A Colorado couple elevates the cowboy’s craft to high art.
Long dedicated to the art of saddlemaking, Loren and Lisa Skyhorse combine their knowledge, experience, and skill to reinterpret the saddle from a personal point of view. Loren is all about function: He builds the tree, creates the form, and finishes the trim. Lisa is all about design: She conceives the overall vision, and then carves, colors, and embellishes the leather with the hand of an artist. Together, the husband-and-wife team transcends utility to arrive at art by blending aesthetics with performance.
As breathtaking as the saddles first appear, the real impact lies in the details — rich finishes, vibrant colors, inlaid seats. They are rubbed to a smooth patina or trimmed with Loren’s famous edge braid, done in either traditional kangaroo leather or his exclusive silver lace.
In many ways, their saddles become vehicles for a much larger idea than simply transporting a human on the back of a horse. Yet even the artistic saddles that are part of The Skyhorse Collection are suitable for riding — a wooden tree covered with rawhide or fiberglass guarantees long performance and a smooth surface, and the width of the bars and cantle are designed to distribute weight properly. If destined for a particular horse, preliminary measurements are taken. But whether or not they are ever used, the Collection saddles provide the pleasure of owning a supremely integrated structure that also happens to be a work of art.
“To date, we’ve produced over 950 saddles,” Lisa says. “We’ve created saddles for show, pleasure, and trail riding — even sidesaddles. ‘Skyrider,’ our lightweight, more standardized line for the casual rider or working cowboy, offers options for sizes and colors but is still handmade. Everything we do is custom, to either our own or the customer’s specifications.”
A diversity of inspiration lies behind the Collection saddles. The “Yellowstone,” for example, references the history of the Spanish saddle in California with its broad mochila and tapadero stirrup. Yet another, the “Good Luck” sidesaddle, covered with hand-carved blossoms and leaves, evokes the Mexican rodeo where women ride in full, layered skirts and frilly blouses. The bold decorations appear in high relief, each one padded from underneath in classic trapunto technique. For the “We Are All Related” saddle, the couple used 150 sterling silver and turquoise feathers made by renowned Navajo jeweler Tommy Singer to trim the leather.
Collaborations sometimes further a saddle in a specific direction. “We recently designed a saddle, ‘Compadres,’ with the help of New Mexico woodworker Andy Sanchez,” Lisa says. “It’s based on a vaquero-style version with an exposed tree — a perfect piece of wood that curves around the cantle, utilizing woodworking as well as leatherwork. It’s enhanced with vintage Mexican silver trim.”
The diversity of the Skyhorse designs attest to the varied passions of their creators. Lisa and Loren love to travel and explore, especially faraway locales with remnants of ancient nomadic horse cultures. Over the last decade, they have journeyed to Africa, Mongolia, Peru, and the Altai Mountains of Siberia, where they taught classes to indigenous leatherworkers. “They needed tools, and we left them whatever we could to repair and make new gear,” Lisa says. “Following that trip, we brought two of the Siberian saddlemakers home with us to Colorado to study with us in our studio.”
Combining their love of travel with philanthropy, on an excursion to Peru they helped local villagers, whose only means of transportation are horses and donkeys, improve their equipment and care for their animals. On their second trip to Mongolia, they teamed up with a pediatrician, a dentist, and an eye doctor. “While they went to rural areas to treat the needy,” Lisa says, “we set up three leather co-ops so traveling nomadic horsemen had access to tools for repairing leather. It’s gratifying to be able to give back. These trips were a gift to them and to ourselves as well.”
Lisa’s lifelong adventure in the saddle took a fortuitous turn after she graduated from UCLA, where she majored in art and philosophy in the 1960s. She honed her leatherworking skills as an apprentice to master saddlemaker Lawrence DeWitt in Eugene, Oregon. Her first saddle, built at the age of 24, launched a career that would shape the rest of her life.
Lisa met Loren, formerly a biologist, while he was working as a trapper. A mutual love of horses and the great outdoors brought them together. They married in 1977 and first homesteaded on the Northern California coast, where they lived off the grid in a tepee in order to save money and further their work. “Oddly enough, I taught Loren how to build his first saddle,” Lisa says. “But we learned later that his great-grandfather had once been a harness maker.”
For a time, they boarded and bred Arabian endurance horses while pursuing their saddlemaking careers. In 1996 they moved with their children to Durango, Colorado, to be closer to the Native American and horse cultures there, as well as to connect to nature. “We fell in love with the area and have a beautiful home these days — with running water plus three wonderful horses,” Lisa says. “I really believe the move freed us to take our work to a higher level.”
Jackson Clark, a major collector and owner of the famed Toh-Atin Gallery in Durango, is a fan of the couple’s work. “Real cowboys go nuts over these,” he says, referring to the Collection saddles. “Although in my opinion, there’s not a horse in the world deserving of something this beautiful. Still, I try to keep a sample in my gallery all year-round. I’m proud to share this level of work with the world. What I love most about them both is that they create for their own enjoyment and pleasure. When they finish something and it’s done well, they’re happy.”
For more than 20 years the Skyhorses have shown at the Western Design Conference, winning top awards for excellence. In June 2015 they gave a gallery talk at the prestigious Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, where one of their newer saddles, the “Golden Eagle,” remains on long-term loan in the sculpture foyer.
“One saddle and a leather painting are in our permanent collection in an exhibit titled Beautiful Utility,” notes the museum’s executive director, Seth Hopkins. “Here, artifacts of Native American and cowboy culture, including beadwork, chaps, and more, are shown together. I believe Lisa and Loren have taken the saddle to new heights, to places it’s never been.”
Recently, country music fans have been raving about the couple’s latest show-stopping saddle that was used for an airborne number in Shania Twain’s 2015 farewell tour. With a patent leather seat and red fringe, it dazzled under the lights with 1,500 silver studs and 200 silver stars.
For the Skyhorses, however, it’s not about the accolades. It’s about creating an artistic legacy.
“We love what we do,” Lisa says. “And we have no plans of retiring, but we know we’re not immortal. So we’ve become a lot more discerning. These days, we’re only seeking significant work for those who can appreciate it and realize they’re acquiring an heirloom. It’s our well-deserved reward.”
From the January 2016 issue.