Humanitarian Saddle Makers
By Danna Burns-Shaw
Trying to find one title that best describes the Skyhorse’s is impossible. Loren and Lisa Skyhorse are a rare husband and wife saddle-building team that create out-of-this-world leather masterpieces. Once you meet and spend time with them, you will never think of them as just saddle makers; they are truly multi-talented, cosmic human beings. Lisa and Loren were given the “Skyhorse” name by Native Americans and adopted into their culture, as a gifted exchange for all the service and kindness they’ve rendered towards indigenous people around the world.
Residing outside of beautiful Durango, Colorado, the Skyhorse’s home/ranch sits at 7,500 feet above sea level, with a stunning backdrop of the La Plata Mountain Range and adjacent to picturesque Lake Durango. This is the earthly space they visualized and thoughtfully designed, which includes the horse property, sacred home, magical workshop and stunning playground. As Lisa states, “It’s all been a happy accident,” mentioning that the love of the horse brought her and Loren together and everything they do is based in that love.
Two Hands Become Four
Lisa began leatherwork while attending UCLA as an art major. In 1973, she took an apprenticeship with master saddle maker, Lawrence De Witt. At 24, she built her first saddle and began her love affair with working in leather.
Loren was a biologist that did much of his work on horseback. Lisa taught Loren how to build saddles. They studied in England, where they learned the art of English saddle making and they also studied Western boot making with Randy Merrill.
Always seeking adventure, they homesteaded 45 acres on the Northern California coast in 1977. For 20 years they produced all their own power, built their own home, boarded and bred Arabian endurance horses and pursued their saddle making careers. They were sustaining themselves and living “off the grid”….long before living off the grid was deemed cool.
In 1996 they moved to Durango, where they built their dream home/ranch and raised their daughter, Ocea, and son, Ari. Ari currently works two days a week with them, learning the saddle-building trade and developing great skills from his master saddle-making parents. The next generation are their two grandchildren, Violet and Jet; they are teaching and sharing their love of horses, nature and creating with their hands. Lisa and Loren continue to be avid riders and have ridden horses all over the U.S. as well as in Mongolia, Siberia and Africa.
Creating Museum Quality
It was over a decade ago the first time I laid eyes on Lisa and Loren’s work; we were both set up at a horse expo. Strolling through the show I was stopped in my tracks, in complete awe and amazement, when I saw the Skyhorse display. It was truly museum quality craftsmanship. You can imagine my surprise and delight when Loren told me that the credit went to his talented wife, stating Lisa was the inspiration for their work. Lisa creates all the exquisite tooling and hand-painted details and he humbly revealed that she had taught him how to build saddles. My appreciation skyrocketed knowing that a genuine cowgirl/wife and cowboy/husband were responsible for the most remarkable leather work I had ever seen.
Loren’s many contributions to a finished Skyhorse piece include his famous braiding; it is a Skyhorse trademark. The edge braiding with its fine silver lace is unique and magnificent. Loren uses kangaroo lace for all his leather braiding. Silver or leather braiding edges most of their saddles.
All the materials in a Skyhorse saddle are the finest available and all from the USA. Since 1974, they have used Hermann Oak Leather from the oldest tannery in America. The skirts are lined with real sheepskin. Their saddle conchos range from a proprietary Skyrider concho to custom sterling silver concho sets. Their most popular and collectable conchos are created with Navajo jewelers, as well as world class engravers.
Another special feature on a Skyhorse masterpiece is the oiling. Loren is a master at achieving many different deep and rich hues in the leather. This accentuates the beauty of the lines and Lisa’s deep carving, as well as adding suppleness to the leather.
Lisa and Loren’s approach to saddle making is both classic traditional and contemporary. The photos shown certainly substantiate the wife-and-husband team’s 90 years of combined expertise. Their work has transcended to the highest standard in museum quality…and I feel blessed and honored to know and love them, to call them my lifetime cosmic friends.
Humanitarians through Cultural Exchange
The Skyhorse’s heartfelt belief is that the first two-thirds of a person’s life is for learning skills, building a family and establishing an identity and priorities. The last third of one’s life should be dedicated to sharing what has been learned with others. Since 2005, Lisa and Loren have participated in cultural sharing in Mongolia, Siberia, Peru and the Navajo Nation.
Lisa explains, “The Mongolian Leather Project began with a horse trek through the Darhat Valley in northern Mongolia in 2008. We traveled over 200 miles on horseback and felt an enormous connection with the land, the culture and the people. One of our connections was with our guide, Badmaa Dovchin, a 28-year-old Mongolian woman who was raised as a nomad, but was highly educated and fluent in English. Together we also visited the Eagle Hunters in Western Mongolia, who hunt with eagles while riding on horseback.
Our most profound visit was to the Tsaatan People (The Reindeer People), who wander the mountains near the Russian border while herding their reindeer and living in tipis. During this visit, we had the opportunity to work with the Reindeer People who were very interested in the tools we had brought to share. This was the beginning of our Mongolian Leather Project.
The nomadic group we stayed and worked with in the Darhat Valley, North Mongolia, brought us our own gear on a yak.
The next year we returned for another month. This time we brought 100 pounds of leather working tools and 150 pounds of medical supplies. With Badmaa as our partner, we set up three different leather co-ops where people could work , making and fixing their tack and doing other work they could sell or trade. The first project was in Ulaanbatar, the capital city. There lived many displaced nomads with no means of livelihood. Badmaa had identified 20 artistic people and we ran a weeklong workshop.
