Crafting Cowboy Gear

on November 27, 2005

Beads of sweat form on Brian King’s brow as he steps into a basement room of King’s Saddlery and Ropes in Sheridan, Wyo. (pop. 15,804). The room, heated to 130 degrees, smells like a freshly mowed lawn, the scent emanating from a hundred grass ropes stretched between steel beams mounted on the walls.

King, 32, ties six 30-foot lengths of nylon rope to hooks jutting from another set of beams and cranks a pulley system that pulls the ropes taut.

“We’re making lariats,” explains King, whose grandfather Don King founded the business 42 years ago. “We twist some of our own nylon ropes and we tie all the precise knots that turn a rope into a lariat, but as important as anything is this stretching. A rope doesn’t get longer when you stretch it. It gets straighter.”

The combination of heat and tension for four or five days eliminates a rope’s tendency to bend and kink when a cowpoke uses it to lasso livestock.

“A rope that isn’t straight can’t be thrown accurately,” says South Dakota cowboy Larry Mendoza, who bought his first King rope 20 years ago for rodeo competition. A second-rate lariat that kinks, Mendoza adds, can cost the roper a finger if the digit gets caught between the rope and saddle horn.

While quality ropes built Don King’s business, his shop’s handcrafted saddles always have been the big draw. That remains true today. An adjoining museum displays 500 saddles, representing styles popular across the West and around the world.

Don, 82, figures he built a thousand saddles during his career, and while he’s retired now, two of the shop’s employees—Clint Gibson and Link Weaver—continue making new saddles and repairing old ones.

A saddle typically takes two-and-a-half weeks to produce, beginning with the selection of prime leather for the seat, leather that stretches for curved sections, and sturdy hide for stirrups. Half the production time is committed to carving the leather artistically with swivel knives, leather punches and other hand tools.

Saddle designs can say something about the owner, or perhaps about the builder. Don King, for example, is recognized by Western aficionados as the creator of the “Sheridan-style” saddle, distinguished by tight, interlocking circles of roses and stems. His interest in saddle making started early. At age 5 he began traveling with his dad, a cowboy who worked at cattle roundups and ranches across the West.

“Anytime we came to a different town, we’d go to a saddle shop,” King recalls, “because that’s where you’d find out who was hiring. Those places kind of fascinated me.”

When Don was drifting through the West on his own, at age 15, an Arizona saddle maker taught him the basics of working with leather. King initially turned out small products like hand-tooled belts and wallets, then progressed to horse saddles. He opened his first saddle shop in Sheridan in 1947, but it didn’t last long because he found himself drawn to outdoor work, especially breaking horses. Still, King made saddles at home as time allowed and opened another shop in 1963, which has grown into a fixture on Sheridan’s Main Street.

Townspeople proudly boast how the shop claims loyal customers from across the West, but that’s selling the place short. Visitors show up from around the world, including, a few years back, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

But it’s not likely royal visits or anything else will change King’s much. Don’s son, Bruce King, 58, runs the business now, employing a staff of 25. Most of those employees work in the store, selling horse tack, Western wear, and 50,000 of those properly stretched lariats annually.

“Part of our success is due to not getting too big for our britches,” Bruce says. “We’re doing what we understand.”

Found in: Traditions