Growing up on the eastern Colorado plains, we always had horses.
I chopped ice in frozen stock tanks and busted hay bales in winter. We hung saddles in the tack shed with ropes through the pommel and around the saddle horn to keep mice from climbing up the stirrups and gnawing on the leather. I thought I’d seen some well-made saddles – and then I visited the leather workshop of Lisa and Loren Skyhorse.
Where do you draw the line between an expert craftsman and an artist? When do you cross that boundary from craftsman to master craftsman and then on to an artist innovating in new directions to use leather to create sculptural art?
Lisa began as a saddlemaker decades ago in California when her biologist boyfriend Loren was under contract to shoot predators. He’d come visit her stinking of coyote urine, yet she saw something more in him than his dirty blood-specked jeans.
They married. Became a team. After attending UCLA, Lisa apprenticed with master saddlemaker Lawrence De Witt. Then Loren became her apprentice. That was 1,000 saddles ago with each one crafted by their own four hands over the course of 43 years.
Sitting at the kitchen counter of their Santa Fe-style home west of Durango, we talked about the history of cowboying and the style of saddles that evolved to fit the livestock and the land where cattle grazed. I learned about the evolution of the high-backed Texas saddle from an earlier Spanish version with hooded stirrups, or tapaderos, “to keep cactus spines out of their boots,” laughed Loren.
“Western saddles are truly a functional American art form. It’s very iconic,” said Lisa. “The history is not so much regional saddle styles as saddlemakers designing saddles to fit the range. A saddle was a cowboy’s most prized possession. They’d ride a $400 saddle on a $100 horse, and they were always changing horses.”
Loren nods and says, “Yes, cowboys carried their saddle from horse to horse.” Saddles were designed for function, but Skyhorse saddles are works of elegantly tooled, hand-painted leather art that cost thousands of dollars as heirloom collectibles for wealthy Westerners.
But unlike Western art you hang on the wall, “the truth about our saddles is that they are pretty. They’re handsome, but you could also rope off them for a 100 years. Our saddles don’t just look beautiful, they ride beautiful, too,” says Lisa. “There’s little tricks you can do to give a rider a comfort, a confidence and a closeness to their horse,” adds Loren.
A basic Skyhorse trail-riding pleasure saddle starts at around $3,000. Custom saddles cost upward of $6,500 with options depending upon the time spent on the saddle, the amount of silver on it and the tight leather braiding, which is Loren’s specialty. Their most expensive saddle, just like a high end 4WD crewcab pickup, sold for $75,000, complete with bridle, breast collar and silver reins. Unlike the plain saddles that hung from my tack shed out on the prairie, that saddle graces the foyer of a log and stone mansion in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
A special white buffalo calf saddle, named in honor of a sacred Plains Indian myth, came complete with etched hand-tooled images of a buffalo hunt. That unique saddle cost $48,000, and it now amazes visitors entering a home in Park City, Utah.
Lisa does the conception, the artwork, the design and Loren does all the braiding, stitching, oiling and saddle assembly, often with tools handed down from his harness-making great-grandfather. They both share in the structural construction. “We build the saddles together,” they tell me, laughing between cups of tea and coffee. Each saddle is numbered and carries the special Skyhorse logo.
It has not been easy to rise to the pinnacle of saddlemaking. “To succeed as a master craftsman, you have to have a lifelong passion. For years, we made anything anyone wanted, even sandals, just so we could continue making saddles. Since 1972, this is all we’ve done,” says Lisa. There may be a dozen master saddlemakers in the United States, but it is a shrinking market. Most saddles are imported from China, India or Mexico, built on assembly lines, and sold retail for $1,200.
Exclusive clothing designers make “wearable art.” The Skyhorses create “ridable art,” but they’ve gone beyond that, too. Throughout their house I saw custom-designed leather chairs, couches, half saddles as unique wall tableaus and sculpted, painted leather panels of horses, people and Western scenes.
These three-dimensional leather sculptures, shapes and forms popping from a frame, a door or a wall panel, begged to be touched and caressed. They reminded me of the masterwork of leather craftsmen found in the palatial 18th and 19th century estates of European nobility. This was leather far removed from its function for belts, bags and pouches. This was leather as art.
Indeed, their largest commission has been for architectural leather for an entire Las Vegas conference room complete with chairbacks, cabinet and door inserts, and an 11-foot-high, 12-foot-wide wall panel of a life-size cowboy wearing sterling silver conchos. A half-saddle graces the fireplace in this high-rise private office far above the Las Vegas Strip.
What I respect about the Skyhorses isn’t just their artistry, it’s also their philosophy of giving back, of sharing their skills. “We’re at that time in our career where we really want to pass it on. We don’t want saddlemaking to be a dying art,” says Lisa, which is why on their 65th birthdays they hiked to 15,500 feet in Peru to descend to a 14,000-foot village to teach leatherwork. They brought tools and left them to help establish a co-operative leather guild.
On that trip, the couple traveled with veterinarians working to ease saddles sores on equines. “We worked on saddle fitting with local woven pads to try and show villagers how to get a better fit and not to injure their animals’ backs,” says Lisa.
Twice the Skyhorses have traveled to Mongolia bringing tools, supplies and other equipment to create a shop so that traveling nomads can fix their own saddles as they journey across the world’s great grassy steppes. Devoted to riding, the Skyhorses have ridden local horses in remote corners of continents including the Altai Mountains in Siberia, where they also worked on a saddle project with local artisans who wanted to learn more about the distinctive American Western saddle, though their own saddle templates are 4,000 years old. The leatherworkers replicated ancient Scythian designs from their ancestors to craft brass medallions as saddle decorations. The hand-rubbed and polished brass came from used plumbing parts.
The Skyhorses have enjoyed working with indigenous groups around the world, but, “Our real passion is Native American cultures. All we need is one to two weeks and 10 to 20 people. We can teach a marketable skill in small classes,” Lisa tells me. They want to share their leatherworking traditions with a younger generation, but they are happy to work with older people, too, who could profit from the sale of handmade leather products. At the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, they taught for the Native American Council for the Arts. They’d like to do more.
As I turn to leave, Loren shows me a holster he is making for a Colt .45. Lisa shows me plans for a custom saddle that will have etched across it family first names. Master craftspeople, Lisa and Loren Skyhorse are artists in leather, but they are more than that. They are master teachers passing on what they have learned over a lifetime.
Andrew Gulliford is a historian and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.