Saddle up! | August 7, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - August 7, 2013

Saddle up!

La Honda resident Jim Milbrath makes Western saddles to order

by Dave Boyce

If the guiding hand of natural selection had shaped horses specifically to carry people, their evolution would have included soft seating areas on their backs and ribs curved in such a way that a rider's legs could get a secure grip. But horses continue to be built for a life of running free on the open plain, thus providing gainful employment to saddle makers like Jim Milbrath of La Honda.

Now in his seventh year of his second career, in which he spends his days in a one-room shop deep in the woods of the western slopes of the Santa Cruz mountains, Mr. Milbrath has designed and built 19 saddles.

A plain custom-made saddle from Mr. Milbrath's shop at Backroad Saddlery takes from five to eight weeks to assemble and runs $2,600 for unadorned leather. With elaborate carving on the leather, metal adornments and other decorations added in, $4,500 is not unusual, Mr. Milbrath says. At a rate of fewer than three saddles a year, living in splendid isolation in La Honda cannot be done through the making of saddles alone, and it is not. Mr. Milbrath is married to a registered nurse/supervisor in a pediatric urgent care clinic. She also has a position at a pediatric surgical center in a nearby children's hospital.

"Behind every saddle maker there is a successful woman," Mr. Milbrath says. He packs lunch for his wife in the morning and makes dinner most evenings, he says. He also does the laundry, the cleaning, the maintenance, and the chopping of firewood.

He also has to sell saddles and so must travel to where they're in use and people have the time to talk: rodeos and horse shows. Mr. Milbrath takes to the road in his dark blue Ford pickup truck five or six times a year to show his work, often to equestrians he's met before. He may meet the same person three or four or five times before there's a decision to get serious about a saddle and a design, he says.

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Making a saddle

A typical Western saddle consists of about 75 pieces, including the hardware. The leather pieces will be screwed or tacked on to a wooden form (called a tree), often made of pine. The tree is wrapped in wet rawhide that shrinks around it, giving the tree the look and consistency of fiberglass. It's light in weight when held and hints of its purpose, like the raw wood body of a guitar.

Though the tree will reside inside a jacket of thick soft leather, sit on top of a sheepskin and be all but undetectable when looking at the finished saddle, the horse will notice if the fit isn't right, Mr. Milbrath says. The tree should be chosen to meet the contours of the horse's back. He tests this fit in the obvious way: by resting the tree on the horse and looking for spots that might cause friction. Off-the-shelf saddle trees are available; ordering a custom tree takes eight to 10 weeks, he says.

His saddle designs often include fanciful botanical images such as rosettes and leaves intertwined with winding stems and highly intricate patterns that call for a fine touch. Mr. Milbrath is skilled at drawing, having studied fine arts in high school in Wisconsin. His hand tools include basic carving implements and sets of punches that embed preset patterns into the leather. The trick is knowing what the punches can do and how to place them precisely. The patterns that result can defy analysis of how they were done. The trick is knowing what the punches can do and how to place them precisely. The patterns that result can defy analysis of how they were done.

Ideally, a custom saddle is made from both sides of the same cow, Mr. Milbrath says, with the left and right sides of the hide used for the corresponding left and right pieces of the saddle.

Mr. Milbrath's skills in line drawing are fundamental to his craft. The motif for a saddle made for Woodside resident Rebekah Witter is an example. The saddle includes a large outline of a horse's head that is modeled, Mr. Milbrath says, on the "unbridled spirit" logo of the state of Kentucky — a running horse with its mane flowing in the wind. He picked it out of an inflight magazine on an airplane.

Finally, there is the matter of assembly, of organizing pieces of leather and metal as parts of a whole that hangs together both aesthetically and literally, and without unseemly seams. Before he entered the saddle-making trade, Mr. Milbrath worked as a mechanic for 12 years at a Palo Alto Ford dealership. On occasion, he says, he would be asked to take apart and reinstall a dashboard for paying customers. So he is versed somewhat in the assembly of complex objects, not an everyday skill.

Nor is saddle making, which was a secretive trade according to an online biography by the Kansas Historical Society on famed saddle maker Bill Gomer. That there are more practitioners of late is due in part to Mr. Gomer's conscious effort to open up the trade by teaching it far and wide, including to Mr. Milbrath in Leavenworth, Kansas, over six weeks in 2006. Mr. Gomer has had 45 students and has made more than 300 saddles, the bio says.

Mr. Milbrath stitches his saddles by hand. He paid $1,500 for a powerful leather-capable sewing machine, but it's gathering dust in a corner of his shop. It's capable of sending its needle back and forth through inch-thick leather — about the dimension of a human thumb — but it's a bit too fast and dangerous for his taste. "I don't want to be the one stuck to my sewing machine, or my project," Mr. Milbrath says.

As a worker in leather, Mr. Milbrath has other services to offer. When this reporter visited his shop, Mr. Milbrath had a "ride hide" — an annual carving on an expanse of leather commemorating the annual ride for the Mounted Patrol of San Mateo County — lying on his workbench. He was also working on a decorated leather urn for a former equestrian's ashes.

Off the shelf

Buying an off-the-shelf saddle from a store can involve a lot of sampling, says Maggie Mah, a Woodside equestrian who uses an English saddle. "You have to ride in a saddle to know if it's right for you and the horse," Ms. Mah said.

She tried three or four saddles, from a saddlery and borrowed occasionally, before settling on one. "You just kind of know. 'Oh, this is it. This is the one,'" she says. English saddles are more accommodating than Western saddles to the varied needs of horse and rider, she says.

Finding the right Western saddle off the shelf is not complicated, says one Bay Area saddle shop owner who insisted on anonymity. If you have a quarter horse — the most common breed for pleasure riding — buy an American-made saddle designed for a quarter horse and chances are it will be good enough until your experience grows and you know exactly what you want in your next saddle, the shop owner says.

Prices start at $1,000, he says, and can easily exceed $5,000. Saddle makers are like auto makers: brands sell.

An American-made saddle is recommended over a saddle made in India or Peru, for example, because Indian and Peruvian horses tend to be smaller and narrower in the back, the shop owner says, adding that even American saddles are regional. Those made in Montana differ from California made, where the designs date from before statehood when vaqueros herded cattle and horses.


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