Variety is the Spice of Life
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 saddles.”
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 working.
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 world.”
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 Shows Association.
“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 www.petescustomsaddles.com. His phone number is 270-886-5448.
Pete’s Custom Saddlery
9728 Jefferson Davis Hwy,
Pembroke, KY 42266