Ever ridden in a western saddle that felt just right? That fit your horse, and you like it was custom made for you?
Chances are, that saddle was made by a professional western saddle maker. These skilled craftsmen create some of the most comfortable, well-fitting saddles for riders of all levels. If you're curious about the process of crafting a custom western saddle, or if you're thinking about commissioning one yourself, read on for more information.
Pavel Danko Explains his Custom Saddle Making Process
There are many saddles and saddle makers out there. I would like to explain how and why I make saddles the way I do. I have ridden horses since I was 12 (I am now 36). I understand that every rider is different; and has a different shape to their body, with his/her own style of riding and preferred riding position, meaning that some require a narrower seat or a wider one. For different riding styles, some people like a flat seat, others like a deeper pocket and higher front rise. Some prefer higher cantle, some others do not. When making a custom saddle, I always ask as many questions as possible to find out my client's riding style and requirements to ensure that the saddle will be comfortable and functional for the purpose of riding.
My clients can choose the horn size, seat length and shape, cantle size and, of course, the type of saddle they are looking for (wade, reining, roping, cutting, etc.).
A saddle is as good as its tree.
The fit is the most crucial aspect of the saddle; every horse is different. One saddle will never fit them all. Factory saddle trees are made in a few basic sizes, based on the most popular shapes of horses used for western riding. They work fine on a typical Quarter horse in the USA, where horses have a similar shape. Here in Europe, people use many other horse breeds, and even quarter horses have a different shapes. That is why much American stock-made trees and saddles don't fit. When I am building a custom saddle, every horse's back profile is measured. The custom tree is then handcrafted based on these measurements (and by the client's requirements mentioned above) from laminated wood covered with rawhide. Many new technologies and manmade materials are used on some trees, including fibreglass, Kevlar and others. These are mainly used because they are cheaper and quicker to make.
All top custom saddle makers use traditional rawhide-covered trees, and so do I. They have the best strength/flex ratio and, when properly made, last for decades.
Apart from the tree, the most essential raw material in the saddle is, of course, leather. I only use the finest Grade A Hermann Oak Leather. It is one of the oldest tanneries in the USA and is considered the best choice among the top saddle makers. It is excellent to work with, has beautiful colour, strength, and feel and holds the carving superbly. For every saddle I make, I use at least 2 sides of proper thickness and temper for each element of the saddle. I choose the best parts of the hide to ensure the long life and function of the leather. Other materials include bark-tanned sheepskin shearling lining, stainless steel or solid brass hardware, solid brass Blevins buckles, top-quality threads, pure neatsfoot oil and natural wax for the finish.
The actual making of the saddle starts with a quality check of all materials used. The tree needs to be checked that they have been made as ordered for that particular order. Then it is checked for symmetry, and the first lines are measured and drawn to get ready to build the saddle.
I will prepare and make paper patterns for each tree; they will be used to cut parts from 2 sides of Grade A Hermann Oak Saddle Skirting leather. Each piece has to be cut from a different part of the hide, with different characteristics and moulding requirements.
Gullet, Cantle, Skirts and Rigging
Afterwards, the parts are installed wet and cased to the tree, ensuring a proper fit. I start with gullet and back cantle, following with building up the Ground Seat. This is the most crucial part of making a saddle, ensuring the best possible comfort and balance for the rider. At least 8 pieces of leather form each part of my ground seat. They are strategically placed, depending on the requirements of the rider. Then the fork and (in this case, inskirt) rigging are installed together with skirts. For Skirts and Rigging, symmetry is essential; it ensures a balanced saddle position on the horse. Again, Skirts and Rigging are fitted wet and left to dry, so they will keep the tree's shape. When dry, I glue them together, the hardware is riveted, and sheepskin lining is sewn in. Sheepskin shearling is the best choice as the saddle liner for moisture control and shock-absorbing, and of course, it will last longer than polyester fleece.
Fitting the Seat
The seat leather is the most expensive part of the hide and the saddle, and I use just one piece of leather. It has to hold its shape throughout the saddle's life, whilst the back of the saddle needs to be malleable, so it can be shaped into the cantle dish.
As with all saddle parts, the seat leather is fitted onto the tree whilst wet and left to dry in several stages, especially when carved.
After the seat is fitted and glued in, I fit a back jockey in most saddles (although in the image shown, there is no back jockey, and the whole skirt is exposed).
The next stage is to fit and hand-stitch the Cantle binding, with the stitching going through five layers of skirting leather which is over one inch thick.
When working on a saddle, I cover the horn after I've covered the fork. This makes it easier at a later stage to replace any leather that gets damaged from roping or general wear and tear. I then wrap it with latigo or mulehide horn wrap to give it more protection when roping.
Stirrup Leathers and Fenders
While other saddle parts are drying, I work on the stirrup leathers and fenders. There's much more to this than just cutting them out and either riveting or sewing them together. I pre-stretch stirrup leathers and pre-form, twist and wrap them with fenders, so they hang at 90 degrees to the horse. This gives much better comfort right from the first day. Wrapping and rounding stirrup leathers (the short part below the fender) make a huge difference, and I do this as standard on each saddle I make now. I also prepare all the small pieces, including saddle strings, latigos, leather rosettes, latigo carriers and hobble straps. I polish the edges on all the parts and wax burnish them. This seals the edges, protects them and gives them a nice polished finish.
When all the parts are dry, I oil them with 100% pure neatsfoot oil, using at least two coats to give the leather a long-lasting finish and suppleness. I follow this with wax conditioner on the straps and all parts of the saddle that will be in contact with the horse's sweat to give extra protection.
Bring it all Together.
When everything is dry, I assemble the saddle to ensure symmetry, a tight fit, and of course, that it looks good. I spend between 80 and 300 hours working on each saddle, dependent on the amount of carving, tooling and other extras required by the client.
With the proper care and maintenance, a saddle will last for decades. I always recommend that the first rides using a new saddle are short, allowing the leather to 'break in' without making the horse or rider sore, as you would break in a new pair of shoes. I also recommend using a good-quality woollen felt saddle pad. There are new manmade materials and technologies, memory foam and gel, on the market. Still, if the saddle fits properly, a good woollen pad is the only protection and shock absorber needed. Nothing will overcome the problem if a saddle doesn't fit correctly. Natural wool absorbs shocks and heat and crucially allows the horse's skin to breathe, unlike polyester and other manmade materials.
The final aspect of making a saddle is the decoration, which is personal to each customer. Clients will give me their ideas, and we will work together to develop a final design that works on the saddle. I offer a variety of designs that can be tooled and carved into leather, from a simple border, basket or geometric tooling, to more ornate carving of individual designs, logos and initials.
The final design can feature a combination of these styles, and even rough-out leather can be tooled and carved. I also offer custom silver additions to your saddle, made in the USA. Every saddle I make reflects the owner's personality and style.