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This article originally ran in April of 2017.
Montana Horseman Saddle Building School
Dave “Norseman” Williams & Survivology 101
Last summer in my never-ending quest to make better gear I enrolled into the Montana Horseman Saddle Building School (MHSBS). I didn’t do it because I had any interest in building saddles, I enrolled in the school because I wanted to make better knife sheaths that add value to my knives and improve the quality of the overall package. Hell, I don’t even own a horse. To this day, my saddle has never been mounted on an animal. The saddle I built simply sits on a stand in my living room, waiting for the day it can carry my ass off into the sunset. This saddle, however, is one of my most prized possessions, and I’m about tell you why.
It started when I was in Guide and Packer school the previous summer. Another student who also happens to be a retired veteran told me of a saddle that he built by hand at MHSBS. He showed me amazing pictures of his project, and I was impressed. Having a new found appreciation for a good saddle, I decided to check out the school.
My saddle appreciation came from the fact that my green ass was in one every day for weeks. In doing my research I discovered there were so many types of saddles I couldn’t even keep them straight. Who knew? Not me, not yet, but I was about to find out.
I enrolled in the school and Dale Moore, the owner and instructor, started working with me to figure out exactly what I wanted to build so he could order the saddle tree and required parts. Of course, I had no idea, so I guessed the size and discussed the basic concept I had. Dale saw through my ignorance and walked me through the process. I knew what I wanted in the end, but didn’t have enough grasp on the terminology to articulate it.
[Admiring a job well done.]
As we were working out the details I was filing VA applications for training using my GI bill benefits. The application process is fairly straightforward but much too involved to recap here. Needless to say, the school is VA approved and Dale’s wife Norma is pretty good at helping students navigate the abyss of the approval system. With approval slip in hand I loaded up my truck and hightailed it for Montana.
I arrived late on Sunday night and Dale was there to greet me. He give me my room assignment, laid out the basic rules of conduct and gave a quick tour of the shop. After checking in I went to town to get some groceries, copious amounts of beer and last minute needful things like more beer and sushi. I wouldn’t normally buy sushi from a grocery store but the chef was there and made it for me fresh.
My intention with this brain dump is not to teach you how to build a saddle, but I do want to share the experience of attending this school and graduating. MHSBS only enrolls four students at a time and has four individual rooms for the students. Each room is complete with a full size refrigerator and anything else you might need, like a crock pot and electric skillet. The school is five weeks long for six days a week. My course had three guys and a gal fresh out of college. We had a good class, but since it’s completely random your class experience may vary. Other classes could seem like a vacation or a horror show depending on the attitudes of the students. Since we had two vets in our class and we’re old friends, we always found a way to lighten the mood when cabin fever set in.
With everyone checked in the day before, we got started promptly at 0800 on Monday morning. Dale doesn’t mess around with his schedule, which works like this: 0800 class begins, 1000 break, 1200 lunch, 1400 break, 1600 off for the day, six days a week. Town is about a twenty-minute drive, so I went every couple of days for a beer run. Sunday is a day off and that’s a good time to go to town to do laundry, get groceries and maybe hit the thrift stores. Bozeman is only a couple more miles down the highway for those who want a little nightlife, but for the most part I just did what I had to do then went back to the shop and worked on other projects.
For the first week, Dale gave classes on all manner of things saddle-related from some history of saddle making to valuable and collectible saddles and horse confirmation.
Dale Moore demonstrating saddle rigging placement.
Dale Moore Illustrating saddle fitting and animal confirmation.
All students were qualified on the various machines around the shop and the two primary sewing machines we’d be using.
A student stitching a saddle skirt.
During this time Dale also exposed us to the many styles of saddles and the benefits and drawbacks for animal and the rider. This is where we looked back at our personal saddle designs and started to refine the plan for our own saddle projects. Later in the first week, we started to build the class saddle.
The class saddle is the first project done at the school. Dale has a plan for what type of saddle he wants, but usually, the class saddle has different features than those we plan for our own saddles. This gives the students a little exposure to the options they may not become intimate with while building their own saddle. Once all the students have a basic idea of the features that they want on their own saddles, Dales decides what to put into the class saddle.
The first week of the course is probably the most exciting because you’re filled with a desire to get started. Each day that passes brings you closer to the beginning of your own project. But alas, much learning must occur before that can happen. As the class began the work on the class saddle, Dale always started each part and explained the entire process. Once we were working on that piece the students would rotate through until all had a good hands on.
