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Only The Best Saddles For Real Cowboys

You can tell a lot about a cowboy by the type of saddle on his horse’s back. Some are dolled up with silver for the show ring, others are rugged for work in the backcountry. And there is one place in the Northwest where cowboys turn for the best. Anna King has this profile of a saddle maker in Pendleton, Oregon.

People talk about cowboys like they are only in movies. But in some parts of the Northwest cowboys still rope and ride.

And some even still play lonesome cowboy songs.

 Saddle Maker
Jim “Stoney” Stone, a saddle maker for Hamley’s in Pendleton, starts work on a trophy roping saddle for the annual Pendleton Roundup.

Smokey Dowling is playing guitar outside Hamley’s saddle shop in Pendleton, Oregon. He and his brother Oliver and sister Theodora drove all the way from California to get here. They are on a pilgrimage to see saddles.

And they are not just any saddles. These are Hamley’s saddles. It’s an establishment that started in 1883. In roping circles, owning a Hamley saddle is akin to owning a Harley Davidson or a Vera Wang dress.

Cowboy-hat-clad Oliver was browsing through the saddle shop admiring each saddle.

Oliver: "I break horses I shoe horses."

Particularly, he had his eye on a $4500 beauty.

Oliver: "They are punchy. They’re just a buckaroo's, it’s a buckaroo's dream to own a good Hamley’s saddle. You can’t beat the Hamley’s wade it’s the first wade saddle ever built."

The Wade is a type of low profile saddle. It’s popular with many ropers and working cowboys for its low horn and close fit to the horse.

Oliver: "I like this saddle here."

Oliver said he can’t afford the saddle just yet. Some of the saddles cost even more than his horses. But it didn’t stop him from admiring them.

Oliver: "It’s just a really useful tool. It’s also beautiful. The handcrafted elements to it, the stitching and the leatherwork. They hold up for generations."

So who makes these most revered saddles?

Meet Jim Stone. Better known as Stoney. He grew up in the saddle on the Colville Reservation. For 30 years he’s been hand crafting them in shops across the country. Stoney says a saddle is the tool of a cowboy’s trade.

Jim Stone: "It’s like that guy and his car. If he has a logging truck. What that truck to him? It’s got to do the job and it’s got to do it well. But he takes pride in it that’s why he has chrome bumpers and aluminum wheels. What they are paying on the job dictates how he fancies it up."

Theodora Dowling is here with her brothers. She would love a fancy Hamley. She’s a serious rider. She sports a broken front tooth from an unbroken colt that threw her off this summer. But Theodora says to ride a Hamley saddle you have to have the guts to back it up. She wonders if she’s worthy.

Theodora Dowling: "Are you as good as your saddle is? It’s a balance there. You want to look like you know what you are doing when you buy a saddle, but you don’t want to look like you buy the right stuff and can’t back it up with you know real skill."

Stoney is poking holes in tin. This will form the foundation of the saddle seat that will be awarded to the winning team of ropers at this year’s Pendleton Round-Up. He’s at the beginning of what he thinks will be a 50 hour job.

Jim Stone: "Not much sound when you are cutting one of these out. That’s the way it should be when you have a sharp knife."

This in an era when most saddles are stamped out by machines.

But despite the history and admiration from cowboys – even singing cowboys — Stoney doesn’t consider his work art.


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