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A Saddle Fit For a California Vaquero King

I just got off the phone with my good friend, Deryk Pitts, or “Pitsy,” as I call him, "Uncle Pitsy" as my daughters call him. Our conversation, as it usually does, no matter where it starts, finds its way to saddle-making once again. Pitsy is an outstanding saddle maker that builds real using rigs that are not only, but also are functional but are works of art. Pitsy is a traditionalist, building his saddles in the time-honoured way of only using natural products. His trees are handmade by himself, using source or pine to build out the form, then covered in rawhide to give them strength and longevity. Pitsy uses the best Herman-Oak leather available on these trees to create a usable piece of art that will last a lifetime.


A saddle of mine made by Pitsy. Photo by Trent Schlamp.


As we were visiting, Pitsy told me he was just catching up on some bridle orders while he waited for the tree he had recently built and covered to dry out in his tree shop. Once the rawhide was dry and hardened, it would be shellacked to waterproof it before the leather was laid on.


This conversion got me thinking of a very lucky find that I had made many years ago while down in Montana attending a Buck Brannaman clinic. The clinic was in Whitefish, Montana. As usual, when I travel around, I like to check out any saddle shops that I come across. The gem I found was just down the road from Whitefish, on your way to Glacier Park in the little town of Columbia Falls.


This shop seemed to cater to mostly packers and outfitters, as it had lots of really cool horse and mule packing gear. As I wandered around the shop, checking out all the cool items on display, my eye was drawn to a saddle stand in the corner of the room… There were some pack saddles and pads stacked upon something that I could see appeared to be a well-used saddle by the colour of the stirrups showing.


At first glance, I knew that this rig needed my closer examination. So I proceeded to peel off all of the sawbucks and blankets that were stacked on top of this treasure. To my delight, what did I find but a well-used Ray Holes Wade Saddle!


Although this saddle had some age on it, and had been used plenty, it was still in very good shape! I thought to myself, “Wow, what a find, but I bet it’s only in the shop for a minor repair or maybe just a good cleaning.” Trying not to sound too eager and putting on my best poker face, I enquired to a nearby shop clerk whether it was for sale. Well, the fellow I talked to said he wasn’t sure, and I would have to talk to the lady at the front counter, as he believed that it was hers. I picked up a few odds and ends that I was certain I absolutely needed and made my way to the front counter, where the lady was just finishing up with a customer.


As she was ringing up my purchases, I casually asked her if that old saddle in the corner was hers, and if so, was it for sale? She said it was for sale, and it had been her grandfather. She told me that he had no use for it anymore and he had given it to her. She told me how she was a barrel racer and had no need for a Wade saddle such as it, so she figured she might as well sell it, as a barrel racer like her could always use the entry fee and gas money.


With this exciting green light, I asked her what she needed for it, and she told me. Well, I didn't barter with her, and I bought it on the spot! The saddle was obviously worth a lot more to me than it was to her. To her, it was just an old and well-used piece of tack that didn’t suit her needs, gifted to her by her grandfather for gas money. But to me, it was a treasure, with its own story, and built by the famous saddle maker in Grangeville Idaho – Ray Holes.


Denice riding the Ray Holes saddle. Photo by Trent Schlamp.


In the Northern Great Basin, Ray was known for producing great saddles and horse gear and training many an inspiring young saddlemaker. I remember Pitsy telling me, back in his younger days, when he was travelling down the rodeo trail as a bareback bronc rider, that he had wanted into Ray's shop for a look around. It was this shop and that visit that started Deryk on his journey to becoming the outstanding talent that he is today.


Well, talk about exciting, I couldn't wait to get that saddle back home and throw it on one of my horses and see how it felt. I couldn't have been more pleased, it fit me and my horses great, and all it really needed was a good cleaning! And it had many more years left in it.


Wanting to know more about this saddle, I thought I would give Chuck Stormes a call and have him take a look at it. Chuck is a master saddle maker, not far from my home of Pekisko, just in Millarville, Alberta. It was in his shop many years ago that Deryk got his start. Well, Chuck looked the saddle over and said that he believed it to have been made in Ray's shop in the early ’70s. Chuck said he bet that the silver on the rig was made by Visalia Silver in Visalia, California. And sure enough, when we pulled a concho off and took a good look at it, it was stamped “Visalia Silver.” Chuck has an eye for all details of saddles.


Another cool thing that I haven't mentioned is that this saddle has a centre fire rig which you don’t see much anymore. The centre fire rig, which means it only has one cinch, so no back cinch is present, was popular with the California Vaqueroes. The Texas cowboys of old, always rode a double-rig saddle, meaning two cinches, and his cousin to the west rode a centre-fire, or “one cinch saddle.”


As with a lot of my gear, and I’m sure it’s a pretty common story, this saddle was confiscated by my wife Denice as it was light and very comfortable. And that was fine with me, as I have my Pitsy rigs to ride, and it’s always nice when your family enjoys the same things that you do.


A saddle of mine made by Pitsy. Photo by Trent Schlamp.


So I guess the moral of my ramble is that in your travels, always be sure to check out those places off the beaten path. You never know what treasures you will find, I know it’s paid off for me more than once.


Happy trails,


– KJS


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