My desires evolved throughout the course as I learned more about saddles. We found a good starting point and decided we could explore more options as my knowledge grew. Apparently, I wasn’t unique in this regard. It seems even seasoned riders and horsemen know very little about saddle construction, so most students are flying blind at the beginning.
Students wet forming leather to the saddle gullet.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the majority of time is standing around watching someone else work. When you’re not hands-on, your job is to keep notes and take pictures.
A student takes pictures as work progresses on the class saddle.
In this portion of the course we students basically build our own “saddle building manual” in our own words.
For the class saddle, Dale does all the tooling and decorative work, because if that gets messed up the saddle is ruined or at least in need of replacement parts. He gives some instruction on tooling and carving leather but it’s up to the student to practice as much as possible before the time comes to tool their own saddle. Most of my class spent many long nights tooling on practice pieces to get a feel for the materials, tools, and methods. The final product is a direct reflection of the work put into it off the clock to develop a proficiency. There is a huge bin filled with scrap leather so there is no shortage material for practice tooling and carving.
Norseman’s first leather carvings ever.
You can always look more advanced carving techniques on the interweb, but be advised there is no wifi in the shop. If you intend to spend time online make sure you top off your data limit allocations before you get there.
The first two weeks are much the same: morning class, work all day, then debrief and cleanup at quitting time. After quitting time the students break up and start working on side projects, practicing techniques or doing other personal business like PT or beer runs. Everyone seems to fall into a pattern, and the whole place gets comfortable. For instance, I was usually awake by 0530 so I would turn on the lights in the shop, make my breakfast, start the pellet stove and make coffee in the community coffee pot. Everyone seemed to settle into their own chores throughout the course. While the chores are not required, we were living as a small community and chores were essential to making it function correctly.
Coffee was an important commodity in Dale’s shop. At any given time a customer or a former student could pop in unannounced and they were always offered a cup of coffee, a friendly greeting and brief introduction to anyone in the vicinity. Often an old friend or customer of the Dale’s would stop by with a saddle that was a family heirloom, estate sale finds, or whatever. Usually, they wanted a repair estimate so Dale would use those opportunities to gather everyone around. He would teach the students what to look for, like the maker of the saddle or worn pieces and parts. Usually, he knew something of the history of the piece and would counsel the customer if a repair was possible, how much it would cost and how long it would take. In a rare case, the customer might have a saddle that’s worth more to a collector in its current state and he would let them know that as well. If someone showed up with a saddle there was almost always an impromptu class and history lesson.
While building the class saddle we would sit and talk about what the next step was, how to accomplish it, the tools and equipment needed, and common mistakes in this step. After a sometimes lengthy discussion, we would gather the requirements and get to work. The class saddle takes the majority of the first two weeks to build. Usually, Dale has already sold the saddle before it begins, because some customers have such confidence in his work they’ll ante up before it’s even planned out fully. If the saddle isn’t already sold then the students will have an opportunity to purchase it at the cost of the materials. Essentially the class saddle simply funds the next class saddle, from what I understand.
In the shop, Dale keeps a small assortment of leather and supplies he’ll sell to the students at cost if they have other side projects that they want to work on in the off time.
A selection of goods available for purchase.
The hardware wall, everything needed for a saddle is provided with the course fee.
He also gave us one Monday off before we began our personal saddle so we could visit Montana Leather Store and get anything we might want beyond what was offered in course materials. I purchased some leather and brass hardware for my saddle because I was adamant about all my hardware being brass, and I had a few side projects I wanted to accomplish. I also ordered a handmade set of brass stirrups from a custom maker in Idaho.
Norseman’s brass hardware selection.
When the day finally arrived that we could begin our saddles, we had to write an order as if we were building it for a customer. Dale walked us through the process of filling out the forms, and I went a step further and drew a sketch of what I had in mind.
Norseman’s initial sketch of his saddle concept.
After our plans were “approved” by Dale we started the real work. This is the point that each of us realized we had no idea what we were doing; we were baffled by the daunting number of steps and exacting order of construction, while at the same time intimidated by the fact that we were on our own, sort of. Dale’s instruction was simple: “go through and read your notes, watch your videos, look at your pictures and if you can’t figure it out, ask me for help.” At first he was bouncing all over the shop answering questions and reminding us of things we already knew. Eventually we gained more confidence, worked more independently and relied on ourselves and fellow students for help.
