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Inside the success of a dying art form

Owners of Skyhorse Saddle Co. discuss their process, the state of Western culture
Loren Skyhorse, co-owner of Skyhorse Saddles, stitches a Spanish braid on the cantle of a saddle on Thursday in the studio west of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

When strolling through Durango, one can’t help but acknowledge the city’s ties to Western culture.

Such examples include the Durango Cowboy Gathering or staples like the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which was originally a part of Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, built in an effort to reach Silverton for mining purposes.

While it may appear the city has moved away from it Western history and has become an attraction for tourists and part-time residents, a pair of business owners still take pride in their Western heritage with their custom-made saddles.

Lisa Skyhorse started making saddles in 1974 in Arcata, California, when she met a cowboy named Loren, who worked on a neighboring ranch. The two later married and pursued their dream of building custom saddles, moving to Durango in 1996 and creating Skyhorse Saddle Co.

“I was working ranches and then I would come in and flirt with her and she tolerated my presence,” Loren said.

A bronze casting of a saddle that Lisa and Loren Skyhorse, owners of Skyhorse Saddles, made is displayed in their home on Thursday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Skyhorse Saddle Co. was most recently featured in the August issue of Western Horseman.

Inside their Hesperus home workshop, almost everything is leather and made by the couple. With the La Plata Mountains seen through their windows, the two steadily work on one of their saddles.

It is a true team effort between the couple. Lisa does all of the design work, as well as the chewing and carving. Loren does the braiding of the saddle. Both partake in the construction of the final product.

“Everything you see here, our property our house and everything is a result of us being pretty successful in our business,” Loren said.

It is hard to argue with his point. The couple has made saddles for many public figures, including Shania Twain, as well as members of Saudi Arabian royalty.

The average custom saddle costs around $8,000, Loren said.

Stacks of leather materials sit around the shop, ready to be used.

“We don’t have a crew. We don’t have employees,” Lisa said. “It’s just Loren and I, and over the course of our history, we’ve built over 1,300 saddles.”

Lisa Skyhorse, co-owner of Skyhorse Saddles, works in the studio on Thursday west of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The couple produces at steady rate of 12 to 15 saddles each year. Lisa said it takes about two weeks’ worth of work to finish each individual saddle if they work full-time.

A saddle is built with about 16 different pieces, Loren said.

“It’s kind of like if you look at a car, it’s like the fenders and the side panels and the doors and the whatever,” he said, adding it takes about 10,000 hours to master the craft of saddlemaking.

Despite their artistic appearances, every saddle made by Skyhorse Saddle Co. can actually be used for riding. As avid equestrians themselves, they pride themselves on making a product that’s not just for aesthetics, but also functionality.

The home of Lisa and Loren Skyhorse, owners of Skyhorse Saddles, is basically a gallery of their work and other artists’ work they have collected over the years. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The couple gets most of their business from custom orders, but will occasionally go to showings, making it necessary for them to always work on new saddles.

“I bet about 80% are built to order, so we work with our client to design a sample exactly the way they want,” Lisa said.

In addition to saddles, the Skyhorses also design and build furniture, wall panels, portraits and briefcases using their leather work.

A leather-wrapped cow skull that Lisa and Loren Skyhorse, owners of Skyhorse Saddles, created, hangs on the wall of their home on Thursday west of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Lisa said a lot of the work is a little more contemporary than traditional Western work, but she feels like leatherwork and other Western traditions are starting to become a dying art form.

In the saddlemaking business, she said there is a lot of competition from products shipped from overseas.

To some extent, the Skyhorses feel as if the Western tradition is dying in the Durango area. Recently, the two met up with a few rancher friends and had a discussion about the current state of Western culture in the area.

“The whole reason we got together was because we don’t want Durango to lose that,” Lisa said. “I don’t want it to become all T-shirt shops.”

A saddle that Loren and Lisa Skyhorse, owners of Skyhorse Saddles, made is displayed in their home on Thursday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Among the reasons why the Skyhorses moved to Durango was because it was a Western town with a contemporary flavor, as Lisa puts it.

She said that being progressive and contemporary with the company’s work is important because it allows them to expand the genre of their art form.

She also said if they just made the same cowboy saddle every time, it would put an expiration date on their work.


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