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Woman Saddles Up in a Man's World

  • Sadie Babits

Carving patterns into the leather is a skill saddle maker Nancy Martiny first learned as a teenager, while watching her father tool leather.

Carving patterns into the leather is a skill saddle maker Nancy Martiny first learned as a teenager, while watching her father tool leather.

Cowboys line up for Nancy Martiny's designs

Nancy Martiny has made it in a man's world. She started making western saddles as a hobby but there's now a three-year waiting list of people lined up to buy her designs.

Martiny builds her saddles from the ground up, eventually carving and stamping intricate patterns into the leather. She works in a field that’s been dominated by cowboys for years, but that's never bothered her.

Martiny is no stranger to working with men. She grew up on a ranch, working cattle, riding and roping.

"From whenever I was a little kid I was always doing what the men did," she says. "And then, as I got older and rodeoed and then, producing rodeos, I’ve always worked with men."

So it never occurred to her that she couldn’t build her own saddles, something that men -- cowboys -- usually do. Something that comes as a surprise to many.

"They think you have to big and strong to build saddles but you don’t," says Martiny. "You have to have a sharp knife."

And you need an artistic eye for carving and stamping designs into the leather. Nancy Martiny builds her saddles from the ground up, eventually carving and stamping designs into the leather.

Nancy Martiny builds her saddles from the ground up, eventually carving and stamping designs into the leather.

"It’s more of a finesse thing than a strength thing. If you’re trying to overpower your leather, you’re going to get in a wreck and you probably haven’t done it right."

Carving elaborate patterns into the leather is a skill Martiny first learned as a teenager, while watching her father tool leather.

"So when I was 15, I talked him into helping me start tooling," she recalls. "And then I kind of took his tools and made myself a belt and of course my friends at school wanted a western belt and it kind of started just like that."

Martiny created belts and purses for a few years until she met Dale Harwood, one of the best saddle makers around. Her husband at the time owned some Harwood saddles and convinced the saddle maker to make Martiny a tree - the skeleton for a saddle to which the leather is attached.

"I’m sitting here with this tree and I guess Dale decided that he didn’t want me to ruin this tree you know," she says, "and we conned him into helping me with my first saddle."

Martiny had tooled saddles before, but she’d never built one. So she’d work on the leather design at home and then she’d go to Harwood’s shop for advice. Many of Nancy Martiny's saddles are simple with the rough part of the leather exposed. Others, such as the one in this picture, sport ornate flower designs.

Many of Nancy Martiny's saddles are simple with the rough part of the leather exposed. Others, such as the one in this picture, sport ornate flower designs.

"He’d walk me through things and I’d make little notes and then I had my little notebook after I got through this first saddle."

That notebook became her holy grail of sorts.

"I got my nerve up and I started on a kid’s saddle and look at my notebook and when I’d get in a real wreck I’d call Dale and, when he had time, he’d help me and I’d get through. Well, I got them saddles built and then somebody would say 'Hey, why don’t you build me a saddle?’"

That’s how Martiny got into the saddle making business. Now some 20 years later, her customers usually find out about her by word of mouth. She doesn’t have a shop. She lives -- and works -- in the Pahsimeroi Valley near May, Idaho, on a ranch that’s been in her husband’s family for 120 years. Most of her customers are ranchers, cowboys and cowgirls who call the area home.

"I guess that’s part of my success as a saddle maker and why men don’t hesitate to order a saddle from me," she says. "Because a lot of people who order from me know me or know of me, and know that I can rope a little bit, you know and when we’re talking about horns I know what you’re talking about, and fitting your horse."

Many of her saddles are simple with the rough part of the leather exposed with a tiny bit of tooling. They’re meant to be ridden. Others have silver and intricate flower designs.

"I want a plain saddle to be considered beautiful just as a full-flowered saddle, so if someone says ‘Oh, your work is beautiful,’ I want that to mean all of the work. I hope that’s what it means. That would be my goal."

Martiny is constantly working on other projects as she builds saddles. She makes chaps, bridles for horses and lately, purses. While Martiny might work in what many would consider a cowboy’s profession, she says that doesn’t mean she can’t make something more feminine once in a while.

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