clamps along the rim of the cantle to make the leather take the shape of the tree.
Once the seat has conformed to the seat he will add a quilt, if desired, made of foam rubber and leather and stitches a pattern into it.
Aesthetic additions are then applied including the lines, the flow, the cut of skirt and fenders. Whether you leave it plain or you doll it all up with tooling or stamping, it has to start with an appealing overall shape, Miller said.
Gibson makes the parts of the saddle using several different kinds of sewing machines. One of the sewing machines was his dad’s, purchased in 1945. Gibson stamps a basket pattern on both sides of the saddle’s seat, the fork cover on the front of the tree, the skirts, stirrup fenders and breast plate.
Final touches include twisting the fenders so the rider can easily put his foot in the stirrup. A factory saddle will not have the twist in the fenders. Conchos and strings are attached if desired, and then it’s time to oil everything.
When form and function come together in an attractive package, horse and rider can spend hours working in harmony and style.