A trio of custom trophy saddles ups the ante at the 10th annual Californios Ranch Roping & Stock Horse Contest. Get an exclusive look at the coveted awards and meet the saddle artists who created them.
Buckaroo culture is a product of a unique time, place and ideology. Because of this, for many years little was known of it outside its home in the Great Basin. The buckaroo's gear, horsemanship and stock-handling traditions were an enigma.
It was more than a decade ago that Gwynn Turnbull Weaver searched the United States for an event she felt painted an accurate picture of a buckaroo's horsemanship and roping prowess. When she was unable to find one, she created the Californios Ranch Roping & Stock Horse Contest.
Now, a decade after she wrote the first rulebook for the event, the Californios has become the premier competition showcasing buckaroos' reata-roping and low-stress stock-handling skills. Through the years, Gwynn has ensured that the event evolved without losing its cultural purity. Her 2003 marriage to veteran Nevada buckaroo Dave Weaver complemented her efforts.
"I have Dave to thank for this event's authenticity," she says. "He makes sure I keep it real."
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Californios' debut and the completion of a promise Gwynn made to herself.
"I was determined to stay with it for 10 years to make it work," she says. "I could've put the same amount of money, effort and time into producing a big cutting or team roping and made a lot more money, but I wanted to do something I was passionate about."
Recognizing that a buckaroo's saddle is his most important belonging, Gwynn set a goal to give custom trophy saddles to the high-point team at the 10th-anniversary event, held April 24–26. She commissioned one treemaker and three top saddlemakers to create three Wade saddles, designed by Dave based on his lifetime of buckarooing. Gwynn provided detailed specifications on the saddles' construction, but gave the saddle artists free rein when it came to aesthetics.
Here, we give you an exclusive look at the saddles and offer commentary from the makers about their design interpretations, creative inspirations and connections to the Californio culture. >>
Treemakers are often shortchanged in the saddlemaking process, but true horsemen and craftsmen understand that designing a saddle requires collaboration between the tree- and saddlemaker. Without a well-constructed tree, a saddlemaker has nothing upon which to mold his leather.
When selecting a treemaker for the trophy saddles, the Weavers turned to Keith Gertsch, who has made the foundations for not only the Weavers' saddles but also the saddles used by many of the best Great Basin buckaroos.
A reata roper and aspiring bridle horseman, Gertsch knows that the buckaroo culture is centered on honoring the horse. Riding a saddle that marks or sores a horse is disgraceful to a buckaroo, so Gertsch took his assignment seriously.
"It's an honor for me to build something that fits a horse well and can be used for hard work," he says. "I like building trees for working cowboys and buckaroos because they highly regard their horses and saddles, and use them every day."
Gertsch hand-cut each Wade-style tree from a block of spruce, which is known for its durability and lightness. Per the Weavers' specs, he designed trees with 7½-inch-high gullets and shovel (narrow-based) cantles. Before covering the tree in rawhide, he used fiberglass to reinforce the top of the bars and the point where the rigging screws into the tree.
Gertsch has made saddle trees for 25 years, producing in his Midway, Utah, shop at least 12 trees per month for custom saddlemakers.
"I love the way buckaroos rope with reatas and handle cattle without any ramming or jamming," he says. "Those guys can really rope, and I'm excited three more will be riding my trees."
For Rexburg, Idaho, craftsman Chris Cheney, the hardest part of building a saddle for the Californios was not knowing exactly who would be riding in it. So the craftsman went with a pattern and design that he thought any buckaroo would appreciate.
"This is a typical saddle for me," he says. "I didn't deviate too much from the ordinary. I wanted to create a saddle that, hopefully, would fit and please the guy who wins it. I'd much rather have my stuff used every day than sit in a guy's tack room or house."
Cheney's saddle is a half-breed with roughout skirt, seat, rosaderos, jockeys and rear billets. The seat has partial floral carving and is inlaid with fine-grain water-buffalo calfskin. The saddle has brass hardware, a three-quarter rigging and an eight-button seat. Besides the Carlos border stamping, Cheney also carved a floral pattern into the fork cover, rear jockeys, rear cantle and on part of the rosaderos.
