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Saddle Makers in US West Are a Vanishing Breed - 2002-06-18

The horse may have been man's best friend during the early history of the United States. Horses were used for transportation, farm work, hunting, military and many other purposes. And they were indispensable on the huge ranches of Texas and other states where they were used for stock and ranch work.

Western saddles were developed to be comfortable and practical for long hours on horseback and to aid in tasks such as roping cattle or isolating an animal from its herd. Motor vehicles and modern agricultural machinery generally replaced working horses during the latter part of the 20th century, but western riding and cowboy skills have become popular sports. An appropriate western saddle is an essential prerequisite for any western-style rider.

A saddlery in Fort Worth, Texas makes saddles entirely by hand just as they were in the Old West.

Leddy's saddlery is located in Fort Worth's historic Stockyards district. A few blocks of two-story wooden townhouses with boardwalks alongside make an exact replica of the mid-19th century Fort Worth, the Old-West Fort Worth, as you can see it in western movies. The saddlery above Leddy's Western Wear shop is an institution.

"Primarily, all of our saddle makers build a complete saddle from start to finish with the exception of the carving," says Steve Schmidt who has been a saddle maker for 28 years. He and his co-workers at Leddy's are considered a vanishing breed. Jerry Fraser carves traditional western decorations in the cowhide: intertwining vines, leaves and flowers. She calls herself a saddle tooler because of the tools she uses for carving.

"You have the saddle leather, called skirting, and I get it real wet and I put a design on it or just cut it in," she says. "I cut it in with what we call a swivel knife. It turns in my fingers. And after I get the whole design cut out, I let it get nearly dry and then I use small hand tools to put the design in where I have cut with the knife."

Jerry Fraser learned tooling 45 years ago from her husband who was a saddle maker in Arkansas. People with her skills are hard to find these days. Saddle maker Steve Schmidt says so are the tools for making handmade saddles.

"A lot of the tools have not been made in 30 or 40 or 50 years, so most of the saddle makers up here have tools that are very old," he said. "...There is a few of these I make myself because they haven't been available in years."

Leddy's manager Mark Dunlap says the saddle workshop produces about 300 saddles a year, most of them custom-made.

"First we would come in and have the customer look at some existing inventory that we have and we'd [have the customer] sit in several saddles to find out what size seat [it is] that they need in their saddle," he says. "And we base that on measurements between the front of the saddle and the seat of the saddle, or the cantle of the saddle."

The rider's weight, height and leg length also determine the size of the saddle. But as Mark Dunlap says, the use of the saddle is the most important factor. He says Leddy's can produce almost any type of saddle, but is best known for traditional western styles that are heavier than classical English saddles and have deeper seats. They also have a horn in the front, for a rope or for holding on to and are used in sports such as cutting, reining or roping.

"If it's a flatter ground seat, then that's traditionally going to be used for the cutting horse rider and that's one of our focus customers," he says. "With a little bit more build up on it, it might be used for the reining horse rider who likes a little higher front end. He wants to sit back in the pocket of the saddle a little bit more. So there's different purposes based on what the use of the saddle is going to be."

Cutting horses are specially trained to separate cattle from the herd for doctoring or branding purposes. They have to follow a cow's or a calf's moves on their own. The cutting horse saddle is designed to allow the rider to move and shift easily with the horse. Reining horses, on the other hand, are trained to respond to the rider's command. They perform complicated and very fast maneuvers such as sudden stops and starts, back-ups and spins. The reining horse saddle is designed to keep a rider firmly mounted.

Cowboys have always been proud of their hard-working horses and enjoy challenging one another to see whose mount would stop harder, slide farther or turn around faster. Informal competition on the ranch was the beginning of today's cutting and reining competitions, which enjoy a growing popularity outside the United States as well as at home.

"We do have a lot of European customers who buy our saddles and we ship from Australia to Italy to Japan," says Mr. Dunlap. "I mean we literally ship to nearly every country in the world."

In 1918, M. L. Leddy left the family cotton farm near the San Saba River in central Texas and began repairing boots and saddles for a local saddler. He bought the business in 1922 and moved to San Angelo, Texas where he became famous for his custom-made boots, hats and saddles. In 1941, the saddlery was moved to the historic Fort Worth Stockyards, while the production of hats, boots, belts and other western wear remains in San Angelo. The business is still owned by the original family. Leddy's Fort Worth manager Mark Dunlap says it has not changed much in its 80 years and that's what keeps it in the saddle.