Saddle Making Endures In Idaho’s Buckaroo Country

February 28, 2019 BY

Olivia Weitz

Hans Hansen already has himself a busy career as a farrier. But, he wanted to add a new skill to his life on the range: saddle making. He’s now learning how to make one from renowned saddle maker Mike Bernhard.


Saddle making apprentice Hans Hansen of Melba plans to use this saddle for team roping and ranch work in Owhyee County.


Hansen is shoeing his horse from his driveway in Melba. Seated on a five-gallon bucket, he lifts up the animal’s hoof.

“First thing you need to do when you pick them up is generally clean them out,” Hansen says. “I’ll take the hoof pick and clean their foot out around their frog here and through their sole and clean it out and see what I’ve got.”

Hansen has been shoeing horses for most of his life. Lately though, he’s been paying attention to what goes on the horse’s back.

“Saddle making has gone just like everything else, like production saddles that they punch out of a factory and things; they are not as good,” says Hansen. “They are not as good for the horse or the people using them.”

Hansen wanted something different. So he got the wild idea to build a custom saddle himself. He applied for and was awarded an apprenticeship from the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts program. The grant gave him the necessary supplies and time spent learning in the Emmett shop of Mike Bernhard, who has the reputation of making some of the best-regarded saddles in the Intermountain West.

After Mike Bernhard took over the “Meridian Saddle Shop” in the 1990s, he kept the same name. He recently moved the shop to the outskirts of Emmett.

With a grant from the Idaho Commission on Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program Hans Hansen (left) is learning how to build a saddle from well-known saddle maker Mike Bernhard.

“Most of the saddles we make are buckaroo saddles,” Bernhard says. “There’s a difference between buckaroos and cowboys. You might not know that, but there is; there’s a big difference.”

Bernhard says Idaho is buckaroo country. There’s more wide-open spaces here than places like Texas where cattle roam in the tall brushland east of the Continental Divide. All that space is why buckaroos tend to use longer rope to gather cattle. Bernhard hops on the saddle and explains.

“With a long rope you can take this and slow everything down and use it like a clutch in a car and just ease things down, easier on the horse, easier on the rig, easier on the cow,” he says.

The saddle “clutch” is the horn, in the front. The horns on his saddles are larger than you’d find in cowboy country. There’s fashion differences, too. Buckaroos prefer vests, saddle spurs and a certain kind of hat.

“They have big, flat-brimmed hats, short crown, flat on top, usually curled up in the back a little bit, kind of like a sombrero, but I think the curl comes from riding around in a pickup,” Bernhard says.

These stories, apprentice Hansen says, are all part of the routine at Bernhard’s saddle shop.

“He’ll go off on a story and then I’ll kind of have to bring him back around to what we’re working on,” Hansen says. “He’s a great guy, but you get to talking … the stories are good, but I also want to get stuff done, too.”

This weaved pattern is a signature feature of Bernhard’s buckaroo saddles, decorating parts like the fenders and the back part of the saddle seat known as the cantle.

Don Mittleider used many of these stamping tools to adorn buckaroo saddles, beginning in the 1950s. These became Mike Bernhard’s when he purchased Mittleider’s saddle shop.

Hansen has been coming to the saddle shop twice a week for the past seven weeks to work with Bernhard. Today, they’re putting some finishing touches on the saddle.

Mike is a wealth of knowledge. He learned from the guys that were building stuff for horses back when they were using horses for work. That knowledge is not around anymore.
— Hans Hansen

“This is an odd-sized stamp,” says Bernhard. “It’s not an odd-shaped basket stamp, but it’s odd sized.”

This stamp makes an image of a continuous weave like you’d find on a basket. Hansen uses a hand tool to impress that image into the leather as Bernhard gives directions.

Bernhard learned saddle making from Don and Gary Mittleider. He took over their shop in the 1990s but kept the same name: the Meridian Saddle Shop. Now, he’s passing on the stamping patterns he learned from them to Hansen.

Mike Bernhard shows Hans Hansen some of the possibilities for tooling various parts of a custom saddle.

“He was pretty nervous the first time or two that he did it and he didn’t do a very good job,” Bernhard says. “I kind of lined him out there and I said, ‘do this and do that.’ That’s the job he’s doing now and every time he does it, it’s going to get better.”

Back at Hansen’s place in Melba, he says he’s out riding for six or seven hours at a time, so a custom-fit saddle will make a difference.

“If you got a seat that fits you well like that, you’re going to come back not as sore,” Hansen says.

Not only will he be more refreshed, Hansen will look the part. With the basket weave stamping and larger horn on his saddle, he’ll take his seat in the long line of Idaho buckaroos.

This piece is part of the series Expressive Idaho in partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk & Traditional Arts Program & with funding support from the National Endowment for the Arts.