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Super Saddle

Written by Stephanie Duquette on .

Bob Hickman’s first glimpse of the breakthrough technology that would change his career as a saddlemaker came during an event known for traditional cowboy skills, not cutting edge innovations.

ImageWhile taking in the action at the Big Loop Rodeo in Jordan Valley, a little southeastern Oregon town that snuggles the Idaho border, he noticed something he didn’t expect: saddle trees made of carbon fiber, a light, tough, flexible material used in extreme applications like bulletproof vests, motorcycle helmets and aircraft parts.

“I saw that a bunch of the guys were roping off of these carbon fiber trees, and they were roping horses, doctoring cows, doctoring bulls off those trees,” Hickman recalled. “And they’re so light. It’s amazing that something this light can be that tough. I got more and more curious.”

His curiosity continued to grow when he noticed the unusual rigging on the carbon-fiber trees. The cinches on these saddles hung from a simple piece of cable, just a quarter-inch thick. The black cable was partly visible in front of the stirrup leather and formed a semicircle, attaching where the seat of the saddle began. It looked strange, but seemed to make sense. Riders could adjust the rigging position to suit their horse and the job at hand, and the cowboys told Hickman the small cable did not interfere like a common leather and metal rigging, offering unprecedented freedom of leg movement and ultra-close contact with the horse.

Hickman started asking questions. His investigation led to the La Porte Poly-Tuff  carbon-fiber saddle tree. Intrigued, he used one as the basis for a saddle, and since that experiment six years ago, he has filled some 35 orders for custom saddles built on the high-tech tree material with the cable rigging, which gives his customers the total package.

“They’re looking for light; they’re looking for flexibility; they’re looking for fit; they’re looking for free-swinging stirrup leathers; they’re looking for less bulk underneath the leg so you can feel your horse. They just had everything everybody was looking for, so we started making them, and it hasn’t slowed down since we started,” said Hickman, who began his business in 1983, building saddles out of his home.

In 1999, he opened Hickman Saddlery in Post Falls, Idaho, which he now operates with his wife, Tara. The Hickmans also take custom saddles, tack, chaps and other handmade gear on the road, and their booth is a familiar sight at many horse shows and expos throughout the Western states.  Bob and Tara say the cable-rigged saddles with the La Porte Poly-Tuff carbon-fiber trees are drawing more and more attention.

Old problem, new solution
 Nearly 20 years ago, the idea for the carbon-fiber, cable-rigged saddle tree started to take shape in the mind and workshop of Mark Howes, who makes saddles at his Double H Ranch Saddle Shop in La Porte, Colo. Like most innovations, it was born of frustration: Howes was vexed with the rawhide-covered wood saddle trees that he ordered from other people.

“The inconsistency in the trees was starting to annoy me. You’d order the same tree, but you wouldn’t get the same exact tree twice. You’d get somebody’s variation of it twice,” he said. “I was trying to make a high-end production tree – a tree of very high quality in saddles that were the same every time, that people could depend on.”

ImageHowes said his use of cable rigging preceded the carbon-fiber tree concept. He had used the rigging for a number of years in rawhide-covered trees, but was unsatisfied with the way the cable connected to the wood. He found that the carbon-fiber tree solved this problem, as well.

“Once I started to cast trees, I discovered that casting the cable as a continuous piece into the tree was the perfect marriage. And so, the Poly-Tuff tree and the La Porte Tree Company are a direct result of that,” he said. “They’re very functional, they’re very strong, they’re very lightweight, bulkless; you can adjust the rigging, you can modify the fit for both the rider and the horse. It’s very forgiving; there’s nothing else like it. You can reshape the horn, seat, cantle, forks – all of these things are options. There truly isn’t anything around like it.”

Howes said it took approximately eight years to perfect the molding, casting and materials to create a tree that was ready to go on the open market.    

The technology inside the tree
 Carbon fiber is a long strand made primarily from carbon atoms bonded together and lined up as microscopic crystals. Each fiber is incredibly thin, about 2 to 4 millionths of an inch, and several thousand fibers are wrapped together to make a yarn, which can be used alone or woven into fabric. The yarn or fabric is combined with plastic and shaped to form composite materials, used in situations that call for light weight and high strength. Carbon fiber is used on the golf course as part of club shafts, and bicyclists enjoy the featherweight qualities of a carbon-fiber bike frame. Space engineers incorporate the material in some shuttle parts, and it is tough enough to stop a bullet.

