Dave Dahl and his dog, Blue, at the top of Deadwood Street in Fort Pierre, South Dakota, near his shop. Photography: Lance Nixon

After 40 years, former bronc rider Dave Dahl still excels in the rodeo world as one of the best saddlemakers anywhere.

The temperature in St. George is needling 112 degrees on the final day of the 1967 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association championship, and Dave Dahl of Keene, North Dakota, is doing informal research by the seat of his pants  —  like what does a guy have to do to win the saddle bronc title under this white-hot Utah sun?

In the end, Dahl will win it by staying cool in the saddle and racking up more points than any other rider on three separate horses whose names he doesn’t remember now. He remembers other things, such as the name of the saddlemaker who helped get him there.

“Neil McGrady had made the saddle,” says Dahl, now 72. “He’d been a neighbor. I think he was out of Montana at that time — I would say Sidney, Montana.”

Dahl was riding for what is now Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota, when he won that college saddle bronc championship. He also won championships in the Great Plains Region three times and went on to win the South Dakota Rodeo Association bronc riding championship in 1968. He rode in the pros for a few years, eventually settling down in a great rodeo town — Fort Pierre, South Dakota, home to perhaps the greatest bronc rider ever, the famous Casey Tibbs.

For the past few decades now, Fort Pierre has also been home to one of the world’s great makers of bronc saddles — since the early 1970s, when Dahl decided he didn’t just want to ride them.

Dahl competes in a 1966 rodeo in Bowman, North Dakota. Photography: Courtesy Dave Dahl

A former rodeo champion probably has an advantage when it comes to shaping leather into bronc saddles.

“I sit in all the saddles I make to see how they feel. It sure helps that I rode myself,” Dahl says. “People have told me, ‘You understand the deal.’ ”

What he doesn’t understand is how and why the business took off like it did from little old Fort Pierre, where the human population doesn’t climb much above 2,000 head except on days when the Fort Pierre Livestock Auction holds its sales. Nonetheless, word got around about his saddles.

“I started making them and they started buying them, I guess,” Dahl says. “At first they weren’t the top of the line, but after a while, we developed a better tree. I worked part-time jobs at first — helped out at the sale barn. It was a humble beginning, but it worked out, I guess.”

No fewer than four world champion bronc riders in recent years earned their buckles in Dahl’s saddles: Tom Reeves in 2001, Glen O’Neill in 2002, Jeff Willert in 2005, and Taos Muncy in 2007 and 2011.

Those who have watched Dahl over the years marvel at how he’s corralled a piece of that high-end market for contestant bronc saddles.

“What’s impressive is that he makes so many saddles for these champion riders who make their living from the back of a saddle,” says Gary Heintz, founder of the Fort Pierre-based Dakota Western Heritage Festival. “Dave is pretty well-known in professional rodeo because half of the guys who finish in the top 15 ride his saddles.”

At last check, cowboys in the top 15 who ride Dahl-made saddles include Zeke Thurston, Hardy Braden, Audy Reed, Taos Muncy, Layton Green, Clay Elliott, Sterling Crawley, and Brody Cress.

Dahl builds them at an average pace of nearly one a week, and cowboys stand in line to get them.

“I think I made 54 last year. Fifty’s kind of my goal. If I get more than 50, I’m happy,” Dahl says.

He sells them for an average of $2,300, complete and ready to ride, or $2,000 for one with billets and binds for the cowboy to finish rigging himself.

Photography: Lance Nixon

Dahl’s customers are bronc riders such as Hardy Braden of  Welch, Oklahoma, who learned to ride on another maker’s saddle but hasn’t shopped elsewhere since he bought his first Dahl saddle. If they have a drawback, Braden says, it’s that they might show their wear sooner than some. He starts to think about a replacement after riding 150 to 200 horses. But he always buys the replacement from Dahl.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever ride anything else, honestly,” Braden says. “Dave’s been there. It helps tremendously that he rode broncs himself and knows how a bronc saddle should be made and set up to feel good on all sorts of horses.”

Canadian Zeke Thurston of Big Valley, Alberta, has been riding Dahl’s saddles for the better part of two years and says he can tell it makes a difference in his performance.

“There’s a lot of people that ride those saddles,” Thurston says. “They really like them and they ride them good and they win a lot of money in them.”

Bronc rider Hardy Braden readies his Dave Dahl saddle at the Pendleton Round-Up. Photography: Pendleton Round-Up Photograph
Courtesy Christy Burleson

There’s a tradition to making saddles, too, and Dahl landed in a good spot. Heintz says South Dakota, Dahl’s adopted state, had several good saddlemakers because of its abundance of open range when the rest of the West was being fenced off.

Pierre saddlemaker E.C. Lee was noted for the durability of his working man’s saddles, especially, but one of his catalogs from 1930 — now in the South Dakota State Archives in Pierre — lists several “Association” saddles as well, made for competition.

Farther west, in Rapid City, South Dakota, the family-owned Duhamel Company was famous for making saddles, including Association saddles, in the first decades of the 20th century. As the Duhamel family’s biographer, Dale Lewis, notes, the company pitched its wares in catalogs that trumpeted “The Duhamel Saddle — The Best on Earth,” with names such as “The Duhamel Mortgage Lifter” for individual models.

South Dakota can even make some modest connection to the great Hamley & Co. saddles. According to a company website, two brothers formed the company in Ashton, South Dakota — Dakota Territory at the time — in 1883. Crop failures pushed them farther west to Kendrick, Idaho, and finally to Pendleton, Oregon. But South Dakotans such as Heintz who love the saddlemaker’s craft remember they were here.

Dave Dahl is part of the tradition of all those other makers.

“He’s a great saddlemaker,” Braden says. “It’s going to be interesting — he’s getting up there in age. God forbid he ever passes away. I don’t know what’s going to happen as far as his saddles — if somebody’s going to take that over. If nobody does, it’s going to be a sad day in the bronc-riding world.”

Dahl poses in his shop with one of his saddles. Photography: Courtesy Colleen McCurren

Dahl grew up watching rodeo in a town that no longer exists. The Garrison Dam signaled its demise when it flooded the Missouri River valley in that thirsty stretch of North Dakota.

“They flooded out a town called Sanish. They used to have big rodeos when I was a kid. We’d go there,” Dahl recalls.

He earned pocket money helping area ranchers with tasks such as branding. The big color photograph on the wall of Dahl’s shop shows one of those occasions —
men and boys working cattle in a corral of rough-cut lumber.

“It’s on a ranch just south of where I grew up. That’s me sitting there branding calves — the one with the dark hat on,” Dahl says. “We used to ride there, my brother and I. We’d camp out for three or four days and we’d round up cattle out of the big country and brand those Hereford cattle — back then everybody had Herefords. That would have to be about ’58 to ’60, right in there.”

It was on the Brooks Keogh Ranch, and Keogh, a redheaded Irishman, was president of the American National Cattlemen’s Association and also the past president of the short-lived Sanish Rodeo Association — formed back in 1947, when people still didn’t know whether to believe all the talk about the Pick-Sloan plan to flood the Missouri River valley.

“Some of the neighbors were rodeo competitors, and I guess that kind of enthused a guy,” Dahl says. “One of my neighbors was Solly Danks, and I used to do his chores when he went to rodeos. I was influenced a lot by him. Mervel Hall was another guy not too far away. Guys like that just made good impressions.”

Young Dahl and some neighbor boys would go down onto the Fort Berthold Reservation, round up horses out of the rough country, and practice riding — saddle up retired bucking horses and anything else they could dab a loop on. That’s how bronc riders are made in North Dakota.

From the January 2018 issue.

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