You can tell a lot about a cowboy by the type of saddle on his horse's back. Some are dolled up with silver for the show ring, others are rugged for work in the backcountry. And for either type, there is one place in the Northwest where cowboys turn for the best: Hamley's Saddle Shop in Pendleton, Oregon.
Smokey Dowling drove all the way from California with his brother and sister to look at saddles. But these are not just any saddles. They are Hamley saddles. The company was established in 1883. In roping circles, owning a Hamley saddle means you recognize quality.
While his brother strums his guitar outside, Oliver Dowling browses through the shop admiring each saddle, his cowboy hat pushed low on his forehead. "Hamley saddles are legendary, and they're some of the best saddles in the world," he explains. "We've always wanted to come here and look at them."
He has his eye on a $4500 beauty, but admits he can't afford it just yet. Some of the saddles here cost more than his horses. But that doesn't stop him from admiring them. "It's just a really useful tool. It's also beautiful: the handcrafted elements to it, the stitching and the leatherwork. They hold up for generations." He adds that it's every cowboy's dream to own a good Hamley's saddle.
Jim Stone, better known as Stoney, makes these revered saddles. He grew up riding horses and working leather on the Colville Indian Reservation in northern Washington state. For 30 years he's been handcrafting saddles in shops across the country.
Stoney says a saddle is more than the tool of a cowboy's trade. It's a statement of individuality, "like a guy and his car. If he has a logging truck, what's that truck to him? It's got to do the job and it's got to do it well. But he takes pride in it and that's why he has chrome bumpers and aluminum wheels. What they are paying on the job dictates how he fancies it up."
Like her brothers, Theodora Dowling would love a fancy Hamley. She's a serious rider. She sports a broken front tooth from an unbroken colt that threw her off this summer. But Theodora says to ride a Hamley saddle, you have to have the guts to back it up. "Are you as good as your saddle is?" she asks with a laugh, wondering aloud if she's worthy. "It's a balance there. You want to look like you know what you are doing when you buy a saddle, but you don't want to look like you buy the right stuff and can't back it up with, you know, real skill."
As the Dowlings admire his work, Stoney is at the beginning of what he thinks will be a 50-hour job, crafting a one-of-a-kind saddle for the winning team of ropers at this year's Pendleton Round-Up. In an era when most saddles are stamped out by machines, a handmade Hamley is a fitting prize for a test of traditional skills.