Written and photography by Rob McCorkle
In the days of the Old West, cowpunchers could expect to pony up a week’s wages, or about $45, to buy a handmade saddle that could hold up to the rigors of roping and range riding. Today, the foremost vestige of cowboy culture can cost anywhere from $1,500 to well over $5,000 depending on the quality of the leather and degree of craftsmanship.
The heyday of custom saddlemaking has gone the way of the legendary 1880s cattle drives, but a small cadre of saddlers still ply their trade throughout the Southwest despite dwindling demand and competition from lower cost, mass-produced saddles. In Las Cruces, ranchers and rodeo ropers have two sources if they seek a true, custom made Western saddle. The origin of Western-style ranch and roper saddles can be traced to the Mexican vaquero saddle of the 1700s that was an updated version of the Spanish war saddle that evolved from those used by Moorish horsemen during the 700s.
“There’s so much more to this than we imagined,” confesses Las Cruces native Fred Martinez of the custom saddlemaking trade. But Fred and partner Mike Black, who started Truth Custom Saddlery three years ago, have assembled a team of professional ropers, horse trainers, business executives, leather workers, and rodeo fanatics that are spreading the word—and the Word—about their rapidly growing, faith-driven enterprise.
The partners have turned their love of team roping and rodeoing into a business that sold more than 200 custom saddles last year to folks from Canada, Australia, and throughout America. They were making saddles before they even had a name for their company, having kicked around dozens of names before Chance Means of Means Performance Horses in Las Cruces had them revisit the Truth moniker.
“We were all, like, yeah, that’s it—the word,” Mike remembers. “Since then, it’s been amazing. It seems to have become a vehicle for a lot of people to spread God’s word.”
The part-time cowboys lassoed the idea and now oversee a company that makes not only saddles, but also custom boots, belts, lariats and other items. They even had a hand-tooled guitar strap made by one of their team members in El Paso for country music star Aaron Watson. That same leather worker does most of the hand tooling for the custom saddles sold by Truth Saddlery.
The raw saddles are finished in Las Cruces, with coloring, leather design and tooling, and addition of embellishments such as silver-plated conchos. NMSU art major Trace Montano works in Truth Saddlery’s saddle shop on North 17th Street, making sure every component is in its proper place. He applies select coloring to the saddles and antiquing to highlight the leather carving.
“What we’ve done,” Fred explains, “is make a high-end saddle available around the world that can be made quicker without the customer being put on a year or two waiting list. We have resources that allow us to produce a saddle in eight to 16 weeks depending on the line.”
Truth Saddlery sells three lines of saddles all made in the USA at varying price points depending on the quality of the tree, grade of leather and hardware. The low-end Qualifier saddle sells for $1,500-$2,500; the Pro Line for $2,500-$4,500, and top-end Legacy Line for $4,000 and up.
Interestingly, few customers for the custom saddles are local. Most customers find Truth Saddlery through social media, while some learn about the company through endorsements from professional cowboys such as seven-time world champion team roper Jake Barnes, who has designed a high-end, saddle tree for the company specifically for ropers. Saddle buyers fill out an online custom order specifying their budget, area of interest or discipline, brands of saddles ridden in the past and other information. Some ‘text’ back and forth with Fred and Mike while others send a photo of the saddle style they wish to have made.
Fred promises all Truth saddles excel with “an attention to detail” you won’t find with the ubiquitous, lower-priced saddles that often wear out within two or three years.
“The bottom line is if the saddle doesn’t fit well, you won’t have a great working horse. It’s like if you have a pair of shoes that don’t fit right, you don’t want to run in them,” Fred says. “It’s the same with a horse. If a saddle doesn’t fit properly, that horse isn’t going to give you 100 percent.”
Victor Hermanson made his first saddle as a teen growing up on a Montana ranch. Today, he runs Sierra Saddlery School in the North Valley, teaching aspiring custom saddlemakers the trade during a five- or 10-week course.
Victor moved his business from Bishop, Calif. to Las Cruces in 2004, first operating his school on North Main and then later moving into local saddlemaking legend Cliff Yarbrough’s shop on West Picacho. He finally relocated to a small tract of land he bought adjacent to the Rio Grande levee on Run Along Road.
The accomplished saddler built a small, wood-framed saddle shop near his house, where he welcomes students from throughout the U.S. and abroad, most of whom learn of his school online. Students pay $7,000 for five weeks and $10,200 for 10 weeks of one-on-one instruction, materials and bunkhouse accommodations. He prefers to teach one student at a time, but can handle two. Victor considers his teaching abilities as important his saddlemaking skills.
“I focus on my students and try to figure out how they learn and teach accordingly,” Victor says. “I make them feel every day that it’s not a grind, but more like a vacation. I’ve had people come here who couldn’t drive a nail and they leave knowing they can build a saddle.”
A framed, black and white photo of Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval, stars of the hit television series, Lonesome Dove, stare down on the tidy, Sierra Saddlery School shop filled with saddle trees, work benches, leather hides, sewing machines, a row of tools, leather splitters and other tools of a craft slowly fading like the embers of a dying campfire. Victor likes to inspire his protégés by showing the adventures of the fictional Texas Rangers on his shop DVD player.
An Anthony, Texas company makes the saddle trees—the lacquered, wooden frames that serve as the all-important skeleton of a saddle—to Victor’s specifications. The hides for the saddle seats, skirts, fenders, and rigging come from Wickett & Craig on the East Coast. Students learn basic saddlemaking, tooling, and carving and “graduate” with a saddle, or two saddles in the case of the 10-day course, valued at up to $2,900 each. Four out of five students, according to the instructor, go on to open their own shop.
“My goal is when somebody leaves my school they can hang their shingle and go to work. I’m the only school in the country that can do that,” Victor says.
On the rare occasion that somebody comes to Victor to have him make a custom saddle, he works with the customer throughout the entire process. He finds out about their particular discipline (a cutter, team roper, etc.) and holds three custom fittings for the rider and the horse. It takes the saddlemaker about a month to build a basic saddle ($2,750) and up to six months for a saddle with more intricate tooling ($5,000) and embellishments.
“I can build you a saddle that you’ll have for the rest of your life,” Victor vows, “and it will never, ever be the wrong saddle for you because it’s made specifically for you.”