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Riding High on Reputation : Custom Saddle Makers in Demand for Their Expertise


Caedimenphobia is the name psychologists use to describe the fear some people have that parts of their bodies will become permanently bonded with Super Glue.

The space-age adhesive is on the mind of Steve Gonzalez, a saddle maker from Ojai, as he lists the injuries that can happen to those who craft saddles by hand.

Razor-sharp knives cheerfully flay even the most callused hand. Needle-fine awls effortlessly run through reckless palms, and the heavy-duty sewing machine can lace a careless fingernail--zip--just like that.

But the most common injury is a repetitive one that comes from drawing tight the threads stitched by hand.

"The thread bites into your fingers and splits your skin," Gonzalez said. "Splits it right in the joints where you can't put a bandage on it. This is the only thing that works," he said, producing a tube of super adhesive. "I glue the cuts together. This stuff is great."

Who'd have thought it? Caedimenphilia.

While daubing industrial adhesive in open wounds is odd by most standards, it's a fair example of the extent to which Ventura County's handful of custom saddle makers will go in their quest to build the best in equine equipage.

Their creations aren't the silver bedecked things you see in the Rose Parade. What Ventura County produces are rock-solid designs built for granite-hard horsemen. Customers include endurance riders who compete in races that last for days and the handful of remaining cowboys who spend years working cattle.

"I make saddles for buckaroos," Oak View saddle maker David Brannan said. "Guys who still make their living earning $800 a month punching cows, if you can call that a living."

Brannan was a sheriff's deputy in Ventura County for 12 years before he started building saddles two years ago. Like three of the four saddle makers in Ventura County, Brannan started the craft after working in other fields.

George Randall of Ojai is the exception. His field has always been the cow pasture. Randall, who is 81, started punching cattle at 16, when he drove 200 head up from Ventura over the trail that is now Highway 33 and into the Cuyama Valley. Since then he has raised cattle in six California counties, all over Arizona and some of Mexico, too.

"As near as I know, I'm the only saddle maker who rode horses for a living," Randall said. "That's why cowboys like my saddles."

A Randall saddle is plain as sand and made for the gritty task of roping cattle. Period.

It features a stout saddle horn, a generous cantle and wide, wide stirrups.

Randall explains the stirrups this way: "If you were going to stand on a 1-by-6 board all day, which way would you turn it?"

One guy who does spend all day with his foot in the stirrup is Fred Reyes, 60, a Cuyama Valley rancher. It's not unusual for Reyes to spend eight hours or more each day overseeing 300 head of cattle, all of it done from the seat of a Randall saddle.

"For a while there, I was getting a saddle every year or two 'cause they weren't right, but I've had this Randall saddle for about five years," Reyes said, "and it's doin' just fine. I've probably sold a half dozen of his saddles to cowboys around here."

At two to three times the cost of production saddles, custom models are for those who can tell the difference. Reyes said it's not unusual for a cowboy earning $1,000 a month to spend $2,000 to $3,000 on a saddle.

Reyes provides a simple explanation involving what anatomists refer to as the coccyx and posterior tuberosity of the ischium, collectively referred to in the vernacular as The Butt.

"Unless the seat is narrow enough in front, your hips get tired," Reyes said. That's when you start walking like a cowboy.

Accommodating distinctive tuberosities takes David Brannan as much as three hours. He starts by applying six layers of leather to the seat of the saddle tree.

"Then I have the customer sit on it for an hour or so while I carve it to fit with a draw knife."

The attention lavished on the seat is, in part, a tribute to its role in the evolution of what we recognize as the western saddle, according to a Smithsonian survey of early American saddles titled "Man Made Mobile."

Settlers from the Atlantic Coast rode west on English-style saddles, effete designs ill-suited for the rigors of the frontier. They soon learned that a deeper seat provided more stability for the rider crossing uneven terrain.

The seat, along with the high front fork, comprised the enduring Hollywood image of a sturdy saddle trussed to a tireless steed. But oddly enough, the icon that's so evocative of the American West was a Mexican invention.

Even the saddle horn was a Mexican import.

The horn evolved as Spanish settlers raising cattle in Mexico found they needed a way to rope and brand cattle on the open range. They developed a strictly utilitarian saddle with a rugged horn to dally the lariat.

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