Keith Seidel began his leather career sweeping the floor of a boot shop — now, he furthers his craft through an apprentice program.
Across from Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyoming, stands Seidel’s Saddlery. The building is half a block down from the boot shop where Keith Seidel began his leather career sweeping the floor. From there, he hired on with various saddlemakers from Wyoming to Arizona. It’s in Seidel’s nature to question everything, so when he learned techniques, he would immediately test them to see if they were correct or not. That approach has helped Seidel craft saddles known for durability, horse fit, a comfortable rider seat, and, of course, beauty.
“It has to be a saddle first. I don’t really care what it looks like if it doesn’t function properly. Some saddles are really pretty, but you can’t ride them across the street. After function, I decorate it.
“Years ago, a guy came into my shop who had spent the winter in a line shack. He had a file thick with clippings and sketches. He wanted to put all these parts of different saddles together, along with some new ideas. I gave it a lot of thought and said, ‘It can’t be done.’ It took me four months of literally waking up in the middle of the night with ideas to sketch. Then, I figured out how to do it. It introduced a new way for me to build saddles. The design combined an in-skirt rigging with a Sam Stagg-style “over the swell” rigging with a Mother Hubbard single skirt. This eventually evolved into a one-piece saddle where the entire top of the saddle is made from a single piece of leather molded to the tree without any splits or seams.
“I’m a fairly flamboyant person. My personal saddle is a Wildcat swell fork that I developed to combine the features of Association, Packer, and Wade trees. The swell has a low profile with a wood post horn and prominent front lip. The saddle has large butterfly round skirts, is three-quarters tooled — smooth under my leg — with an alligator inlaid seat and 24-inch eagle-beak tapaderos. The silver is by Rob Schaezlien, which really pops against the rich chestnut two-tone color.”
“I first consider a horse’s shape and conformation. Matching the tree to the shape of the horse, and then balancing the rider to the horse’s movement, is what makes a saddle perform properly. In order for the horse to perform to his potential, it is very important for him to be comfortable. Horses need room to contract and relax their muscles under the saddle without binding on the tree. I guarantee the fit of my saddles because the ultimate test is for my customers to take them home, saddle up their horses, and ride.
“After 20 years of the Wade reigning in popularity, cowboys want to buy swell forks. We’re seeing requests for the traditional styles — like the Tiptons, Will James, and Luellens — with 14-inch- or 15-inch-wide swells. The other trend is that seats have gotten longer. When I started, the average seat size was 15. Today it’s 16 plus. Four-and-a-half-inch cantles are now my standard. People tend to ride as tall as they can practically ride. The cantle has gotten smaller as far as width goes. Most are 12 inches or 11 inches wide.”
Furthering The Craft
“The saddlemaking industry is not training our next generation. If we masters don’t preserve it, quality saddlemaking may literally disappear. Saddlemaking was the most important trade of the horse-drawn era and to settling the West. I partnered with the Buffalo Bill Center of the West last year to open a five-year paid apprentice program and saddle shop in the museum.
“I have three apprentices, and we build saddles right in the museum for visitors to observe and visit with us about the process. Apprentices were chosen for their desire to learn how to tool leather and build saddles, as well as their ability to interpret the craft for the public.
“Another part of preserving the saddlemaking trade is preserving the client. Saddles can be made in a factory, but they’re of lesser quality than those that are hand-built. As we move farther from a horse-drawn society, people know less about horses and their necessary tack for recreational use. Through the museum, the apprentices generate their own following of people interested in their work.”
For more on Seidel, visit his website.
Photography: (All images) courtesy Keith Seidel
From our July 2021 issue