By Nick Pernokas
To say Pete’s Custom Saddlery is a saddle shop is like
saying that Bass Pro Shop is a sporting goods store. The museum-like building,
located in southwestern Kentucky, is home to an eclectic mixture of products
and collections that reflect the varied interests of saddle maker Pete Harry.
Pete grew up around the leather business and horses in
Washington. His grandfather, Earl Harry, had a combination harness and saddle shop.
Pete got to help out on the harness quite a bit, but the saddles were always
his main interest.
“Growing up in the early Fifties, the westerns were the big
thing on television,” says Pete. “I was always fascinated by the silver-mounted
Enthused by what he saw on T.V., Pete worked on leather
projects for himself in high school. He always liked working with his hands, so
he became a good wood worker as well.
Just out of high school, Pete joined the Army in 1966.
Pete’s stint in the military led him to multiple tours in Vietnam, Laos and
Cambodia, as well as time on the DMZ in Korea.
“I was all over Asia,” remembers Pete.
Pete was medevacked out of Vietnam in December of 1969. In
1974, Pete went off active duty and settled in Pembroke, Kentucky. By then he’d
earned three purple hearts.
“After I got out of the military, I decided I wanted to do
something I really enjoyed doing.”
Pete always enjoyed building things, so he ended up in the
construction business. When the housing market slowed down in the late
Seventies, he decided it was time to go back to one of his first loves, leather
Right off the bat, Pete was swamped with saddle repair work.
He wanted to build new saddles though. Pete read everything he could on saddle
construction. He tried to take the best of what he saw and add it into what he
already did. Soon he was turning out some custom saddles.
“I’ve constantly gone to school over the years trying to
learn new things that I could incorporate into what I do.”
Pete worked with Steele Saddle Tree Company in Tennessee, in
research and design, for several years. Wayne Steele did some custom saddle
tree work, including side saddle trees. Wayne had a following in the side
saddle business because he had developed a side saddle tree that would fit
contemporary horses. Through Wayne, Pete became involved with building side
saddles. He began building side saddles for a company in North Carolina. Then a
company in New Jersey asked him to build some side saddles for them. At the
same time, he was getting requests from his own customers for side saddles.
Pete builds English and Western versions of the side saddle. Pete’s side saddles
have double horns. The second horn is called a “leaping horn.” It locks the
rider’s left knee in place and gives them a tremendous amount of security. Many
saddles are shipped overseas and are used for recreation, as well as
competition. As word of his knowledge of this type of saddle spread, Pete also
began to restore old side saddles for museums and private individuals.
“I probably build more side saddles than anybody in the
Currently Pete is working with Batie Saddle Tree in
Jamestown, Tennessee, to develop a side saddle tree that will not only fit the
modern horse, but will also be more historically correct in design to the old
antique side saddles. The reason for this is that the reenactment market is
booming, and reenactors are demanding historically accurate gear.
In the early Eighties, a girl that was paralyzed from the
shoulders down contacted Pete about building a saddle for her. She had shown
western pleasure horses and wanted to be able to do that again.
“I took on the challenge of building her a saddle that she
could show in and hiding everything, so that when she was showing people
wouldn’t know that there was anything wrong with her.”
After a year and a half of trial and error, Pete
accomplished the task. He used very thin aircraft spring steel for the rear of
the seat and she could put her coat on over the brace to conceal it. A saddle
for a paraplegic woman who had shown reining horses in Ohio followed. Soon Pete
was swamped with orders for special-needs riders. He realized that he didn’t
have the time to build all of these saddles himself, so he started giving
seminars on building this type of saddle.
By now, Pete had built a lot of saddles, but there were
other things he wanted to try.
“I’m one of those people who always try to figure out how to
do something that no one else is doing.”
Pete wanted to do his own silver, so he went to the GRS engraving school in Emporia, Kansas. He found that he really liked engraving guns and this led him to doing some gunsmithing on the side. Pete had always been attracted to the guns of the Old West, and now he enjoyed working on them.
Pete began making black powder bags for guns, as well as
some very unique leather rifle sleeves modeled after the ones that Native
Americans and mountain men carried. All of these offer endless possibilities
for customization. Pete also branched off into holsters and rifle scabbards.
Pete had collected a lot of antique whiskey bottles. He
decided to try covering them with leather and found that they were a popular
item. After sterilizing them for thirty days, Pete covers them with leather in
a tight fitting skin. Using his wood working and silversmithing skills, he
makes some creative caps for them. Pete also does this for reproductions of
Civil War canteens and thermoses.
As if this isn’t enough, Pete also restores buggies and
wagons and combines his leather and wood work into making trunks and picture
frames. People come to look at his shop, which resembles a museum, just to get
ideas for vintage home décor.
Today, Pete stays really busy building new saddles and doing
saddle restorations, which he really enjoys. Pete has collected old saddles for
years and is fascinated by their history. If there is enough leather left on
the tree to see the original style and tooling on the saddle, Pete will
duplicate it in new leather. If that saddle is in too poor shape to tell
exactly what it looked like, he will use one of his antique catalogs for
reference to rebuild it. A lot of the antique restorations are side saddles and
McClellan saddles. The McClellans have to be almost completely hand sewn
because the leather that covers the tree fits like a skin.
Pete restores the old saddle trees with fiberglass. Some
purists may ask why he doesn’t use rawhide. It’s because some of the old trees
are in such bad shape that they really need the rigidity of the fiberglass to
make them sturdy enough to work on and use.
“It’s like restoring an old car. It’s not the paint that makes it an antique; it’s the frame or the body. The leather is like the paint on an antique car. It’s just the finish.”
Pete realized that other people, who had not grown up with
access to a harness shop, might be interested in learning the saddle trade. He
started a saddle making school in the early Nineties. He also knew that
leatherwork was therapeutic for ex-servicemen, so he made sure his school was
one of the few saddle making schools that is V.A. approved. Eighty-five percent
of his students are veterans.
“It gives the veterans a chance to express themselves that
they haven’t thought about, and they seem to thrive with it. I’m not a
psychologist, but I’ve been through the same things that a lot of them have
been through. We can talk and they feel like they’re talking to someone who
knows exactly what they’re talking about.”
A student takes the saddle
he makes home, as well as all the necessary patterns and the knowledge of how to
adapt them to other saddles.
In his spare time, Pete collects everything from old
electric trains to motorcycles and cars. Restoring and tinkering with them
gives him the same feeling of satisfaction that working on saddles does. At 71,
Pete still likes to trail ride and he’s been a judge in the American Horse
“I really have more on my plate then I can say grace over.”
Pete and his wife, Barbara, frequently hit the road to check
out flea markets and antique shops. You never know where the next idea for a project,
or subject for a restoration, may be lurking.
To find out what Pete’s working on now, or about his
schools, go to
http://www.petescustomsaddles.com. His phone number is
Pete’s Custom Saddlery
9728 Jefferson Davis Hwy,
Pembroke, KY 42266
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