Secrets of a Saddle-Maker

22 March, 2015

People began riding horses thousands of years ago. Saddles for horseback riding were invented soon after. Today, many companies manufacture saddles. But it is rare to find someone who designs and makes these products by hand. American Keith Valley is one of the few. He has been making saddles, one at a time, for more than 20 years at Jackson Hole in the western state of Wyoming.

The community of Jackson Hole is famous for skiing. But Jackson Hole and all of Wyoming is also known as cowboy country.

Keith Valley grew up wanting to be a cowboy. He was influenced at a young age by Charlie Russell, an artist of the old American West. He says Russell's paintings and the adventures he wrote about kept him interested in the Western way of life for cowboys.

Keith Valley worked on a ranch for a long time. But after some cold, hard winters, and a few pains, the young man decided to get into saddle making.

"Back in, like, 94, when I made my first saddle and I was working horses and had ordered a saddle from a gentleman (and) it was just, in my mind, it was just taking him too long so I just made a deal with him that if he gives me the supplies we'd call it good and I would build it myself. So that's how I got started."

Mr. Valley has made more than 70 saddles since then. He does the work in Jackson Hole. But his creations go to buyers from California to Florida. He has a website but says the social media site Facebook really helped his marketing efforts.

He says saddle-making was once a guarded craft. He says saddle-makers in the past would throw a cover over their work when people entered their work space. They did not want people to see what they were doing.

But things are different in the information age. Keith Valley has videos about saddle-making on his website. His work is on display as is his equipment: hole punches, hammers, leather and rawhide. He enjoys talking about his labor.

"One of the goals I have in putting a seat in a saddle is to cradle the pin bones and help support the center of the rider."

There are about 84 pieces of leather used in making a saddle. The final product costs thousands of dollars. In the old days, people would pay 10 times more for a saddle than a horse. Now, horses are the bigger cost.

And Keith Valley says his clients are more than just business to him.

"I will have to say, most of the owners of the saddles I have built, they've, they've turned into really good friends."

I'm Bob Doughty.

Philip Alexiou reported this story from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Caty Weaver wrote it for VOA Learning English. ­­­­­­­­­­­­George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

saddle – n. a leather-covered seat that is put on the back of a horse.

adventuren. an exciting or dangerous experience

ranch n. a large farm, especially in the U.S., where animals (such as cattle, horses and sheep) are raised

craft n. an activity that involves making something in a skillful way by using your hands

Do you make anything with your hands? Would you like to learn a craft like leatherwork, knitting or pottery making? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the comments section.