Hot Springs boasts two saddle makers

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Farm Forum

HOT SPRINGS, S.D. — If a cowboy without a horse seems unimaginable, riding horses without a saddle — it’s just not gonna happen. Cowboys, horses and saddles are one.

Yet saddle-making is becoming a lost art — except here in Hot Springs, which is home to two saddle makers.

Doug Pirnie of Y-L (Y-bar-L) Saddlery, creates custom saddles. Veldon Morgan is the master who taught Pirnie the craft.

“I was always interested in doing saddles,” said Pirnie, who grew up on a ranch near Dunning, Neb., and enjoys doing all kinds of leather work.

Pirnie put an interest in saddle-making on the back burner for a few years after checking out schools in Oklahoma, where a person could get a college degree in leather working and making saddles. He decided that was not for him since he wasn’t such a great student.

He also checked ads in the back of “Western Horseman” magazine for saddle-making and discovered two weeks of training would cost $5,000.

“I didn’t have that kind of money,” he said.

In the meantime, he worked on ranches and was a saddle bronc rider until he broke his arm.

That was when he heard through the grapevine about a job available at Morgan’s Leather, a wholesale and custom saddlemaker that also made other leather goods, owned and operated by Veldon and Wanda Morgan.

Pirnie figured he could do on-the-job training as saddle maker, so he called Veldon Morgan, only to discover he wasn’t hiring at the time.

But Pirnie wasn’t one to give up too easily. Morgan said both Pirnie’s mother, who kept insisting he give her son a shot, and Pirnie himself pestered him about working for him.

When an opening finally came up, Pirnie said, “There really wasn’t an interview. It was more about who I knew in Martin.”

Pirnie’s grandparents lived in Tuthill, southeast of Martin in Bennett County. Morgan was born in Tuthill.

Finally working for Morgan, Pirnie met Lacey, a North Dakota girl who was sewing handbags and personal items for Morgan’s leather goods business. They eventually married.

“I’ve always been fascinated by saddles. When I looked at the parts involved I was amazed. There’s lots more parts than I thought there were,” Pirnie said.

Morgan lauds Pirnie with what might be the greatest compliment a cowboy can have. “I had some good hands in here, and Doug Pirnie was a good one, the best. He got good, real good.”

Several years ago, when the saddle business was in a slump, Weaver Leather bought out Morgan’s Leather.

Weaver an Ohio business owned and operated by Amish and Mennonite families, didn’t want the wholesale saddle-making business, so the Pirnies decided to go out on their own, as Y-L Saddlery and continue making saddles. Y-L was Lacey’s grandfather’s brand in North Dakota.

“My favorite thing about making saddles is that I’m tickled when it turns out and it actually looks like a saddle,” Pirnie said, smiling. He also likes the combination of creativity and precision required in saddle-making, especially tooling and stamping saddle parts.

“You pretty much have a free rein with this,” he said, “but it has to look like something, it has to flow, it just can’t be a blob of stuff.”

He also appreciates hearing from customers; frequently it’s “this is the best saddle I ever had,” because he gets a great deal of satisfaction in building a specialized product for someone. Lots of time and effort went into it, he says.

The amount of time required to produce a saddle varies. Typically, it’s about 40 hours per saddle. However, he said you often work 120 hours in order to get the 40 hours, due to the dry time involved in wet-forming leather parts to the tree and other items. He figures it will take about two to three weeks to complete a saddle.

Early on in the business, he said, his saddle-making was all wholesale, and he was building about six saddles per month. He’d get orders to make 10 saddles in one phone call, he said.

However, this changed in about 2001. It got worse in 2007 when the recession hit and after that it just dried up because even the “mom and pop” tack shops were disappearing due to someone passing away or other circumstances.

As a result, Y-L Saddlery quickly moved into retail saddle-making. They still produce some bucking rolls and reins sold wholesale.

During his 20 years, Pirnie has made more than 500 custom saddles and 1,100 wholesale saddles

“Lacey does all the sewing and helps a lot,” he said. He pointed out how she’s the “finishing department” at Y-L, sewing sheepskin with two lines of stitching on fenders and making awards for Play Days, the Little Britches rodeo, high school rodeos, etc.

Much of the machinery initially came from Morgans, and a lot of it is “really old.” Some of it you have to make your own, he said.

About the only thing Pirnie doesn’t like about saddle-making is the final process, oiling the leather. Lacey does this, heating light harness oil for a typical finish or using white oil, a blend of olive oil, to create a lighter finish.

“We pride ourselves in carrying on the tradition. Each saddle is hand built here by us,” Pirnie said.

Morgan and his wife, Wanda, have been in the saddle business for 53 years. Veldon said he started thinking about getting out when China and India began mass producing saddles at a cost he simply couldn’t compete with.

“If you look at them (India-made saddles, like the big box stores sell) and you know what you’re looking at, you’ll see they’re junk. But they’re selling for $1,000 and I can’t do that. A custom saddle here will run about $4,000,” he said.

With so much work under their belts, the Morgans decided to give retirement a try, selling both Morgan’s Leather and the Laramie Boot company that they began. But retirement did not suit them.

Veldon couldn’t stay away from leather and started making saddles and other leather products again. Wanda couldn’t sit still either and opened Wanda’s Finds, selling a variety of items from silver work, hats and footwear to antiques and collectibles.

“I keep busy all the time, I like what I do, it keeps me alive,” Veldon says. “I had lots of cancer. You need something to drive your life.”

The part he enjoys most about saddle-making and leather work is “seeing what it will look like when it’s finished.”

Veldon intends to keep on making saddles until he can’t do it anymore.

“I have no interest in retirement,” he said. “They told me to try fishing. When I was a kid and could play hookey from school and go fishing, that was fun. But when you’re fishing, instead of doing what you like to do, that’s no fun. This has been good to us. We’ve met a lot of good people through this.”