By Nick Pernokas
The tall cowboy eased through the crowd at the tradeshow. Every once in a while there was a flash of recognition from other shoppers, but then they went on about their business. This was Vegas after all. The National Finals Rodeo sported several large trade shows filled with western merchandise and it was easy to miss something if you didn’t pay attention. The cowboy was on a mission though, and he spied what he was looking for in the next vendor’s booth. He lowered his frame onto the beautiful tooled saddle. When the salesman came over to try to let the stirrups out, Tom Selleck shook his head and said, “No thanks, I’m looking for one for my wife.”
Selleck appreciated the quality of the saddle, and in a few minutes he’d ordered a custom Frecker saddle for his wife, Jillie.
Saddlemaker Kent Frecker developed a love of horses in childhood. His grandfather, a former rodeo cowboy, enjoyed hunting and packing on horseback. As Kent grew up, his grandfather instilled a love of these activities in him.
When he was 21, Kent Frecker worked after school at Smith and Edwards in Ogden, Utah. They were a one-stop ranching supply store. Kent was working in their leather shop making reins and saddlebags. At the time, Smith and Edwards still had a saddlemaker, Randy Hansen, working for them as well. Kent enjoyed watching him practice his trade. After a couple of years in the leather shop, Kent moved up in the company as a salesman. In his new position, selling saddles and tack, Kent had to travel a large territory of the West. Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Montana were all on his rounds.
“I’d call on all the saddlemakers and western stores that I could find,” remembers Kent.
As the years wore on, Kent’s enjoyment of the road wore out. In his eighth year as a salesman, Kent’s wife, Pam, was expecting their fourth child. Kent didn’t know if he’d be home when she delivered.
“I was leaving on Mondays and coming home on Fridays or Saturdays, and I was missing out on the family,” says Kent.
Kent was envious of all the saddlemakers that he’d been calling on. Many of them had shops set up at their houses. They seemed to live a simpler life and were at home with their families.
Kent decided that he would use what he’d learned in the leather shop at Smith and Edwards, and open a tack and repair shop in Huntsville, Utah. He contacted many of his customers and told them that he was starting a custom tack business.
In 1990, a woman came into Kent’s shop. She asked him if he would build her a saddle. He hesitated because he’d never built one before, but then he agreed that if she paid for the materials, he wouldn’t charge her for the labor. Kent had made patterns from some of the better saddles that he’d worked on. Kent had also paid attention to the many ways that his saddlemaker clientele had done different jobs when he visited with them. The saddle was a success, and Kent was in the saddle business.
One of Kent’s former accounts was Norm Ericksen in Idaho. When he heard that Kent was building saddles, he asked Kent if he would be interested in putting a saddle shop in the back of his store. Kent wasn’t really interested, but finally Norm told him to name his price. It was an offer that Kent couldn’t turn down. For the next three years, Kent ran his saddle shop at Norm’s store in Idaho.
When Norm decided to close his business, Kent was at a crossroads. He had enough leather left to build three saddles. He took the completed saddles on a road trip to visit his old accounts in Idaho and Montana.
“I came back home with over 30 orders,” says Kent. “I haven’t looked back since.”
While Kent tackled the stack of orders, Pam tackled the shop books and paperwork.
Kent began taking his saddles to nearby saddlemaker Dale Harwood for him to critique. Harwood offered lots of suggestions, and eventually a job. At the time, Harwood was building saddles for famed clinician Ray Hunt. Kent began building the Wade saddles that Ray’s wife, Carolyn, would sell at their clinics. The saddles were all made in Dale’s shop. This arrangement lasted for a couple of years, until Ray Hunt developed health problems. Still, the promotion that Kent had received was priceless.
About this time, Libby, Montana-rancher Shayne Jackson rode one of Kent’s saddles and was impressed. Jackson was a friend of clinician Buck Brannaman, and he introduced the two men. Brannaman’s wife, Mary, thought that Kent’s saddles might be a good fit with their program and that she could sell them at their clinics. Kent began sending saddles to Brannaman to evaluate for his needs. Brannaman would tell Kent what he would like done differently and Kent would make the changes.
“I kept making the changes until Buck said, ‘Yeah, that’ll do,’” says Kent.
