Saddle maker crafts leather to make a good ride for man and horse
PULLTIGHT -- Kelly Collom fell in love with horses while riding with his father when he was knee high to a grasshopper. It was to be 20 more years before he owned his own horse at the age of 24.
Today, he painstakingly crafts custom saddles from his shop, Horse Corner Saddles, on his 46-acre farm in the Pulltight community on Chicken Road between Doaks Crossroads and Bairds Mill. The saddles are built to be practical, beautiful and enduring.
“What makes me do it? I enjoy it. It’s artistic,” Collom said “What I do is fit the horse, the rider and the job. When I accomplish this, I’m helping all three.”
According to the former farrier, it takes patience and perseverance to be a saddle maker, but “the main thing is you got to want to do it.”“I take a lot of care in them and want them to be all they can be,” Collom said of his saddles that take him about eight days to make from scratch. He works eight to 10 hours a day, six days a week at his saddle shop, commuting from his home in Nashville.
Collom’s farm features a 60-by-80-foot indoor arena with a sandy floor, a 300-by-100-foot outdoor arena, a shoeing area and eight stalls. He raises quarter horses and has six of his own (Shorty Is, Junior, Pudding, Lacey, Lena and Maria), while he boards another dozen or so. He also keeps seven cats (probably more for mice than luck). But make no mistake the horses have always been his passion.
The former factory worker and tractor-trailer driver was born in Michigan and at age 10 moved with his family to Nashville where he graduated from Antioch High School. He moseyed on to Lebanon in 1985, moved to Watertown in 1993 and owned a farm in Alexandria from 1998 to 2001 before he opened his saddle shop here in 2003.
Collom shod horses for 17 years, a chore he began in 1991 out of necessity. “I couldn’t find nobody to shoe my horse,” he recollected. It was also from necessity that he ventured into leather craft. “I started doing saddle making cause my saddle was wearing out, and I couldn’t find anyone to repair it.”
After repairing his busted saddle, Collom built three. But he knew he needed a mentor. “I wanted to figure out how to do it the right way, so I went to school in Colorado.”
At the Pleasant Valley Saddle Shop in Loveland, Colo., he went to class one-on-one for two weeks with leather master Dusty Johnson and built a saddle under Johnson’s expert eye.
“I’m still in school since I call him all the time and say, ‘What about this?’” said Collom, who has sold 21 saddles in the past two years. In 2008, he made 12 to 15 saddles.
Prices on his saddles start at $1,800. Cost depends on the style of saddle among other things. Currently perched in his shop are seven finished saddles, including a roping saddle, a Will James saddle, an old-time slick fork saddle, a Billings saddle, a Cliff Wade saddle and an association roping saddle,
Collom starts with a saddle tree (wood wrapped in rawhide), three tanned cowhides and stainless steel hardware.“I don’t cut any corners on anything. It’s all No. 1 leather. The seats are all hand carved to fit the individual. The stirrup leather and fenders are hand turned and pre-stretched. It‘s important that saddles be built for comfort and sturdiness,” said Collom, who measures the horse and has the rider sit to fit his seat before he gets down to work.
Besides the tree, other parts of the saddle include the ground seat, jockey horn, the rigging, stirrups, fenders, swell, skirts and rear cinch. The saddle maker uses a myriad of tools during the process: sewing machines, end punchers, hole punchers, cantle puncher, calipers, saddlery’s hammer, edgers, strap cutter, awls, skive, cobbler pliers and, the most important tool of all, a round knife.
Collom follows a list on his wall of 26 steps to making a saddle. This gray winter afternoon he is at step #24 (oil) on a saddle as he slathers Sheps Pure Neatsfoot Oil to the leather.
The saddles take shape with the help of tacks, screws, rivets, gobs of shoemaker’s glue and a ton of elbow grease, but it’s truly the deft hand of the leather worker that makes it a work of art. That means hours of hand stitching, hand tooling and hand carving.
Probably the most arduous task of saddle making is rubbing down the seat, a chore that takes time to get it right.
When Collom made his first saddle, he didn’t have a book, so he took an old saddle apart and used that for a pattern. The contrast in his saddles from now and then, Collom said “is the difference between daylight and dark.
“They seriously changed when I came back from Colorado, and there is a large difference in the quality and time it takes for me to make one.”
Last summer Collom attended the Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show in Sheridan, Wyo., where he took several classes in tooling Sheridan-style, which he describes as “floral, extravagant” and something “that makes a saddle more a piece of art.”
Through word of mouth, his Web site, horse shows and a TV appearance on “Tennessee Crossroads,” Collom’s business is gaining ground. His customers have included amateur rodeo cowboys, a Vanderbilt professor, trail riders and Realtors.
He sets three goals for himself before he tackles a new saddle.
“My first goal is to build a saddle that is best for the horse; spreading the rider’s weight over the horse’s back as equally as possible, with nothing to bind him up.
“My second goal is to make a saddle that is designed to fit human anatomy, so that you can ride all day and be comfortable. The rider wants to do a job too, and the saddle should make that easier.
“Third, I want any saddle I build to be one of your favorite things. Something that can become a family heirloom and be passed on.”