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Cowboy arts: Paul Van Dyke discusses horse training and saddle making

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Sheridan horse trainer Paul Van Dyke is no stranger to the horse world. As a youth, he participated in 4-H horse events ranging from western-style riding to jumping. 

            “I wanted to do absolutely everything one could possibly do on a horse,” he says. “I got started breaking colts because no one else wanted to do it.” 

Cowboy traditions 

            “Here in northern Wyoming there is a long-standing tradition of high respect for guys that start colts,” Paul explains. “In the old days, the guy in charge of the rough string was always highly regarded by other cowboys on the ranch.”

            He continues, “I spent a lot of time with old cowboys and they always told me the person starting colts was the top hand and I aspired to be just that. I started fooling around with colts as a teenager and people continued to send them to me.”

            “The longer I started colts, the more refined my process became,” he says. “I started studying and talking to people who had been doing it for a long time. I hung around people who were better than me.” 

            Paul notes there is a high-demand for polo horses in the Sheridan area. In addition to western horses, he also has many clients send him polo horses. 

            “Most polo horses have more of a Thoroughbred style,” he says. “People in the area started sending me those horses and that’s when things really took off for me.” 

            “In my late 20s I started traveling,” he notes. “I have had the good fortune to travel across the country and start horses. It was so beneficial for me to leave my local area and see how people in different parts of the country and different disciplines ride and train their horses,” he says. 

            “I have had the opportunity to do some clinics on general horsemanship and colt starting, but my mainstay has and always will be local people and horses.”

Training versatile horses

            Paul notes his personal hobby is reined cow horse.

            “My ideal horse would be something that is fantastic outside and just a true ranch horse that can work all day long,” he explains. “They should be able to tie off, load trucks and drag cattle, all the while still being refined and classically soft.” 

            He continues, “They should be able to be gritty and able to work but also go in the show pen with ease in the cutting, fence work and reining maneuvers.” 

            “That is my ideal animal,” he says. “They are hard to find and hard to make and that’s part of the beauty of it.” 

            “Years ago, people understood training horses was an art and we were creating something to be valued and not just a tool,” he says. “There was a real aesthetic value to the whole thing.”

            Paul notes when he has a new customer, he always starts by asking them what their end game is and what they want to do in the long run with their horse. 

            “I like to get my customers’ perspective before anything else,” he says. “That allows me to get the horse prepped for whatever event the customer wants to do, whether it be something really intense like three-day eventing or a sweet older lady who wants a pretty horse to look at and occasionally trail ride.”

Saddle making 

            In addition to his long history of horse training, Paul has been involved with saddle making since he had his first apprenticeship at 16 years old. 

            “I apprenticed for a couple years and then I took my second apprenticeship with Don Butler and worked with him over the course of about seven years,” Paul says. 

            He notes during this time, he was still training horses and working miscellaneous ranch jobs.

            “During my second apprenticeship, I got a good dose of the business, even though I wasn’t really doing it full time,” he says. “In 2004, I started my own deal. The idea at first was to make saddles full time, but times have changed.” 

            “Things are different these days, and not always in a bad way but the kinds of people who buy custom saddles aren’t wearing them out and needing new ones over time,” he says. “The market has shifted and the introduction of social media has shifted the business dramatically from when I first got started.” 

            “Before the internet, a saddle makers’ universe was very local and, in that respect, things have shifted for the better.  But as a whole, doing the saddle thing full time isn’t plausible these days,” he explains. 

            Paul notes his 10-year average for saddles is 17 per year, but he is now closer to about 13 saddles per year. 

            “I do a lot of different types of saddles, sometimes it seems like we get a run of roughout and it feels like it never ends and other times I may do corner flowers for what seems like forever,” he says. “I used to make all kinds of tack back in the day, but I have really gotten away from doing that. It was a great training ground but I hardly build anything but a saddle these days.”

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            Callie Hanson is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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