From the foundation: Smith creates custom saddletrees for saddle makers across the country
Greybull – It wasn’t until he needed a new saddle in college and realized that the cost was a bit out of his price range that Dusty Smith jumped into building saddles.
“I wanted a custom saddle but realized it was much too expensive,” he says. “I decided I would try to build one on my own.”
Smith had a leatherwork background that started in 4-H, so he jumped in with a set of Jeremiah Watt videos on saddle building.
“I built my first couple of saddles and decided I needed more education, so I sought out a master in the saddle making world, John Willemsma, and spent some time working with him,” Smith explains. “He helped me out a lot, and since then, I’ve visited a number of saddle makers to learn from them.”
As he continued building saddles and seeking a custom-fit option, he realized building a custom saddletree is the secret for the best fitting saddle.
“The tree is the most important part of the saddle,” Smith comments. “It needs to fit the horse.”
He continues, “Everyone wants a comfortable saddle to sit in, but if it doesn’t fit the horse, then it’s not worth its weight. No matter what discipline the rider is pursuing – be it trail riding or working cattle – the saddle needs to be comfortable for the horse.”
Saddletrees must also be consistent, he emphasizes. Smith notes that many mass-produced saddletrees are inconsistent.
“The shaping is often off in one spot or another because the machines used aren’t perfect,” he explains. “They don’t take the time to make sure the tree is the same.”
Custom saddletrees are also preferred by saddle makers, often, says Smith, who notes that saddle patterns also fit more consistently on a custom tree.
Making the saddletree
As he starts to make each saddletree, Smith begins with blocks of yellow poplar.
“Yellow poplar is a hard wood, but it’s fairly soft and strong,” he says. “The screws hold well, and nails grip the wood, so it doesn’t strip out.”
He begins building the bars of the tree using a band saw and sanders, then moves on to the crown, which is the surface of the bars.
“I take care to make sure it’s all the same,” he says of the crown. “Then, I shape the fork into the style that the customer wants.”
Many times, he builds Wade forks, but Smith has the ability to build over 30 different swells.
“I can do what anybody wants,” he continues. “After I get the forks shaped, I go on to the cantle. It is shaped using grinders, hand rasps and a band saw.”
After the wood base of the saddle is finalized, Smith covers the tree in rawhide, which is arguably the longest part of the process because of the required drying time.
“It takes five hours to finish the wood part of a tree, and then two-and-a-half hours to rawhide them,” he explains. “Then, I have to babysit them.”
After rawhide is stretched over the wood of the saddle, Smith pounds the stitches flat with a hammer twice daily for two weeks until the rawhide is dry.
“I want to make sure the rawhide doesn’t pull the wood,” Smith emphasizes. “It’s finicky, so I have to make sure they sit right.”
After the two-week drying period, the saddletrees are varnished and sent to the customer.
Smith makes between 100 and 150 saddletrees each year, and he takes about 10 to make saddles.
“I make a lot more trees than I do saddles,” he comments.
Jumping into business
“This is the first year I’ve been making saddles and saddletrees full-time as Wyo Custom Saddles and Trees. I’m busier than I thought I would be, and I don’t have much free time,” Smith says.
However, he has been making saddletrees part-time while also holding down a ranch hand job for many years.
“There are only six saddletree makers in the West who sell to the public, so I decided this would be a good opportunity for me,” Smith comments. “There are quite a few saddle makers – or at least bunkhouse saddle makers who build one or two saddles in their life, but they all want the best materials they can find.”
As he continues developing his craft, Smith says he hopes to make his trees better and better.
In particular, Smith emphasizes that he uses a state-of-the-art measurement system to create trees that fit horses.
“The biggest challenge I deal with is making sure I’m getting good measurements,” he says. “I use a fantastic system that’s very, very accurate.”
A recent study by Colorado State University found the measurement technique was 90 percent accurate, as compared to the 72 percent accuracy of other systems.
Emphasis on horses and family
In starting his own business, Smith says he’s able to help make saddles that fit horses, which is important.
“In my mind, the horses my Dad grew up with are much different than the horses we have today,” he explains. “Fitting these horses is different, and the saddles should be different, too.”
As an example, he says that in the past, horses were used more frequently as an everyday tool, but today, they’re used often for recreation.
“Recreation horses aren’t in the same physical shape, so we have to fit saddles differently,” he says, adding that different breeds of horses used also need to be fit differently. “I know how to measure each horse to fit it properly with a saddle.”
At the same time, in working for himself, Smith is able to be creative and work with his hands.
“I like being in my shop, being alone and allowing myself to be creative,” Smith emphasizes. “I get a lot of fulfillment being able to build something.”
He also says he’s more available to his wife Mae.
“I’m home now, and we can spend more time together, which is an added benefit,” Smith says.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.