Saddle-maker is riding high

Custom leather work is big business for Hayden rancher

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The room smells stronger than a well-worn baseball mitt.

Rawhide lies dry on the shelves, soaking in buckets of water and molded around saddles, old, new and in-the-making, all over the workshop.

At Brooks' Custom Saddlery on Routt County Road 37, Brett Brooks is busy turning flat pieces of tan leather into saddles. On Tuesday, he was busy repairing about 50 saddles for Steamboat Lake Outfitters' summer tourism operations, while putting together a few of his one-of-a-kind pieces for other customers.

Brooks completes as many as 15 saddles every year for riders all across the United States. He said he could make more, but saddle repairs and maintenance, along with operating rodeo events at the indoor arena in his back yard, tend to take up his spare time. But Brooks takes great pride in providing service to his peers.

"I like who I work for," Brooks said. "We all have common interests."

Brooks is a lifetime rancher and longtime professional bareback bronc rider. It was the aroma of leather that first attracted him to saddle-making, back in his hometown in South Dakota. He began collecting the tools and machinery in the 1980s and started making his own saddles as he slowed down his rodeo career.

"I had my own ideas of what an ideal saddle looked like, and I couldn't afford to buy one," Brooks said.

Brooks got serious about saddle making in the mid-1990s and opened Brooks' Custom Saddlery in downtown Hayden in 1999. He said he built a nice base of customers there, and now enjoys his house workshop, which he moved to more than a year ago. It's only a few steps from his back door, and convenient to his ranch and arena operations.

In his workshop, he can focus on making unique saddles for individual needs and desires -- even in the middle of the night, if he chooses.

"Most saddles are factory produced," Brooks said. "Hand-built saddles are unique, and they tend to last longer and they look better. The leather quality is better, and they can be shaped for the individual buying it," he said, pointed to the unique carvings on one of the saddles in his workshop,

Brooks said he laughed when he realized part of his job would entail analyzing people's rear ends. He has to consider shape when designing seats.

"I pride myself in making good, comfortable seats," Brooks said. "It's something some people spend a lot of time in. It's also important to make a horse comfortable. If the horse is comfortable, he will perform better.

"Different saddles fit different backs. A thoroughbred is different from a quarter horse. Just because you see a saddle there, doesn't mean it will fit your horse."

Hayden rancher and Town Board member Tim Frentress is one customer who says comfort is a priority.

For years, he used his great grandfather's comfortable, broken-in saddle, but it was getting too old. Frentress took the antique saddle to Brooks to ask whether he could re-create it.

"It was just the seat in it -- it was real comfortable, and it fit a horse good," Frentress said.

Having a saddle made to Frentress' exact specifications was easy with Brooks living nearby. Frentress could come by and check on the progress and make sure it had the old-style long seat. Frentress said he also was glad his purchase helped the local economy.

"He did an excellent job," Frentress said. "It turned out looking pretty much identical to the basic style I wanted."

How a saddle will be used also is an important aspect of design, Brooks said.

Saddles for ranchers are much different from saddles for weekend riders or rodeo saddles, he said, pointing out minute differences between two saddles in his work area. Prices range from $2,300 for a "plain Jane," up to $4,200 for the more elaborate designs, but all can last a lifetime, Brooks said.

The process of making a saddle starts with a consultation, finding out what the customer will use it for, determining what design will fit him or her best and what level of intricacies the buyer wants.

Step two is ordering the "tree," the wooden base, which takes about eight weeks to arrive after Brooks gives the specifications. From the time the buyer places an order, it takes about a year to complete the saddle.

"If a saddle-maker is any good, he should be backed up about a year," Brooks said.

The early work involves soaking, molding, gluing and hammering leather into place around the wooden form. About midway through forming the seat, Brooks calls the buyer in -- if the buyer lives nearby -- to sit on the saddle to make sure it fits correctly.

Stirrups and fenders are attached, and the saddle is oiled several times to complete the process.

Brooks enjoys making saddles for local buyers, just for the sake of avoiding the packing and postage for the average 40-pound saddle.

"I always liked working with my hands," Brooks said. "I'd be doing more of it if I had more time."

-- To reach Nick Foster call 871-4204

or e-mail nfoster@steamboatpilot.com

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