Brian Ironmonger knows how to make saddles.
His 45 years in the business have taught him that the best leather comes from Curwensville, Pennsylvania, and that the most balanced saddle trees are made from north-slope ponderosa pine in Monticello, Utah.
Ironmonger has made hundreds of saddles for hundreds of riders, from Canadian reined cow horse champion Mark Parsons to American roper Walt Vermedahl.
“Mark has about 10 of my saddles and Walt has even more because they like the way they fit the horses, and the people,” said the 78-year-old saddle maker. “And they like the fact that you just don’t tear them up — when you tear up one of my saddles, you better be ready for one hell of a wreck.”
Brian’s Saddle Shop in Elko, B.C. , is a combination of workspace, retail shop and teaching centre. Not only does Ironmonger make custom saddles and tack for buyers from around the world, but he passes on his hard-won wisdom to students from as far afield as the United States, Germany and Japan.
Aspiring saddle-makers stay in a cabin at the Ironmonger ranch, and spend a month alongside the master to learn the tricks of the trade.
“The good ones take notes and write down their mistakes and how you fix them,” said Ironmonger, adding that he has been keeping his own personal notebook for more than 40 years.
The former bareback bronc rider took up saddle making out of necessity. At the age of 24, Ironmonger was in a logging accident that broke his neck, his back and his hopes of being the cowboy he grew up to be in Alberta.
The accident left him with limited use of his legs, so he put his hands to work making a living, and a glowing reputation, as a saddle maker. He builds about 10 to 15 saddles a year, focusing on achieving the perfect fit, and the perfect finish.
“You got to start with a good tree and good leather and after that it’s all about putting in the time,” said Ironmonger, who works alongside his wife, Margaret, in his log-cabin shop.
“You only get out of a saddle what you put into it.”
Ironmonger said the average saddle takes him 40 to 50 hours to make and sells for $2,500 to $6,000.
The key to success is getting the right fit for both rider and horse. Ironmonger’s decades of experience enable him to look at the rider and the horse breed and from that pretty much get the right fit. But just to be sure, he teaches buyers how to measure their horses by running a piece of wire over the horse’s back and shoulders and sketching out a pattern.
The best saddles, adds Ironmonger, are not necessarily the prettiest.
“I like something that’s attractive to look at but I build for strength before I build for beauty,” said Ironmonger. “I don’t want to put out a pretty saddle and the first time your horse blows up or you rope your first big steer, your saddle blows up on you.”
Ironmonger is all about solid, old-fashioned craftsmanship, even if it means giving away his trade secrets and teaching others to make saddles that may be as good as his own. He takes pride in teaching his students how to make saddles that will last a lifetime.
“There’s a girl that I trained and she’ll come in here and show me what she did. It’s usually perfect and that makes me feel really good that she’s learned that from me and gone and enhanced it.”
Margaret added that when students come to take classes, they become a member of the extended Ironmonger family.
“They stay in our cabin, they shower with us, eat with us and come in the house with us, so we really, really get to know them,” said Margaret, whose jobs in the shop include cutting leather and doing the stitching and sewing for pro-jects as varied as saddles, bridles, boat covers and tarps.
The experience leaves students not only with a saddle at the end of the month-long workshop, but also with a life-long relationship with a well-known saddle maker who said he’ll probably never retire.
“I’ve been retired since I was 15,” said Ironmonger, acknowledging his labours of love —country living and saddle making.