A custom-made saddle is a beautiful—albeit complicated—thing. A good saddle has to fit a horse and rider, from the wooden tree inside to the ornate leatherwork on the outside.
“What I really want to do is to make a piece of art that is functional,” Buffalo-based saddlemaker Dusty Smith, owner of WYO Saddles and Trees, explained. “I want the saddle to be pretty and eye-appealing to most everybody, but I want a cowboy to be able to go rope a yearling on it, to be able to go do their job.”
The Western saddle has many parts: the horn, the cantle, the seat and seat rise and the stirrup, among others. Cattle ranchers, cowboys, rodeo riders and hobbyists use the Western saddle, which is designed to be comfortable for many hours at a time.
The foundation of a saddle is the tree, which Smith builds himself in his woodworking shop. Most saddlemakers use an equine fitting system, pairing horse measurements to the measurements of the tree.
“I tell people when I (take measurements) that they might have one horse, but the saddle will fit a range of horses within a shape,” Smith said. “I don’t only want to fit one specific horse, because as people know, accidents can happen, and I don’t want someone to have a saddle they can never use again.”
The saddle tree lends to the the overall appearance of a saddle, and specific cuts and angles are used to fit certain horses, Smith said. There are three different pieces of a saddle tree, and once in place, Smith covers the wooden tree end-to-end with rawhide or fiberglass. Many custom builders cover their trees with either fiberglass or rawhide and do not offer a choice. Smith said he lets his customers determine the final covering.
“There are benefits and drawbacks to both, and if there was a perfect product, every tree-maker would be using it,” Smith said. “Both materials are strong and durable and are going to last a long time. At the end of the day, the choice is one of preference.”
While there are many parts to a saddle, Smith can build an entire saddle with two sides of leather. He uses Hermann Oak Leather or Thoroughbred Leather, which he said are the best options on the market. He molds and shapes the leather to the saddle itself and fashions decorations after that.
“I have a basic outline of the (part) I am going to do, and I will fill it in with flowers and stems and leaves from there,” Smith said. “I really enjoy the artistic part of the work.”
It’s as important that the saddle fit the horse as it is that it fits the rider.
“If the horse is not comfortable, then we are not going to be comfortable. I make sure that the curvature and the large weight-bearing areas are well distributed,” Smith said. “And then I go on to the human aspect. What I want is a very comfortable seat that a rider feels secure in but not stuck in.”
A custom-made saddle and tree, built from the base up, will be leaps and bounds better than a production-made item.
“Essentially, we’re building the same thing, but a custom builder will take time with the ground seat and the edges and the lining and the sewing,” Smith said. “The quality of the leather is there, and we don’t take any shortcuts. We want to do it right.”
Editor’s note: This story was published in 2019 Destination Sheridan, Sheridan WYO Rodeo. Read more online, pick up a complimentary copy of the magazine at The Sheridan Press or find it in businesses and racks across Sheridan County.