Saddle making: Hobby turned full-time career
REE HEIGHTS – Lonnie Smith’s duplicator saw screamed as it trimmed an 8- by 4-foot cut of wood.
This process created three wooden bars to be used to create a saddle tree, or a frame around which a saddle is built. It’s the first building block for a custom-ordered saddle Smith designs out of his Ree Heights saddle shop.
It started in 1982, when Smith was home from college and living on his family's ranch north of Fort Thompson.
“The social life on the ranch was pretty minimal,” Smith said.
So he opted to spend his evenings working with family friend, Pat Fogg, making a saddle. That spring he learned leather work, hardware work and woodwork.
Those skills came in handy 29 years later after his hobby turned into a full-time career, when he opened Drifting Cowboy Saddle Shop in 2011.
“I’ve always said it was a nice hobby, but I’d never do it for a living,” Smith said with a laugh.
For Smith, saddle making was a hobby that kept him busy when he wasn’t working, but in 2001 he started pursuing it as a career.
At the time Smith was working in Nebraska while his wife was working and living in the Highmore area. To get his family under one roof, he moved back to South Dakota and started pursuing saddle making along with other jobs. It took nearly 10 years until it became a full-time gig.
Besides taking on a new business in 2011, Smith also took on the woodworking portion of his operation, meaning he began making his own saddle trees. Before, he bought all of his saddle trees from a craftsman. As time went on the wait time for the saddle trees proceeded to get longer. At one point he was waiting over year to get the saddle trees.
So, he decided to make his own trees from cottonwood or black hills pine.
The best type of wood pieces have few notches or inclusions, with none near the waist of the bar or the narrowest part, Smith said.
“You do the best you can selecting (wood). I really rely on my covering,” Smith said. “Back in the days of rawhide. The covering was the strength.”
And Smith sticks to that same philosophy today.
Smith still makes sure the saddle trees are sturdy by drilling and glueing all the dowels into place “like a furniture builder would do,” he said, adding fiberglass pieces over the top of the saddle tree and finishing with a resin. Using all of the these materials “make it durable,” he said.
After the saddle trees are made and dried, the saddles start to take shape as Smith adds leatherwork to the trees.
Leather has different characteristics depending on the placement of the location, Smith said. The back and rear are thicker and firmer, while the belly is stretches more. Each pattern is placed in the best location for that piece.
This technique, Smith said, was passed down from Fogg. And while he learned a lot from Fogg, Smith said it still takes time to become comfortable with tools and leather.
“I’ve heard other people say you gotta make about 100 (saddles) before you get a routine,” Smith said.
Each piece of leather cut is a “rough cut.” But once the leather is wet, Smith shapes, trims and sews each piece as needed to create the custom-ordered saddles.
After it is all sewn together the saddle will be ready to go. For Smith, the best part of the job is seeing the saddle being used.
“The best decorations are butt prints in the seat and rope burns on the horns,” he said.Low-tech custom saddle making
A 1900s Landis 1 sewing machine sits in Smith’s shop as a remembrance.
Smith used the old machine for 35 years to sew the pieces of leather, but it has been out of commission since March after he bought a new machine.
“You have to have a feel for it,” Smith said when talking about using the old machine.
Near the old sewing machine sits a drawdown horse made from old corral planks, which is used to hold the saddle tree in place while the leather is being added. It has been with Smith since his days of working with Fogg in 1982.
While memories of the past loom within the shop’s walls, Smith keeps working toward the future.
Each order Smith receives is kept neatly in a spiral notebook. As orders come in, Smith works to create each saddle by hand. The current wait list for a saddle is six months but the wait has been as long as two years.
Despite the wait his customers keep coming back.
“I have been blessed with business from Montana to Texas and from Oregon to Florida,” Smith said.
One of those customers is Lisa Fulton and her family. The Fultons have known Smith for more than 20 years, as Smith has made 10 saddles for the family, according to Fulton.
The family keeps going back to Smith because of his ability to customize the saddles for the horses, Jared and Jake Fulton said.
Smith also makes all of the family’s leather work from headstalls, breastcollars and reins.
One of the most recent saddles made for the family was a memorial saddle in honor of Brian Fulton. It was awarded to the timed event men’s or women’s champion at the South Dakota High School Rodeo Finals in June.