“The carbon fiber is the same compound found in Kevlar vests. It’s used on the nose cone of the F-14 fighter jet. They’re making rifle barrels out of it. You know it’s tough if they are shooting bullets right through it!” Hickman said.

The cable rigging is also far stronger than a traditional rigging made of leather and metal.

“The cable holds 24,000 pounds. On a conventional rigging, if you were to pull something that heavy, you’re going to rip the rivets out of your rings. Your leather won’t hold up to that,” he said.

Obviously, the daily “to-do” list for the average horse and rider does not include roping a 12-ton steer, traveling at the speed of a fighter jet, absorbing a bullet’s impact or journeying into space. But a custom saddle, built on the cable-rigged La Porte Poly-Tuff tree, is a high-tech solution to a very low-tech problem for everyday riders weary of hoisting a heavy saddle.

“These cable rigs weigh anywhere from 25 to 30 pounds,” Hickman said. “I had a big, full-skirted saddle at the Snaffle Bit Futurity; it’s 32 pounds with a huge, full skirt, a little bit longer than normal, with heavy stirrups on it. I didn’t do anything to lighten the weight up on it, so everything is just as heavy as it would be on a conventional rawhide tree. But it was only 32 pounds.”

By comparison, the same saddle built on a rawhide tree with traditional rigging would weigh about 45 pounds, he said. Although the weight difference between the bare carbon-fiber tree and a bare rawhide tree alone is not very significant, the finished cable-rigged saddles are about 20 percent lighter because there is less bulk in other areas. First, there is no need for a “ground seat,” the layers of leather that, on a traditional rawhide tree, bridges the gap between the bars, providing a solid surface upon which the maker builds the seat. The La Porte trees come with the ground seat already in place. Second, when Hickman works with a cable-rigged tree, he is able to eliminate the weight of a traditional rigging made of leather and metal plates or rings.

  Mark Howes observes that women outnumber men in the horse gear buyers’ market, and the cable-rigged saddles hold particular appeal for them.

“One of the things that works for women is the lighter weight, and because they’re getting into some of these other endeavors like versatility ranch horse and ranch roping, they want something that is not only lightweight, but will actually work. These [saddles] fall perfectly into that category because they’re 10 to 12 pounds lighter and very strong. So, now, all of a sudden, you’ve got a saddle that’s truly a ladies’ lightweight saddle,” he said.

Flexibility, freedom and better fit
Hickman says the light weight of the cable-rigged saddle, added to the natural flexibility of the carbon-fiber material, equals greater comfort for the horse.

“You’ve got to have flex. There’s more flex in these carbon fiber trees than there is in the traditional rawhide tree,” Hickman said. “It just makes sense to move this [carbon fiber] over into the tree of a saddle because that tree always has to be moving with the animal. They tried aluminum trees back in the 50s, and they had no flex. All they did was sore up horses,” he said.

Unlike a rawhide-covered tree, the La Porte Poly-Tuff tree can be adjusted for a perfect fit, even after the saddle has been built around it.

“If you’ve got a dry spot on your horse after using one of these carbon-fiber trees, you can send it back to me and I can shape the tree a little more,” Hickman said. “The trees are guaranteed for life, too.”

The cable rigging provides yet another adjustable feature to ensure the best fit.  A locking collar on the cable means the rider can move the cinch all the way forward to the full rigging position, or slide it back to make a seven-eighths, three-fourths or even center-fire rigged saddle.

“It gives you the flexibility to position that with whatever you’re doing, whether you’re hunting, packing, cutting, reining, roping,” Hickman said, adding that the cable rigging creates an ideal situation for cutters, reiners and cow horse riders who need free forward leg movement and the ability to subtly cue their horses.

“There’s just a quarter-inch cable, and that’s all you have underneath your leg. You have free-swinging stirrup leathers, and closer contact to your horse. Since you don’t have anything underneath your leg, you have a narrower seat. Your [traditional] rigging, whether it’s going to be in the skirt, or a D-ring, or a flat-plate rigging, you’re going to have about a half inch on each side, underneath your leg. You eliminate that, now you’re going to make your seat 1 inch narrower,” he said.

The slight flex and give of the carbon-fiber tree could also help eliminate performance-impairing soreness due to poor saddle fit.

