So ya wanna build saddle trees? part one

Posted by RodandDenise on August 30, 2014

We are no longer building saddle trees, but we have two videos about how Western saddles fit horses available on our website.

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On occasion we get people asking about learning to build trees. While we have an information packet we send out to people who ask (because we are willing to teach select people) we also have some questions for the people who ask. If we are going to give someone the benefit of eighteen years of our knowledge plus the information from the giants on whose shoulders we stand, we want to know that it is worth our time and their time. So – what do we want to know?

The first thing is “Why”?

While we may not ask this question directly, at least right away, it is a key to knowing if someone is serious about learning to build trees. So why do people want to build trees? There are five main reasons we have come across so far.

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I want to build my own tree and saddle.

Some people just want to build their own for the experience of it or because they are craftsmen who want to make something from start to finish. That is an admirable goal. There are a lot of people in this world who are very good with their hands and can build all sorts of things for themselves – houses, vehicles, guns, saddles, etc. - and these people could build their own tree and saddle. But they have to realize a couple things. First, they aren’t really looking to learn to build saddle trees. They are looking to build A saddle tree. There is a difference there. Just because someone builds one saddle tree doesn’t mean they will understand all that goes into all the different permutations and combinations and variations that are needed to build saddle trees for a variety of types of saddles and horses. The other thing, bluntly, is that it is unlikely that they will find someone who builds trees for a living who will help them with their project. We did it once, and won’t do it again. It just isn’t worth us spending our time for something that will be crossed off someone’s bucket list, never to be done again.

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I’m a saddle maker or a (insert other equine professional here) and I want to understand more about how saddle trees work.

Learning how a tree goes together, how the shapes and angles work to fit the horse, how the fork and cantle work together for the rider, and how they all can be varied – this will definitely be useful information for saddle makers in particular but also for people who use saddles for a living. Knowing how everything works together will help them answer the “why” questions they may have about how a saddle works. For a rider, it might be why the saddle feels the way it does when they ask the horse to do something specific, or how to figure out if a saddle fits a horse. For a saddle maker it could how be the seat in the tree or the dish in the cantle affects their ground seat. Getting up close and personal by building a tree would definitely help people learn more about trees and how they work on a horse.

However, Rod really thinks that someone would learn just as much if not more by observing a tree being built while good explanations are given and questions are answered. A person can learn a lot more discussing trees with a good tree maker, things that spending hours grinding at wood won’t teach them. Understanding the variations and how things change is what will answer more questions and there are better and more efficient ways of learning that information than building one tree.

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I’m a saddle maker and I want to build my own trees.

We’ve talked with a number of makers who build their own trees and while the answer they give about why they do it can vary, it basically comes down to one thing – they like having total control from start to finish over the saddles they turn out. Some just like knowing they made everything in that saddle from the ground up. Others like to try different things, major changes or just little tweaks, in how the tree looks (and therefore how their saddle will look) or in something that may help them build their saddle easier. Some have ideas in their heads about how they want the tree to be that they can’t communicate to the tree maker (though we try hard to understand), or that they need to experiment with to see if they can make it work. All these are good reasons to build your own trees.

But everyone we have talked with who builds their own trees agrees on something – it isn’t worth it economically. When they figure in the cost of the equipment, the shop (sawdust and leather are not a good mix), the price of the education, the time it takes to get good at building a tree they are happy with, the time it takes to actually build every tree, the material costs, etc. etc. it is cheaper to buy even good, hand made trees than to build their own. So if you are thinking that building your own trees will cut your costs and increase your profits, you’ll be disappointed. One maker told us “I’d be far better off economically buying trees from you guys than building my own. But I want to build the trees that go into my saddles.” That kind thinking is why a saddle maker should build his own.

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I want to work for myself to make a living and maybe I can to that by building saddle trees.

We have had a couple people over the years ask about building trees because they see Rod and I working together, making a living and enjoying it, and they think they would like to do the same thing. Problem was, they didn’t know much about horses and anything about saddles and trees. They just saw tree making as a possible way to make a living. Yes, you can make a living building saddle trees. There are a few of us doing it, and there could be more. But you won’t get rich (not by a long shot), it is long hours and hard work, it can be repetitive work, it can be lonely work, and to do it for any length of time you have to love doing it. If you are just looking for “something that I can do at home to make a living”, building saddle trees isn’t going to be it.

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I want to build saddle trees because it is something that really interests me, I think I can do it, and I want to try to make a living at it.

This is the reason very few people have given to us, but it is the one that gives the best chance of someone actually becoming a tree maker and making a living doing it. First, the curiosity or fascination with saddle trees and how they work keeps you wanting to learn more about the variety of horses and saddles, more about shapes and angles, more about how to make a better tree. The desire to build saddle trees as your final product, not just a part of what you are doing, keeps you focused on them and striving for excellence in this one small field. The ability to see a shape in your mind and then create it with your hands gives a lot of satisfaction. The goal of building better trees and building them more efficiently keeps you carving yet another bar when you have made hundreds and thousands of them already. These are the things that keep you building through thick and thin, being willing to deal with the business end of things and being OK with organizing your life around babysitting saddle trees as they dry. It isn’t an easy job, but it is rewarding. And we can sure use some more hand made tree makers in the industry.

In part two – Do you have what it takes to be a tree maker?

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