I love meeting new people in unexpected places. I first found Shelly Liggett online when I was researching toy fox terriers, but quickly discovered that besides raising terriers, she’s an accomplished artisan who makes custom saddles by hand. I had to meet her and learn more.
The first thing I should do is define the word, “custom.” You may think “custom” means selecting a few stamp designs or silver baubles as though you’re choosing tile and cabinet hardware for your kitchen, but that’s not the case when it comes to Shelly’s saddles.
When she uses the word “custom,” it means that she’s creating a one-of-a-kind piece of functional art. Her designs take into consideration the type of riding you do, the contour of your horse, and the size of your… backside… before she starts hand-cutting the leather and building your saddle.
On my last road trip, I stopped off at her shop in Mineral Wells, Texas, where I was greeted by Shelly’s mascot – a gorgeous Solomon Eclectus parrot named Ziva. After exchanging pleasantries with Ziva, I had a chance to learn even more about Shelly’s path from barrel racer and roper to saddle maker/non pro reiner.
“I’ve been riding horses since I was 8 years old,” said Shelly, “and I’ve been buying, training, and selling horses since I was 17. So it’s just been an evolution. Maybe part of it started with my grandmother. She taught me to crochet, but you can only make so many Afghans.” Instead, Shelly channeled creativity into braiding her own tack and equipment and her fellow riders quickly took note of the craftsmanship.
People started asking her to create everything from headstalls to stamped leathers on blankets, and from there, it was a natural leap to saddles. “My first goal as a saddlemaker was to build my husband, Bruce, a saddle he liked. He’s tall and slender with long legs and a really little butt. For him, the angles are really important. If it’s not set up right, he might tilt forward or just be uncomfortable in the seat. We’d been buying saddles at full retail and then having to sell them four months later because they didn’t work out.”
After apprenticing and eventually serving as head saddlemaker at other shops, Shelly opened her own business in January of 2006. “I don’t just pound on leather day in and day out,” she says. “There are some saddlemakers that don’t know ‘come here’ from ‘sic em’ about horses. My customers like the fact that I also ride, clean stalls, and work up in that barn. I still have youngsters I’m raising. I still have prospects I buy and sell. It’s important to me to stay grounded in the horse industry by being really involved.”
Whether it’s a horse or a piece of leather, Shelly sees the potential. “I never lay the leather out in exactly the same way on any two pieces,” she says. “I start with the best quality materials I can get and then I hand fit everything. It makes a huge difference. “
This type of quality and attention to detail doesn’t come cheap, and Shelly doesn’t even try to compete with the big saddle manufacturers who are using inexpensive materials and assembly-line labor. “People like me are making saddles one at a time,” she explained. “The saddle tree itself can cost $500 to $600. The two sides of leather will cost close to $400.” Add in the sheepskin and the stainless steel hardware, and the cost of materials alone is well over $1,000.
Is it worth it? Her customers seem to think so. And so does her husband, Bruce, whose “little butt” now sits comfortably in a saddle made by his wife’s own two hands.
To learn more about Shelly Liggett, her terriers, her horses, and her saddles, visit Liggett Enterprises: http://liggettenterprises.com/.
~ G. Elaine Acker