“[The cable-rigged saddles] don’t sit on a horse heavy. When Hickman custom-makes the tree to fit the horse properly, it makes a big difference. The horse is performing a lot better,” Tara Hickman said. She used a cable-rigged Wade saddle for a challenging mountain trail ride, and enjoyed the secure, comfortable seat all day.

“When Bob builds a seat in the cable-rigged saddles, he can put it anywhere you want – forward or backward, and the one I was riding in was just right,” she said. “We see a lot of people in this area riding in the mountains in these cable rigs, and they just love them.”

A new tradition
 As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can show horse people something new and different, but you can’t make them try it. The cable-rigged saddles are sometimes greeted with a wary reaction from riders, including Michael Ralph, 64, a Grants Pass, Ore., retiree who ropes and does ranch work.

“I was kind of skeptical, to be honest with you, at first. I was about half afraid to buy one,” said Ralph, who has owned and ridden custom saddles by other makers. However, Ralph took the advice of a friend who urged him to try the new technology. He ordered a roping saddle built on a carbon-fiber, cable-rigged semi-association tree and, after about a month of riding it, has no regrets.

“The saddle’s extremely light and it’s tougher than any saddle I’ve ever owned,” said Ralph, who uses the saddle on a horse and a mule. “People get stuck in their old ways. But anyone who tries this will not be dissatisfied.”

The inventor of the Poly-Tuff tree says his idea is finally starting to take hold, winning over skeptics who initially dismiss the technology as a fad or a gimmick.

“You’ve got a whole group of people who have always said ‘tradition, tradition, tradition,’ but if you really went back and figured out what ‘traditional’ was – ‘traditional,’ with saddlemakers, has always been using the best materials available at the time,” Mark Howes said. “Well, all of a sudden that’s changed. Tradition now is what was used before; the way we were doing it, but that’s not the way those people at the time thought of it. If you read the advertising for saddles in the 30s or even the turn of the century, or even in the late 1800s, you’ll see that they’re using the most modern designs: one-piece horns, new metal horns. New this and that, and they’re very proud of that, using the latest stuff available to them. And yet we don’t look at it that way today. Today, we’ve got to do it like the caveman did it, or we’re not ‘traditional.’ ”

Breaking into the show pen
The Hickmans say the saddles were quick to catch on among trail riders and ranch riders who appreciate the lightweight and sturdy qualities. They are still trying to convince Western performance competitors to take the saddles into the cutting, reining and working cow horse show pen, and have found a willing guinea pig in Grant Setnicka, who trains and shows some of the industry’s top performance horses. Setnicka’s home base is Black Rock Ranch in Harrison, Idaho, not far from the Hickmans’ location in Post Falls.

“I just got our first cutting tree and haven’t made it yet, and since [Grant] is right here, I’m going to have him try it,” Hickman said.

Setnicka and his assistants ride exclusively in Roo-Hide saddles for daily schooling, and take Sean Ryon saddles into the show pen. However, Setnicka said he was very open to the idea of adding a Hickman cable-rigged saddle to his tack room.

“I’m just really interested in trying it. Anything I can get that’s going to be more comfortable for my horses – I’m all for it. Especially something lighter; something that fits them closer. I’m always looking for that kind of stuff,” he said. “Any time you put something new into the industry, people are going to be skeptical, especially competitors. There’s only one way: try it out, that’s kind of my theory.”

Tara Hickman, an aspiring reining and cutting competitor, believes the saddles will become more popular among the show crowd when top-flight trainers start riding – and winning – with them.

“I think actually, really, to get these going, it’s going to take somebody like Shawn Flarida or Todd Sommers or Grant to get [them] out there,” she said. “I’m actually building a saddle. Bob’s going to help me build probably one of the best reining saddles, and showing in it is my dream – to do a lot of reining and cutting in our own cable-rigged saddles.”
The price of comfort
The base price for a Hickman custom saddle, regardless of the tree material, is $2,700. Bob Hickman says by the time he adds stamping, silver and other extras requested by the customer, the finished product ends up costing $3,000 to $3,500. While the La Porte trees, with their $400-$450 price tag, are more expensive than a rawhide tree, the cable-rigged saddles, when completed, don’t hit the pocketbook any harder than one built on a traditional tree.

“Since I don’t have to put a rigging in them, that offsets the cost,” he said, adding that the La Porte trees are also available with a conventional rigging. “You can also get these trees without the cable. You can go with a traditional flat plate or in-skirt or D-ring rigging, too.”

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