Dave Thornbury was a rodeo performer when he made his first saddle. "I decided the only way to get one I liked was to make one, " he said, simply.
Now, Thornbury is one of a handful of commercial saddlers in the San Fernando Valley, but he still relies on his experience in the rodeo to make the best saddle he can. He examines a piece of leather, studies its texture, grain and hue, and envisions it as a carefully crafted seat that will perch atop a 1,000-pound horse and support a rider who may be roping a steer or jumping hurdles.
After 40 to a few hundred hours of labor, a 40-pound saddle will fetch from $1,000 to $1,800, depending on the intricacy of tooling and amount of silver, if any, it sports. "The sky's the limit, actually," Thornbury said.
Was a Trick Rider
The 38-year-old Agoura man has been making custom Western saddles since 1968 but has been working with leather since his junior high school years.
As a boy, Thornbury, like his father, J. D., was trick rider. The family performed on a five-state Midwest circuit. "I grew up in the back seat of a car, driving from rodeo to rodeo," he said. "My mother would count us as we came back to see if we were all in one piece."
Thornbury worked in a saddlery in Michigan three years, but it wasn't until years later that he learned the craft's finer points. His teacher was a Pima Indian named Mervyn Ringlero, a second-generation saddler who once worked in Van Nuys and made saddles for Western film stars. Ringlero, now in his mid-70s, lives on a reservation in Arizona, where he still plies his trade.
"He shared a lot of knowledge with me," Thornbury said. "A lot of tools you can't just go to Sears and buy." Among the techniques Ringlero imparted was how and where to eliminate a saddle's bulk.
Makes Leather Goods for Stunts
Each year Thornbury makes about a dozen saddles and 100 pair of chaparajos , or chaps, leather leg coverings worn over pants. He also repairs untold numbers of saddles, Western and English, bridles and leather goods.
Stunt men sometimes seek out Thornbury for leather goods, such as shoulder harnesses for specially equipped cars that they will flip over in TV or movie scenes. He once made a custom sling for the ABC series "MacGyver" that supported an Arabian horse and its rider (a stunt man for actor Richard Dean Anderson) as they were hoisted by helicopter over the Pacific.
Whatever the project at hand, Thornbury arises at 5:30 each workday morning to feed the horses on his one-half acre property, then arrives at the Calabasas Saddlery an hour later. He works amid the clutter of several dozen projects, some hanging beneath a sign marked "Needed Yesterday," until 2:30 p.m., when he retrieves his 7-month-old daughter, Cassie, from the baby sitter and drives her home.
Once the baby is settled into a nap, he labors alone in the 16-by-36-foot workshop behind his house, where he lives with his wife, Julie, 13-year-old son, Justin, Cassie, four horses, three dogs, two cats and a goat. Interrupted by only a few breaks, he remains there until midnight.
On two wooden frames ("draw-down horses") sit two half-finished Western saddles. One is simple, with a "rough side out" finish, the other has a beige, tooled surface that will receive a clear neat's-foot oil finish. "When I build a saddle, I like to design it and pretend it's on a horse," he said, checking a saddle's strength and balance.
Before designing a saddle, Thornbury must know the rider's purpose for it and whether he plans to ride or rope. "A custom saddle," he said, "is for someone who knows exactly what he wants."
The core of a saddle, called the tree, is rawhide-covered pine and is manufactured by companies in Texas, Utah and Georgia. Unlike some saddlers who buy only pre-cut saddle trees in standard sizes, Thornbury often designs the trees to precisely fit the horse and rider.
"The best trees are the old trees," he said, "because, instead of staples and nails, they're laced through with rawhide."
After deciding on a saddle's finish, "rough out," smooth or tooled (or a combination), Thornbury designs and cuts the leather. He estimates that an average saddle requires 18 to 20 square feet of leather, with major pieces forming the "skirt" beneath the seat and the "fenders" on either side.
Works From Paper Patterns
Using handmade paper patterns he has collected in drawers over the years, Thornbury traces his foundation pieces.
He tools flowers and leaves with a swivel knife and often stains crevices in the designed area. The upward-curving front and back ends--the "swell" and "cantle" covers--are the only pieces he later tools in place on the saddle, to ensure that the design isn't distorted when he shapes the leather over the saddle tree.
He carefully assembles the "rigging," metal rings and leather straps that cinch around the horse's abdomen. As he works, Thornbury continually tests the saddle to make sure it pulls evenly and won't strain the animal's back.
He layers leather to build the "ground seat," which determines a saddle's feel when ridden. Underneath the saddle, he attaches sheepskin.
Tools Were Handed Down
On one wall hang several rows of tooling knives, stitching gouges, various-sized edgers, stitch markers and awls ("to poke holes"). "Mervyn Ringlero has passed on a lot of his dad's tools, which are like gold," said Thornbury.
He explains a few differences between less costly factory saddles and handmade saddles. Known by model numbers, the mass-produced ones are manufactured by a clicker and die, he said, whereas, "those parts of a saddle I hand-cut, fit and shape.
"The die is like the cookie cutter and then they put it under a clicker--a press--and stamp out these saddle pieces."
Even what appears to be tooling on a factory saddle actually is machine-embossed imprinting.
"Then they are run through and guys assemble them with a staple gun," he said. "It's short cuts all the way.
"When I pull saddles apart for repair, they are full of staples. It's not tradition. It's just not the way it's done."
"Safety is the most important thing that I do. Up underneath, I do a fine job because somebody is depending on this."