Malatya Haber These saddles are made for the working cowboy
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These saddles are made for the working cowboy

By Doug Rich

STAMPING—Evan Rowland stamps designs into leather at Raber's Saddlery near Coalgate, Okla. Their business is evenly split between saddles and tack. Robert Raber said their tack is shipped to working cowboys in the U.S., Canada, Italy, and Australia. (Journal photo by Doug Rich.)

Robert Raber said he could feel a good hide all the way to his elbow when he cuts into one. Raber, Coalgate, Okla., has been making saddles and tack for 21 years and knows how important good quality hides are to his business and his customers.

"What we need is anything that is unbranded and as clean as we can get, free of range scars," Raber said. "We want as clean a hide as possible."

The quality of the hides depends in part on the way the animals are raised and where they are raised. Raber said the biggest problem they have right now is that the processing age has dropped from 24 to 26 months 30 years ago to 16 to 18 months of age today. The time it takes a calf to go from momma cow to processing plant is very short.

"That is understandable from a rancher's point of view," Raber said. "But with the shoulder being the last part of the hide to develop, this makes for a lot of drop off from the butt to the shoulder area. The hides are smaller than they used to be."

Hide quality

Raber said it is important when the tannery gauges the hides for him that there is not too much drop off from the butt to the shoulder because of they way they cut out their saddles. Raber said leather is like fiber compressed and the older the animal the more compressed the fibers become. Younger animals don't have the density in the leather.

"We have a certain clientele in the cutting horse industry that prefer as heavy a bridle rein as we can possibly get," Raber said. "Those good heavy sides are few and far between and very much in demand."

The hides will have more value if producers keep the injection sites in the neck area and away from the butt. The butt area is the prime part of the hide.

"That is where we get the seat for the saddle and anytime there are injections in that area there is scarring of the hide," Raber said.

Pour-on wormer is an issue for Raber. If the pour-on is put on too heavily it will bleach or burn the hide and it will not absorb oil.

"It is undetectable until we get into the oiling process," Raber said.

Even the breed of cattle can make a difference in the quality of the hide. Raber said Brahman cattle make a good, tight, heavy grain hide. Hides specifically from Holstein cattle are preferred for making lace leather because it is a thinner, tighter grain hide. Holstein hides are thinner but have more strength.


There are several categories of hides to choose from including U.S. native steer, branded hides, Texas steer hides--which are from brush country in general and not just from Texas--and Colorado steers that have rib brands. Raber uses only U.S. native steer hides hand selected at Hermann Oaks Leather in St. Louis, Mo. This tannery has been in business since 1881 and still uses the vegetable tanning method. Hermann Oak Leather is one of only two tanneries in the U.S. that still uses this method of tanning hides. They use a tree bark extract to tan the hides that is popular with saddle makers.

"This method has no oils impregnated in it, which allows us to wet the leather, shape it and do the stamping design work on it," Raber said.

Old timers tell Raber they could take two sides of leather and build a saddle, a breast collar and maybe a bridle. Raber said today it takes two and half sides to build one saddle. The sides are smaller and there is more drop off from the back to belly, which Raber attributes to the younger age of the animal at processing.

Raber's business is evenly split between saddles and tack. He ships saddles and tack all over the U.S., Canada, Italy and Australia. Raber said it is all working tack with no glitz or glitter. Raber describes his tack and saddles as "The Working Cowboy's Choice."

Working with his friend and customer, Kenny Kern, Raber has developed a special relationship with the cutting horse business. All of his saddles are stamped, Kern Saddlery by Robert Raber. Kern travels to most of the major cutting horse competitions in the South and Southwest promoting their specialty tack and saddles.

Working cowboys

Cutting horse riders are all about contact with the horse and they want a close contact tree. For this reason Raber started used a fiberglass-covered wood tree rather than a rawhide-covered tree. A fiberglass-covered tree allows him to have a thinner bar that gives closer contact to the horse.

"You need a tree that fits the horse, good rigging that is set properly, and a seat that is comfortable for the rider," Raber said.

Raber said cutting horse riders have to be able to move out of position and be able to come back to that certain pocket in the seat so they are in balance with the horse. This was a big change from the working ranch-type saddles he was making.

It takes about 45 hours to make a saddle. Raber said every piece is cut oversized, soaked and pre-stretched so all of the stretch is out of the leather before they cut it to size. The fenders are set and twisted so all the stretch is out. His goal is to produce 40 to 45 saddles a year from his shop.

"It is a good feeling knowing that these guys depend on what we build to make their living," Raber said.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at

Date: 1/7/2013


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