Kent now had an endorsement from a leading horseman and he began stamping Buck Brannaman’s name on that style of saddle.
Shayne Jackson owned a large guest ranch and he stocked his ranch with Kent’s saddles. Hundreds of people from around the world came to experience a taste of the West there every year, and they did it in a Frecker saddle. Again, the promotional benefits were priceless for Kent.
“They’d fall in love with the saddles and Shayne would give them my number.”
Kent had begun to make his own saddle trees in 1999. His saddle tree maker at the time, Lennis Arve, could not keep up with the demand, so he taught Kent to build his own saddle trees. Kent uses poplar wood for his bars, due to its strong, fibrous grain pattern. Kent makes his fronts from Baltic birch. The completed trees are covered with one layer of rawhide. Kent also developed a tree-fitting jig that worked with his tree patterns. He could place it on a horse’s back and determine the bar angles, and the bar spread, for a tree for that horse. Buck Brannaman enlisted his services whenever he had a hard to fit horse.
Buck Brannaman’s daughter, Reata, also helped Kent design a saddle that is more suited to female anatomy. This has given the Freckers the ability to offer different seat fits according to the sex of the rider.
“The pinbones in a man are narrower than the pinbones in a woman. The place the pinbones sit on the seat is going to be narrower on a man. Women also have a thicker inner thigh than a man does, so we have also narrowed out that inner thigh area in a woman’s seat. The women’s legs can sit straighter and swing better.”
Kent accomplishes this fit through his saddle tree design.
As Kent’s family grew up in Ririe, Idaho, some of them became interested in the saddle business. Two of his sons, Tyler and Karsten, became saddlemakers. Still working in a shop behind the house, Kent thought it would be good if they could find a larger shop that they could all work in, comfortably, together.
In 2013, Kent heard of a building for sale in Dillon, Montana, that sounded like it would be perfect. The building had started out as a harness shop over 100 years earlier. In the 1950s, it had become a saddle shop.
Today, at 59, Kent works there with his two sons, as well as his son-in-law, Porter Rix. A saddlemaker from Nebraska, Loncey Johnson, has also joined them for a total of five saddle makers. Kent’s daughter, Emily Rix, makes tack and strap goods. A daughter-in-law, Jolly Ann, also makes tack and has started making saddles as well. Pam has given up her bookkeeping job and now works on chaps. Assorted grandkids and a yellow lab shop dog, Tally, round out this ensemble.
Frecker’s Saddlery also sells everything from lariat ropes and mecates, to bits and custom headstalls. The leatherwork is all done in-house.
“We sell anything a cowboy wants.”
Although swell fork saddles were Kent’s mainstay when he was in Utah, Wade saddles dominated his business until a few years ago. Recently he’s seen a trend back towards swell forks. In fact, one of his newer styles with swells is called a “Swade,” and it has an identical low fit and feel like the Frecker Wade saddles.
A majority of the saddles that Frecker’s Saddlery builds are hard seats. Kent feels that the seats are so comfortable that padding is not needed. He feels like it takes away from the feel of the saddles, too.
“Without the padding, you feel like you’re down deeper in the saddle and have closer contact with the horse.”
Frecker’s base price for an in-stock saddle is $4,300 and custom saddles start at $4,700.
Kent’s customer list reads like a who’s who of prominent equine clinicians. Folks like Buck Brannaman and Curt Pate have come to Frecker Saddlery for the right saddles for their programs. Since these horse trainers are influential teachers, this creates a large pool of prospective customers from their students.
Kent’s clientele are varied. He builds products for working cowboys, recreational riders and for the loyal followers of horsemanship clinics. This last group wants to ride in the traditional Wade saddle that Buck Brannaman uses. Many women come to Frecker’s Saddlery for the weight of the saddle, as well as the fit. Kent offers an optional lightweight style that runs from 28- 30 pounds.
When the Frecker family can take some time off, they enjoy day working with their horses.
“It’s fun to take off and keep up with some of our cowboy skills,” laughs Kent.
They also pack into the mountains the way Kent did so long ago with his grandfather. Sometimes, the most important traditions are the family ones.
To find out more about Frecker’s Saddlery, call (406) 683-4452 or go to freckerssaddlery.com.
125 W Bannack
Dillon, Montana 59725