Punchy the Saddle's Second Career

Punchy was a gem found on my Labor Day weekend saddle tour, and I have to admit it was love at first sight. Not impressive in any way upon discovery, Punchy was precisely what I'd been looking for.

Dusty and crusty, Punchy sat on a rack under carport wearing the marks of an interesting previous life.

Punchy had been a roping saddle, back in the day before all the pro cowboys wore sponsor logos. Purely utilitarian, Punchy was not even a high end saddle. No tooling, no conchos; a bare bones base model with six strings, a stout neck and a pelican horn. The only possible upgrade may have been brass rigging, but in its day that was not at all unusual. Remnants of a real sheepskin lining clung to the skirts, worn away with a lifetime of use and whatever the mice made off with.

The likely future for saddle of Punchy's age could have been as a decorative bar stool, or maybe some unsuspecting parent's gift to their child as an affordable first saddle, though in no condition to fulfill its purpose.

Western saddle bar stools. Not in Punchy's future, if I have anything to say about it. Photo: Pinterest.
I had a plan for Punchy, and it didn't involve home furnishings or a throwaway riding rig to be cast off at a garage sale, simply sold as "vintage." I wanted to give Punchy a second career as a ranch riding class saddle; restored, appreciated, and able to shine again.


Punchy had a lot in his favor that leaned toward a second career as a using saddle. Most important, his bar spread was not the narrow style found on so many vintage saddles. Unfortunately, a lot of  vintage western saddles simply will not fit the wider conformation of today's stock horses, and spend the rest of their life as artwork, traded and sold like rare baseball cards between collectors.

This incredible 1890s slick fork Visalia (Wegner & Walker) saddle and accessories set sold for a strong 5 figures at auction in 2014. However, as a using saddle, it probably would not fit anything in my barn. Photo: iCollector
Punchy did not possess the beauty or pedigree of a collectible, but he did have a tree that would fit a garden variety stock horse, even today. Given the fact Punchy had obviously done some roping, the rawhide tree was remarkably tight and true.

The second most important plus was Punchy had a seat large enough for my modern day rear end. Not a large seat, mind you, but a strong 15" slick seat with a low cantle that beckoned "Hop in, let's go for a ride."

So many vintage saddles look like "the one," only to find out they have a live seat area of maybe 14 inches. They were made in an era when people were generally smaller and slimmer than today. If you're a gal with the behind of a Barbie doll, they may be a go. I happen to have a butt like Beyoncé and the thighs of an East German speed skater. A 14" seat for me is out of the question, and a 15" has to be set up just right or it's still way too cozy.

So many great vintage saddles have small seats and narrow trees, making them unusable for folks with wide horses and/or big bums. Photo: eBay
With the majority of vintage western saddles being too narrow for my horse, with seats too small for my fanny, Punchy was an anomaly. I felt I had something with potential as a using saddle, at any rate.

On the plus side:
  1. Punchy has what could be considered today as Quarter Horse bars, more or less
  2. The rawhide covered tree is sound
  3. The seat measures a full 15"
  4. Full double brass rigging
  5. No real leather damage, dry rot, or extreme wear
  6. Cantle is in good condition, exquisitely shaped, without any warping 
  7. Horn is tight and straight, and my preferred pelican shape
  8. Made with saddle strings through the tree
  9. Galvanized 3 1/2" bell bottom stirrups appear original 
  10. Both original flank billets in very good condition
On the minus side:
  1. No maker's mark, which affects resale value
  2. Untooled, roughout leather makes it less fancy
  3. Round skirt style is not particularly en vogue
  4. Fleece needs replacing, absolutely
  5. Old style bolt-and-pin stirrup leathers need an upgrade
  6. Saddle strings need replacing
  7. Missing one of the original sawtooth edge leather rosettes under the saddle strings, which are hard to match
  8. One leather stirrup tread is missing, they should both be replaced 
  9. Needs stirrup hobbles
  10. Rope strap on fork needs replacing
Really, except for the fleece and strings being replaced, which requires some time and cash invested at a good saddle shop, Punchy's fixes aren't terribly exotic or expensive.

Smaller, rounded skirts are certainly not the height of show ring fashion, but no one can say they aren't "authentic" or "traditional."
I don't mind the round skirts, the roughout leather, or the fact Punchy isn't fancy in any sense of the word. This is a blue collar saddle with a solid resume. It isn't pretending to be something it's not, and it's still game for action.

Ranch riding saddles don't need to be fancy, they need to be believable as serviceable work saddles one might use every day in a ranch environment. This means without the typical heavy silver adornment of western show saddles, rigged and ready for hard riding. In this case, authenticity trumps beauty, brand label, or even newness.

For ranch riding classes, plain is actually a virtue.

This ranch class winner rides a plain, workmanlike, reiner-style saddle with simple silver conchos. A breast collar and flank cinch shows they're rigged and ready for anything that may come their way. Photo: Journal, by way of Pinterest.
Dozens of makers' reiners, ropers, cutters and cowhorse saddles were born ready for such events. Because of the growing popularity of ranch horse classes, even makers like Harris, known for their over-the-top custom silver show saddles, has introduced models for ranch competition.

Simple, workmanlike Billy Cook reiner (left) or a pared-down showstopper like Harris's ranch riding saddle (right) - either will fly in today's ranch riding classes.

Square skirt custom Teskey's ranch saddle (left) and base model Wade from Burns Saddlery (right) represent consistently popular styles in ranch riding competition.
Luckily, Punchy more than qualifies as authentic. Beyond that, what anyone chooses to ride is personal preference.

Punchy's in the cleaning and assessment stage now. After a good scrubdown with soap and water, the next step has been some overdue conditioning to strengthen and preserve the aged leather.

Roughout saddle leather can be a little tricky to condition, but so far Punchy is responding well to being misted with Lexol, with brushouts between sessions to retain the nap. The undersides of the fenders and stirrup leathers are all enjoying some Oakwood Leather Conditioner and Passier Lederbalsam.

After a thorough scrubdown and repeated misting with Lexol, Punchy's true colors are beginning to show. No longer dusty, dull and faded.
Once the saddle is feeling fit and foxy, it's time to think about some upgrades before it's sent to the saddle shop. For now, Punchy's enjoying all the attention. I think he's eager to join the working class again.

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