Bowden Saddle Trees
by Liisa Andreassen
If you want to know a little something about saddle tree making, Francis Bowden would be a good person to turn to. He’s been at it since 1960. He learned the ins and outs of the craft at the Standard Saddle Tree Co. in Vernal, Utah which laid the foundation for him to create a career from the ground up as well as a business of his own.
Saddle trees are the most important aspect of the saddle. It’s what ensures the proper fit of the horse, balance of the rider, and overall strength of the saddle and Francis is committed to making quality ones that last.
Sewing the business together
It was a long and winding road that got him to where he his now – one that’s included business partnerships, company name changes and even a fire that burned his business to the ground, but he’s always prevailed and managed to continue manufacturing custom wood rawhide covered saddletrees.
There was a short stint in the early 70s where Francis moved to Oregon with his wife and young family to work for Enterprise Saddle Tree Co, but he soon returned to Standard where he built and managed their production trees. Standard asked him to partner with them to purchase and manage Ritter Saddletrees in El Paso, TX and then he relocated it to Anthony, TX, where it remains almost 40 years later. It was renamed to Bowden Saddle Tree in 2000.
Carefully made and put together, Bowden saddle trees are covered with the best hides and sewn together with rawhide lace. Stitches are close together, hand-laced around the cantle and swell, and then hand nailed in the cantle and gullet.
Each saddle tree is branded with the Bowden-style Arizona, unless otherwise requested. They have Arizona bars scaled down for barrel racer and youth trees, and narrow seat bars for cutter and pleasure trees. There are others to choose from too. The swells are laminated with 1-1/2” plywood between two layers of pine. The roping horns are made of quality ductile iron, making them durable for roping and other stressors. The bars are cut with specially-designed machines that cut a left and right bar with a single pattern for mirror-like duplication and accuracy. They’re made out of pine that grows in the high elevation of Colorado, and has a tighter grain and more tensile strength.
The last step is to dry the rawhide covered saddle trees on specially-designed drying racks in the high desert air. This allows for slow and even drying.
“This process is extremely important because they’ll have less tendency to warp and twist,” Francis says.
Bowden offers several saddle trees for sale on its website, but can make just about any kind of tree that’s needed. They can make them thinner or thicker, add leg cuts, back sweeps or anything else. Since they have several templates, and also make trees by hand, they’re not limited to any particular pattern.
Francis says he’s seen many industry changes over the years, most notably moving from making trees all by hand to using machines to help in cutting out parts. After a fire burned his business down in 1979, he spent the time rebuilding all the patterns and machinery from memory and was back at it within a few short months.
“The new machines were second generation so they actually improved on the original design,” Francis says. “Our reputation really started to grow then.”
His unique brand and bar design were labeled “BowdenBrand” (BB) and during this transitional time, two of his sons and one daughter started working alongside him. His sons work in tree building and handle things like website orders and marketing, and his daughter watches over the books. He says he hopes the business will keep moving down the family line – and that’s a pretty big line. Francis has 10 children and “about 37 grandchildren,” he thinks.
Respecting the past; embracing the future
In 2005, Francis purchased a CNC machine and began the lengthy transition process of digitizing the patterns for saddletree parts. The improvements this machine made were substantial as far as consistent fit and accuracy, so a second one was added in 2006. It also saves time and translates into less work for the saddle builder.
“These machines have certainly made the production process easier, but we still make trees by hand with a bandsaw and sanders when the situation calls for it,” Francis says. “As I get older, it’s getting a little more difficult on the arms and back.”
Bowden Saddle currently has six employees, down from its top number of 15, and produces about 15 to 20 saddle trees per day.
“We used to make about twice that amount, but now there’s more competition from places like Mexico where they’re using different materials such as fiberglass as opposed to rawhide. It’s easier to work with and some people just like it better. More and more people are making their own trees now too.”
Despite the evolution of an industry, Francis still shows up to the shop every morning to fire up its wood furnace, the shop’s sole heat source, and works for about six to eight hours a day. While he knows that using new technology is the way of the future and realizes its advantages, he still manages to hold onto some old-fashioned ideals.
“Making saddle trees is something I’ve done all my life. If I didn’t make trees, I wouldn’t know what else to do,” he says.
Bowden Saddle Tree Co., Inc.
8227 Doniphan Dr.
Vinton, TX 79821
Toll Free: 877-584-7787
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