Dusty Smith can look at a saddle and tell you if it’s been made right. A good saddle not only must be functional, but it should also be aesthetically pleasing. It needs to fit the horse well and allow the rider’s weight to be distributed evenly. The construction requires both good craftsmanship and artistry.
The difference between a custom-made saddle like those he crafts in his shop just off TW Road east of Buffalo and an industry saddle “is like the difference between a Ferrari and a Ford,” Smith said. “They’ll both get you down the road, but that’s about it.”
Smith knows a few things about saddles and horses. He grew up on a ranch near Evanston, where, “we always rode good horses and had custom saddles,” he said.
But when he was a college student and found himself in need of a new saddle that seemed outside his budget, he took matters into his own hands.
“I thought it was a necessity,” Smith said. “Turns out, it was a big expense and I could have probably had two or three really nice saddles for the all money I’ve spent on equipment.”
He had some training and experience in leather working from his 4-H days, but he had never built a saddle. So, he ordered a series of videos off the internet and set about teaching himself to build saddles.
After building a few saddles, Smith realized he needed more training, so he spent some time training with John Willemsma – a renowned saddle maker.
From there, it was “practice makes perfect,” as he worked on saddles in a spare room in the house.
Trained in rangeland management, Smith knew he wanted a family and that he’d want to spend time with them – something that would be almost impossible with his long hours managing the ranch. That desire led Smith to take “a huge leap,” and four years ago he gave up his job as a ranch manager and became a full-time saddle maker and Wyo Saddles and Trees was born.
His customers include working cowboys who will be in the saddle every day, and retirees who trail ride a few times a month. He has sold saddles all over the country, and he’s shipped saddletrees – the base on which the saddle is built – all over the world.
Most days start at 5:30 a.m., when he heads out to his shop to meet customer demands. Each year he crafts about 100 saddletrees. They each take about eight hours to produce, and his wait list is about four months deep.
“The trees I ship all over the world,” he said. “There really are only a handful of us in the world who sell saddletrees to the public.”
A craftsman to the core, Smith is meticulous about the materials that go into the construction of his saddletrees, so much so that he now sources his own wood and leather hides.
He buys a trailer load of loblolly pine from Texas and hauls it to Buffalo to have it milled locally. The pine is noted for its strength, and Smith says it is easy to work with and knot-free.
Smith needs a full cowhide to produce six saddletrees. He gets his hides from local meat processors and tans them himself. It adds another step to the construction of the saddletrees, but the quality is so much better than anything he can purchase.
But everything can be made to the customer’s preference, and calf ropers and steer trippers typically want fiberglass rather than cowhide because of its strength.
Most of the saddletrees are shipped off to another saddle shop where the leatherwork will be done. But Smith does the leatherworking on 10 to 12 saddles each year, and he considers it the creative part of his work.
“My grandma was an artist, but I don’t consider myself an artist,” he said. “I like the artistic part of the saddle making, but I really have to work at it.”
Working at it means starting with a drawing on paper and then tracing that design onto the leather. Leather is not forgiving, and mistakes can’t be erased, so getting the design right on paper is crucial, Smith said.
Some customers come to him with a design in mind. For example, a current customer from Kentucky wanted oak leaves because the area has abundant oak trees.
“So I’ll do oak leaves,” he said. “Others say, “Do whatever you want and have fun with it.’”
For those designs, Smith finds inspiration for his leatherwork everywhere.
“You can go to the pharmacy and pick up a Hallmark card – they have beautiful flowers. Google images. And I think about every time I go to Sheridan I walk through King’s Saddles – those saddles will just blow your mind. They are really beautiful.”
The saddles are made of American leather tanned in Mexico; the sheepskin comes from Montana Leather in Billings, Montana. And after the saddle is complete, Smith is happy to clean and service his customers’ saddles annually.
“It’s part of the service,” he said. “I just really enjoy it. And it’s fun to get feedback from my customers.”