A saddle shop and a place to dream

“Monday’s” last pack trip

My dad and his wild horse named “Utah” – 1938

My great-grandfathers harness still in use

For me, barns are special structures. They are places that stir nostalgic memories of times past when life was simpler and maybe a bit more adventurous. My barn is the place I go when I want to think outside the norm of normality and listen only to the peaceful voices of horses intermingled with the content sounds of munching hay. It’s a place I go to become lost in my thoughts and at times visit the memories of years of past ventures; of bygone horse packing trips into the mountains of Idaho and California, of old elk hunting camps and the years our family spent in summers living in the backcountry constructing trails with our good friend Pat Armstrong. Sometimes I think of high mountains lakes that need visiting again, places where the horses were hobbled in lush meadows and Cutthroat trout would hit my fly nearly every cast. When I’m in my barn I relish the smell of the tack room; the pungent odor of stale horse blankets and ageing saddle and harness leather.

Because I’m most satisfied when my hands are somehow busy doing something of value I find working with leather and restoring old tack is a perfect way to pass those times of quiet contemplation. Saddle repair is in many ways a menial work yet an art form in its own rite; one that is rapidly becoming lost in a world of technology and modernism.  For these reasons, both nostalgic and practical, I decided the perfect thing would be to set aside a place for saddle repair in a corner of my barn.  It has already proven itself a wonderful addition; here is a case in point.

On a recent fishing trip my old pack horse “Monday” fell and rolled on her load breaking the rigging in at least a half a dozen places.  The leather was old, there was no question about that, and although I knew restoration was imminent I hadn’t given the task much thought until I was tightening cinches at the trailhead.  It only took one bad tumble on a steep rocky trail that caused nearly every leather strap on the old wooden sawbuck saddle to be damaged beyond repair.  Jury-rigging things the best I could with pieces of rope got us home giving my memory bank one more experience to remember, as something to fix.

It was nice being able to come home to a place I could re-rig that old saddle which had served our family ever since my ninety-four year old father had ridden and packed two horses out of the Escalante canyon country of Utah in the 1930’s. Speaking of memories, as far back as I can remember I loved hearing my father tell me about the many adventures of his youth. I loved hearing the story of how he had milked cows for a summer at a remote homestead after wandering the canyon country where he had captured and broke a wild mustang that he had naming “Utah”. He named him because his unique coloring which matched the distinctive red toned rocky cliff and canyon landscape he had inhabited. After a summer of milking and doing other ranch work he was paid with a second horse, a riding saddle and the old sawbuck pack saddle I still use to this day.

Standing at my tack repair bench I can’t help but think of the richness of heritage as I reflect on the adventures my saddles and worn sets of wagon harness have experienced through the many years they served both the cowboys and farmers of my families past.  I still cherish a set of work harness my Great-grandfather used to farm the old family ranch, forever amazed at how it can continue to function after so many years with nothing more than a dry place to hang, a little loving care and some periodic maintenance. For me these things are simple treasures that I’m sure very few people could understand. My work bench is a place to see, to smell, even to hear the creaking of saddle leather that stimulates my senses, my memories and my dreams of what the future years could yet bring.