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Across the Fence: I’m a sucker for a saddle
February 10, 2011 M. Timothy Nolting   
Every saddle has a story to tell and I try to listen to every one that speaks to me. Some of them have stories that are very obvious, especially the ones that are hand tooled on the fenders with words like, ‘Rodeo Queen 1995’ or ‘Bulldogging Champion 1977.’ Museums located in many parts of the west often display saddles donated by families of early cowboys and ranchers or perhaps there’s a silver studded saddle that belonged to someone famous. These saddles often have a story that’s easy to pick up on, since it’s generally written out on a card attached to the display. I especially like to listen to the saddles that are a bit more reluctant to speak and you have to coax the story out of them. Most especially I like to listen to the stories of those old saddles made in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

I wish that I had the saddles of my grandfathers, but you may remember when I told of my Grandpa Nolting’s horse barn that burned and he lost all of his horses and tack in the fire. The McClellan that he brought back with him from Ft. Riley and was promised to me, got lost in the shuffle over the years and was sold at his brother-in-laws estate sale. I didn’t even remember it was there until it was too late. My Grandpa Zeek, as I remember, had a beautiful, heavy, black working saddle that sold at auction after his stroke, when he and Grandma had to move to town. I’m hopeful that I’ll be the one chosen to receive my Dad’s saddle. It has stories to tell that I am already very familiar with.

Back in the mid-seventies, after a few years in the brick and concrete canyons of Kansas City I moved to Colorado and spent another several years riding a desk, all decked out in a three-piece suit. When I finally regained my senses and got back to grass and cattle and horses, I bought an old, 1912 high backed, A-fork, double rigged working saddle from an old retired cowboy in Longmont, Colo.

The leather wrap on the horn had been scarred and worn but not completely stripped away. He must have been a cowboy who tied hard and fast. Although the saddle has seen a lot of miles and plenty of wear, it’s still in good shape. Unfortunately it doesn’t fit too many of today’s horses whose backs are broader and withers less narrow that the cow ponies at the turn of the century. Now days it sits on a saddle rack in my office.

My next working saddle was an old Hereford saddle, well broke in but not worn out. It was the first, and only, padded seat saddle I’ve ever owned. I hated to admit that I no longer sat a hard-seated saddle but dang it all, it sure is comfortable. However, time and circumstance were such that I didn’t get to put many miles on the

Hereford, but it’s sitting in barn, covered with an old tarp and waiting.

Along the way, I’ve picked up other old saddles that have caught my eye and wanted to tell me their story. If I were a man of means, I’d have a barn full of old saddles. It seems that they call to me, like a cute little puppy in a pet store window that begs to be taken home.

I’ve brought home a very old, probably early 1870s, high backed, open seat saddle that is beyond its usable life but has plenty of stories to tell. The leather wrap around the horn is completely gone, the work of a dally man. The right side fender and skirt are rubbed thin from the wear of a rifle scabbard. For many, many years,
Levi Strauss and company manufactured their denim jeans with a metal rivet holding together the four corners of material at the crotch.

For almost as many years, cowboys complained about the discomfort of those jeans and schoolteachers complained about the deep scratches they left on the wooden seats of classroom desks. This old saddle has two layers of leather worn down to the tin cover over the tree.

The leather is worn in a half-inch wide, three-inch long scar. No doubt the result of the constant rubbing of rivet on leather. You should hear the stories it tells me about life in the days of the great cattle drives.

I’ve gathered up rawhide-covered saddletrees of all shapes and sizes, with dreams of someday reproducing the saddles that were built over them. My daughter presented me with a very old child’s high backed saddle that was nearly worn out, repaired and used some more. I think that with a little work, it may still be used again. In the meantime, I can look at that saddle and see a little buckaroo, riding beside his dad on a fall gather in the Nebraska sandhills.

This past weekend another saddle caught my eye and begged to tell me its story. We were at an auction in Scottsbluff and it just sat there, staring at me with its forlorn pommel, begging me to take it home. It’s a late 1800s Miles City Montana Saddlery, high backed, double rigged saddle. No doubt it belonged to a dally man as the leather is stripped from the horn. Any saddle made in Miles City, Mont. likely started life between a horse and a cowboy beneath Montana skies. The cowboy who used this saddle must have been a larger than average man. The leather at the top of the cantle is worn almost to the point where the stitching is about to wear through. In fact, at some point it was re-stitched. It takes a pretty good-sized fella to wear the leather down on the top edge of a high back cantle. The left fender has stretched and torn just above the skirt edge and has been reinforced with a leather strip that has also been worn in two. And some day, the old saddle will tell me a story about its days on a west Texas ranch. How do I know?

The scratches on the fenders and the added, hand-made tapaderos tell of mesquite brush and cactus.

However, with a little saddle soap, elbow grease and leather scraps, I plan to bring a bit of renewed life to the old saddle and give it a chance to gather up some new stories to tell.

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