Back in the saddle

There aren’t too many works of art you would strap onto a horse and sit on. But Bill Maloy’s nationally revered saddles are among them.

Photo By David Robert

A “stable” of nearly a dozen Western saddles mounted side-by-side takes up most of the small side room to Bill Maloy’s saddling studio in Washoe Valley. Every inch of these saddles is intricately carved with patterns of oak leaves and acorns or wild roses. Tight, even stitching runs in a fine line along the saddle’s soft tan body. Rosettes of silver gleam from its various corners. The horn holds a silver disk, and the name “Maloy” is etched handsomely into a silver plate on the seat.

Even though suited to the animal, these aren’t the kind of saddles you want to put on a horse. They’re just too pretty.

“I’d say the majority of saddles I’ve made in the last few years have never been on a horse,” says Maloy.

As long as people have had horses, they’ve had saddles, he says. The first saddle is thought to have been invented in 365 A.D. by the Sarmations, a nomadic Iranian tribe of horsemen. The Western saddle as we know it evolved from the Spanish vaquero saddle used by Mexican cowboys in the 1700s. Despite a few minor modifications (a lower seat back, for example), Maloy says, “There hasn’t been a whole lot of changes in the last 100 years.”

He should know; he’s been making them for nearly half that long.

Maloy, 69, has been a saddle maker for 49 years. Everything on his saddles is personally handmade except the “tree” (the wood and rawhide foundation of the saddle) and the stirrups. His leather comes in bulk rolls from a Pennsylvania tannery, but it’s cut, stitched and carved by his hands. He began adding silver in the 1970s, when he became a silversmith, a craft he learned from the late Al Pecetti, his good friend and former Reno neighbor.

Photo By David Robert

His work has not gone unnoticed. The Academy of Western Artists named Maloy the Will Rogers saddle maker of the Year in 2002. Now he’s being honored again as a Governor Arts Awards recipient on March 15 in Las Vegas.

Mixing the folk with the art
The smell of leather and crisp air sweetly pervades Maloy’s studio. Rolls of brown leather are piled on one table. Hanging above them is a large leather canvas with images of John Wayne etched into it by another artist. Carving tools line the walls. Two black sewing machines rest on tables across the room by some windows. Two horses mull around the field outside. A saddle tree, naked but for a draping of leather on its seat, sits like a mannequin waiting to be dressed.

Maloy is a kindly man in blue jeans, a self-stamped leather belt, brown cowboy boots and a blue cowboy shirt. He speaks calmly with a slight drawl. He appears to be almost always smiling—due in part to a barely noticeable glass eye that makes him squint slightly. He lost it during his third year of saddle making; while carving leather, the blade of an X-Acto knife flew into his right eye, slashing his cornea. The accident threw off some of his depth perception, but it didn’t hinder his work. So while pouring a glass of milk is potentially disastrous, Maloy can make the most perfectly delicate designs and stitchings on a saddle with one good eye.

Maloy studied art at Fresno State. But initially he entered College of Sequoias in Visalia, Calif., to study Physical Education, thinking he wanted to be a coach. Then he changed his mind. “Art was always my love—pottery, painting, everything,” he says. “It’s too bad a guy’s only got one lifetime. There’s no time to do all that.”

Maloy became familiar with saddles while working with his parent’s pack outfit, which led tourists (and up to 50 head of horses and mules) through Sequoia National Park. “We repaired our own saddles, and naturally we had a lot of them, and they always needed a lot of work,” he says.

After an inspiring high school leatherworking class, he began making saddles in Visalia, in 1957 as an apprentice under Bill Rogers. (Now in his 80s, Rogers is still making saddles in Elko). Maloy came to Reno two years later and opened shop on West Second Street in the balcony of Newman’s Silver Shop, later moving to the Pack Station Saddlery on North Virginia Street. But he spent the past 36 years at his home and saddle shop on South Virginia Street before moving to Washoe Valley last summer.

When Maloy first started saddle making, he wasn’t thought of as an artist, both because he had a lot to learn and because, as he says, “back then, nobody really got honored for folk art.”

Photo By David Robert

He’s made saddles for bronco riders, pleasure riders, paraplegics and Western movie star Slim Pickins. But lately, most of Maloy’s clients have bought his saddles to display as artwork in their homes and offices. Maloy sold his share of $250 saddles in earlier years, but more recently they’ve gone for as much as $32,000.

He no longer takes saddle orders, making most of them for friends and for the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, which holds an annual exhibit at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma.

It seems anyone with a horse knows Bill Maloy’s name, and they are quick to express admiration for his work.

“He’s one of the all-time great saddle makers,” says Bob Waller, an employee at Sierra Feed and Saddlery, who’s known Maloy for roughly 40 years. “[Bill’s saddles] are considered as good as they get. There’s nothing to beat the quality or beauty of them.”

Jack Bassett, owner of D Bar M Western Store, agrees wholeheartedly: “There’s a lot of custom saddle makers around, but he’s the cream of the crop anyplace. … The work is flawless, absolutely flawless.”

Saddle Secrets
Saddlemaking is painstaking, patient work. It takes Maloy about a month to make “a nice saddle” and up to three months for one he’d exhibit.

A simplified version of how it’s done begins with the bare tree frame. Add a leather piece across the tree’s bottom, then add about five more layers for the ground seat, depending on whether the rider wants to ride high or low. Fit up the leather side skirts and the bigger pieces. Hand sew the bindings. Trim off the excess. Carve the designs onto damp leather.

Maloy says it takes more than good technique to become a good saddler: “Like anything else, you’ve gotta be a perfectionist, or you’re just gonna be run of the mill. You’ve gotta live it. You gotta go to bed at night thinking what you’re going to do tomorrow. You’ve got to really love it and be stubborn enough to stick it through.”