"I like a mixed-floral pattern with a variety of sizes and shapes," he says. "I didn't intend to carve the saddle quite as heavily as I did, but once I started, I really got into it. I wanted to try something different, so I intertwined the border stamp into the carving."
Cheney has built saddles for nine years, "trying to make each one a little smoother and cleaner than the former," he says.
A past recipient of an educational grant through the Idaho Commission on the Arts, Cheney apprenticed under fellow Idaho craftsmen and Traditional Cowboy Arts Association members Dale Harwood and Cary Schwarz. He's also working with Montana saddlemaker Dan Mayer, learning to build his own trees.
Besides building saddles, Cheney is also an accomplished bit maker, whose work was recently exhibited at the Trappings of the West show in Elko, Nevada. When he's not in his shop, he day-works for neighboring ranches and shows working cow horses.
A Woman's Touch
Nancy Martiny has never attended the Californios, but that didn't stop her from accepting the assignment to create a saddle for the 10th-anniversary event.
"I have a three-year waiting list, but I'm always excited to start the next saddle," she says, "especially if it's something different."
The cowgirl was raised on an Idaho ranch, rides a Wade saddle and packs a 50-foot rope, but she doesn't consider herself a buckaroo. You'd never know that from the look of the saddle she made with round skirts, post horn and three-quarter flat-plate rigging.
"The saddle looks like it'll sit down good on a horse and be functional," she says. "My goal was to make a saddle nobody would be afraid to throw on a horse and use. I like to know my saddles are being ridden."
The craftswoman chose smooth leather as the canvas for her tasteful tooling. Known for her clean, intricate carving, Martiny designed her saddle with a floral pattern woven seamlessly into a Carlos border. When creating her design, she referenced floral patterns in old-time saddle catalogs, looking for a mission-style flower she could modify and make her own. The result was a circular, eight-petal blossom with filigree-like leaves flowing throughout the pattern.
A newlywed, Martiny recently moved from Gooding, Idaho, to her husband Jim's ranch in May, Idaho. There, the couple grazes cattle and raises bucking horses.
But most of Martiny's time is spent making saddles in her living room.
Martiny has worked with leather since she was a teenager, following in her father's footsteps. In 2003, she was one of two saddlemakers who received a scholarship from the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association to spend a week with Dale Harwood. In years past, she has exhibited her work at the Trappings of Texas show in Alpine.
A saddlemaker, rawhide braider and second-generation buckaroo, an obvious choice to make one of the Californios' trophy saddles. It doesn't hurt that he's also competed eight of the 10 years the event has been held, and will vie for one of the trophy saddles this year with teammates Buck Brannaman and Frank Dominguez.
In honor of the event and its contestants, Hanson created the ultimate saddle, a fully flower-carved Wade, using a five-petal wild rose pattern. The saddlemaker also dyed the background and antiqued the carving to make it stand out. He decorated the seat with scrolling swivel cuts.
"I never liked the looks of a plain seat, and it doesn't take up oil," he says. "If you want a plain saddle, then I'd go with a roughout."
Other features include a hobble keeper on the left, cinch keeper on the right, latigo-covered post horn, and approximate three-quarter, flat-plate Bork rigging.
"I wouldn't say my rigging is exactly a three-quarter," he says. "My eye likes to place it somewhere between a three-quarter and seven-eighths. I don't want it to be so far back or forward that it puts the rider out of position."
Having ridden a Wade his entire life and worked for Elko, Nevada, saddlemaker Eddie Brooks for nearly two years, Hanson has his priorities when building a saddle.
"It has to be functional first, and then I make it look as good as possible," he says.
Hanson has been a full-time saddlemaker only three years, but his work has been exhibited at the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada, and at the Trappings of the American West show in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was also commissioned to make the saddles for the 2008 Jordan Valley Big Loop champions.