The second co-op was established in Renchinlumbe, a small town of about 200 people in the Darhat Valley of Northern Mongolia. There we were given a small workshop and trained 12 more people, again leaving a full collection of tools to share. Finally, we worked with a nomadic group about 30 miles outside of Renchinlumbe. Twenty-six families made up this group; it was a joy to live with them and help them create some wonderful leather projects. The head of these nomads kept the tools for all the people to use.”
Altai Mountains – Siberia, Russia
Lisa and Loren had the pleasure of participating in another international leather sharing project in 2013; they were in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia, Russia. Lisa and Loren worked in a small village known for its artisans. Kupchegen is in the remote Altai Republic, not far from the borders of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Initially there were to be 12 -15 artisans, but over 50 people showed up—some from the neighboring Republic of Tuva, a two day trip away. The Skyhorse’s donated 40 pounds of essential leather working tools not available in that region.
The project’s goals were threefold:
- To aid the semi-nomadic people of the Altai with new tools and skills to build on their ancient, traditional skills.
- To help the people make more efficient use of their livestock, lessening the impact of overgrazing on their land.
- To serve as a cultural exchange. In mid-April 2013, Seremei, the master saddle maker of the Kupchegen area, completed his training with Lisa and Loren in their Durango workshop. He returned home to train others in the region.
Andes Mountains – Peru
“In August 2014, we traveled with a group of 12 veterinarians and veterinary students from the U.S. and Peru, high in the Andes mountains. Organized by the head veterinarian, David Turoff, the project was supported by Yanapana.org, the Humane Society Veterinarian Medical Association (HSVMA RAVS) and the California Veterinary Reserve Corps (CAVMRC). These organizations funded the medical supplies needed; all of the manpower was volunteered.
We started at Saksaywaman just outside of Cusco, and in ten days treated about 700 equines (horses, mules and burros). The treatments included vaccinations (rabies shots for the prevalent vampire bats), castrations, hoof care and dental work. From Saksaywanan we traveled on to Mollepata by vehicle. Mollepata is the home of the Yanapana organization. This remote village heads a woman’s weaving co-op among other local projects. We arrived with and donated many leather working tools and worked with the Yanapana people to enhance their skills in making useful items for the equines, and personal use. Our project in Peru also took a new twist – many of the animals were so thin that we devoted most of our time to saddle fitting. To alleviate the common saddle sores along their spines, we developed a system of padding using a typical Peruvian blanket, folded and padded in a special way. Our tools were put to good use customizing these blankets to help relieve pressure on the animals’ spines.
Then we began our trek on the Salkantay Trail to Wayrac and down the eastern side of the Andes towards Machu Picchu. While hiking over the 15,500-foot Salkantay Pass, we were supported with 18 mules packing our tools, medicines, camping gear and food. In these regions of no roads, the equine groups of horses, mules and burros are vital to the livelihood of the indigenous people. Our first stop after ascending the Salkantay pass was the Wayrac Station at 14,000 feet. We worked there for two days and the two delightful cooks traveling with us surprised us for our 65th birthdays with a special dessert. After a few more days of work along our return route, we returned to Cusco. It was an honor for us to join this project and this dedicated group of people.”
Navajo Nation – Flagstaff, Arizona
Lisa and Loren have always held a special place in their hearts for Native Americans, in fact, all indigenous people. In September, they traveled to Flagstaff, Arizona, to do their first workshop with the Navajo Nation. What amazes Lisa most is the generosity of people. To put this project together quickly, they depended on a group of folks who generously donated tools and leather for the participants to receive during the weeklong workshop. Shep Herman from Herman Oak Tannery graciously donated the leather needed for the workshop. Every student was allowed to take home the tools and leather needed to help get them started.
Lisa and Loren hope to work with more Native American tribes or other underserved groups in the United States – offering skills and materials, helping keep the art of leatherwork alive and giving back in a meaningful way to people that also share the love of the horse. Lisa said, “It doesn’t matter how much any one of us does, it just matters that we do something.”
Next Project: Jura Region, Switzerland – February 2018
The Skyhorse’s next project will be a two week workshop in beautiful Switzerland. This project came together because of a student they had taught 30 years ago, Daniel Hess. Daniel and Noelle Hess are another husband and wife saddle-making team that Lisa and Loren made a surprise visit to during their company’s 30th anniversary celebration. During the celebration, folks were blown away by the Skyhorse’s talent and generosity; numerous eager students encouraged Daniel to put together a workshop featuring the Skyhorse’s. The first workshop filled within days, so they booked two, one-week workshops. Of course they will fit in a few horse adventures; horse-drawn carriages will pull them on skis through the Switzerland countryside!
Honors and Acknowledgements
In their 45-year career, Lisa and Loren have created over 1000 saddles, as well as a multitude of other leather projects, commissioned by folks that have an eye and appreciation for artistic greatness .They have been featured in museums, galleries, leather shows, newspapers, magazines and television programs; they’ve accumulated far too many achievements and awards to list. Their genuine love for horses, and people who love horses, has taken them across the world – exploring, riding and sharing the lifetime of knowledge they have acquired. The Skyhorse’s have created a life filled with adventure and purpose; they are inspiring examples of working hard, giving back and playing well. What a worthy ideal, such a wonderful example for all to follow. Lisa’s prayer for everyone: “May you always have enough,” and these dear, special people have always given more than enough.
Discover more information about the Skyhorse’s and see their beautiful products at www.skyhorse.com