After developing our patterns and laying them out on the two Herman Oak leather sides, we started cutting. It took me an entire day just to cut out all the pieces from the heavy leather sides.
Norseman’s saddle parts all cut and ready for the build.
It’s not as simple as just making the pattern fit and chopping it out. Different regions of the hide have different properties, thicknesses, and elasticity. Each part has to be cut from a specific region in order to function correctly as part of the saddle.
Laying out a pattern on a leather side.
It’s more like a game of Tetris than you would imagine. One wrong cut and you could ruin the only area on an entire hide that will work for a specific piece of the saddle.
Dale Moore demonstrating the proper alignment of a Montana rigging plate.
I had set out to build a saddle that was very unique, as far as western saddles go. For starters, I wanted it to have angles not unlike an armored vehicle, I don’t care personally for the rounded or square saddle designs. I wanted the rigging to be universal enough to fit most animals, so I put in a three-way rigging plate that allows it to work with the largest variety of horse confirmation and can even be used on some mules. I wanted the ability to dismount the animal on a hunt and pack out my kill on the saddle. For this, I developed a set of rigging Ds across the back jockeys that can be used to secure gear or allow the riding saddle to work as an impromptu pack saddle that will load similar to a Decker rig.
Norseman’s Rigging D’s.
Lastly, for the theme, I went with ancient pillars currently on display at the Viking folk museum in Oslo, Norway. I have seen them in person and they’re an impressive sight.
Norseman with the 1000+ year old pillars that inspired his saddle artwork at Folk Museum Oslo Norway.
They tell the story of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, and the saga surrounding the myth. My ultimate goal was to build a saddle that a warrior the likes of Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun would kill me to take.
Norseman’s side jockey leather carving.
Norseman’s side jockey leather carving.
Norseman’s fender leather carvings.
Because I seemed to have a knack for leathercraft I had plenty of time to complete some side projects as well. I built a full breast collar,
Complete breast collar.
folding knife sheath,
Wet formed folding knife sheath.
rear cinch and rear billets, pommel bags,
Saddle axe sheath.
Riding chinks laid out and ready to stitch.
custom Thor’s hammer strap and hobble hangers,
Mjolnir strap and hobble hangers.
and a small med pouch to hold a survival kit and vet tape. This didn’t mean I was immune from making mistakes. I made a huge mistake on the seat cover that almost set me back for days. When I cut it to fit over the seat, I mismarked the location of the cuts, which resulted in a huge hole on each side of the cantle.
Fixing a mistake in calculations.
I had the options of either starting over with no guarantees I’d get it right, or fixing the problem. I cut some plugs to fit the holes and glued them down. After the glue dried I sanded them to match the contours of the cantle back and devised a method to put on an extra-wide binding to cover the mistake.
Hand stitching the cantle binding.
We have called the banners.
At this point, I concluded a handmade saddle is a big collection of mistakes, but they don’t mean the project is scrap. There is always room to fix it if you understand both the materials and the end goal. When it was finished I liked the wide binding even better than the original plan, and it makes my saddle even more unique.
Not everyone will have extra time and not every saddle will be equal in quality and craftsmanship. If you take this class, expect that you will leave with a complete saddle and will understand saddles and tack better than ever before.
Saddle building is very much an exercise in ingenuity and willingness to take a risk. This is why my saddle is so important to me. I learned more about leather and my ability to use it than I had ever imagined. I wanted to learn how to make better knife sheaths, but I actually learned that I can make anything that can be made out of leather.
Norseman’s saddle off side.
Norseman’s saddle on side.
Norseman’s saddle all oiled up.
When I went to the school I had expectations, and all of them were met or exceeded. I had a basic background in leather and some training on horseback, but I was an expert in neither. My wife, on the other hand, hasn’t been on a horse since she was a child. She didn’t know much about saddles and even less about leather. She has never worked in a trade or built anything greater than a sandwich with her hands. So I sent her to the school as soon as I returned home. I had so much confidence in the program that I knew she would do excellent even if she doubted it herself. Reluctantly she went, and returned with her own saddle and a love for leatherworking, such a love that she is now the primary leather crafter in the Survival Hardware shop. Funny how things work out.
Here a few more shots of the work and the shop.
Angel at Montana Horseman Saddle building school.
Norseman and Angel’s completed saddles.
Cutting the sheepskin before stitching the skirting.
A collection of essential saddle building tools.
Officially marking the saddle as the first ever.
Bjorn hanging around the saddle shop.
Bjorn taking a midday nap at saddle school.
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