Photographs by Cordero Studios,
Watching Tom Selleck saddle Spike, a Quarter Horse who wears his 22 years quite well, is a lot like seeing a couple of old friends sit down for a cup of coffee. Neither one pays much attention to the other. An occasional grunt or the sharp clearing of a throat punctuate ample stretches of empty silence. There might be a word or two as Selleck smoothes out the saddle blanket or heaves up his saddle.
"Unlike a lot of Quarter Horses, Spike is very narrow in the front, much more like the horses from the (post-Civil War) Quigley Down Under era," Selleck says, referencing the 1990 Australian-themed western in which he played the title role of Matthew Quigley. Spike is the horse Selleck rode in the film.
"He'd have been a huge horse, height-wise, for that period. A tall actor, like me, should be on a horse probably 16 hands," says the 6-foot-4-inch Selleck. "Otherwise, it looks like my feet are dragging the ground."
It's the typical off-the-cuff remark the veteran actor-producer will make on this picture-perfect California afternoon. As a student of western films, Selleck has become a repository for reams of minutiae pertaining to period tack, props and costuming, and it takes only a little prodding to get him to reveal a few of the insights he's gleaned from working on some of the most revered western films of the last 25 years.
"In a period saddle, you ride a much longer stirrup, and you ride much more straight up than you would in a modern saddle,"he shares. "The saddle will force you into the correct posture, or you're going to hurt yourself. One thing leads to another. You get the right saddle, you'll probably sit it right â¦ with time."
After tightening the cinch, Selleck points out the new saddle he's using, a handcrafted masterpiece by Jerry Croft of Deadwood, South Dakota.
"Jerry's the guy I called when I wanted saddles for Matthew Quigley," he explains. "I knew that if I played this lone cowboy, I wanted to see that silhouette of a period western saddle. I thought, âThat says something for this fish out of water.' So I talked to Jerry, and we came up with the right saddle with the right rigging, and that was the beginning of what's been a really wonderful relationship."
Croft has since made Selleck's saddles for Last Stand at Saber River, Crossfire Trail and Monte Walsh.
A rare shy smile creeps across the actor's face, then he confesses another detail. The saddle he's using on Spike today is one of Croft's newer models, dubbed the "Tom Selleck."
Read the complete story in the July issue of Western Horseman
Erik O'Keefe is a Texas-based writer and the former editor of Cowboys and Indians magazine.