Custom saddle maker learns from years of experience
September 13, 2018
Dan Flower still remembers the first saddle he ever made working for one of the premier saddle makers in the U.S. A customer had requested two roughout saddles for prizes at a trophy roping on the edge of Phoenix.
Dan thought the designs were ugly. "I decided to pretty them up a bit by putting smooth leather on the horn, stirrups and billets. I fixed them up to look really pretty, but my boss, Mr. Porter, didn't think so," Dan said. "He told me when the customer puts in an order, I am supposed to make it exactly how they want it, no matter what my personal preferences are. I ended up having to take the saddles I had just made apart and replace all the smooth leather with the roughout leather they requested. It was a hard lesson I have never forgotten," he said.
Dan has come a long way since that first saddle he built nearly 50 years ago. He and his wife, Jo, own and operate Nile Valley Saddlery in downtown Mitchell, Neb. Dan builds custom-made saddles that he ships all over the U.S. He also makes a variety of custom-made leather goods like belts, guitar straps, saddle bags, gun holsters, rifle scabbards, custom knife sheaths, and cell phone cases.
Dan moved from Gering to his current location in Mitchell a year and a half ago. The name, Nile Valley Saddlery, derived from the history in the area. "Before there was irrigation in this area, it looked like a desert," he said. "Some businessmen were standing on top of the Scotts Bluff National Monument and one commented that it looked like the Nile Valley when it was greening up. That stuck in this area. There are several businesses here with Nile incorporated into their business name."
In fact, history is important to Dan, and wherever he has located a saddle-making business, some aspect of history has been incorporated into his business names. He has had Slick Rock Saddlery, which refers to a rocky area on the north side of the Grand Canyon, and Remuda Ranch Saddlery, which refers to one of the larger ranches where he set up shop at one time.
IN THE BEGINNING
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As one of six boys in his family, Dan took a liking to saddles and horses as a young boy. "We started riding at a young age, and then we started showing horses," he said. At the horse shows, Dan would notice all the different types of saddles the equestrians used. "It was at one of the shows that I actually saw a saddle made by Porter's (Porter Saddle Company). Seeing it was what got me interested in making saddles," he said.
Dan did some leather crafting as a teenager through 4-H and school, but when he was in his 20s and approached Bill Porter for a job making saddles, he initially turned him down. "Porter's was the most renowned saddlery in the U.S.," Dan said. "They wouldn't hire me because I didn't have enough experience, but he did send me up to Ralston, Wyo., to work with Hamp Brand, who used to work for the saddlery. He taught me how to build saddles and do strap work. It was where I got my start," he said.
After training, Dan became one of four saddlemakers at Porter Saddle Company, where he worked for the next five years. "When I decided to go out on my own, he actually recommended some of his customers to me," Dan said. "That really meant a lot."
From there, Dan opened a saddle and tack shop in Fort Collins, Colo., that he operated for nearly eight years. There he built rodeo equipment like bronc saddles, bareback riggings, and ranch and show saddles. He eventually developed his trademark saddle, which he calls the Ranch Hand.
At one time, Dan was making more than 50 saddles a year. One of the saddles he is proudest of took over 500 hours to make. It was a commission for the 2014 Cattlemen's Ball. In addition to the saddle, he also made a matching breast collar, headstall, and halter. Because money raised at the Cattlemen's Ball is donated to cancer research, Dan incorporated color themes for cancer survivors.
Seventy-two six millimeter freshwater pearls collected from around the world were incorporated into the design, along the back of the cantle. He mixed different dyes to create a dark purple color for the edging of the saddle. "It looked black, but when the saddle was in the sunlight, you could see it was purple," he said. The saddle was also trimmed with heavy gauge sterling silver, and all the lettering was 14 karat gold. His creation drew plenty of attention at the ball, and fetched $23,000 for cancer research.
Then there was the most unique leather item Dan has ever made. Save A Rack for Backaracks holds an annual fundraising auction in Scottsbluff, Neb., to raise money for breast cancer. The idea of the auction is to create and design a bra, which is later auctioned off. Dan created a bra from leather, and added some custom tooling and silver. This bra was the second -highest selling item at the auction.
Dan also built a saddle to fit a camel. "The guy who wanted it sent me measurements of the barrel size of the camel. It had just one hump and he wanted it plain, so it was actually pretty easy to make," he said.
These days, Dan custom makes saddles to order, using only the finest materials. "I buy my leather from Hermann Oak Leather in St. Louis, Mo., which is a premier tannery in the U.S."
With 48 years of saddle making under his belt, Dan has learned more than a few tricks of the trade. "By building saddles and showing horses you gain a lot of insight into building saddles that fit. As long as the customer stays with the same type of horse, the saddle I make for them should fit multiple horses," he said.
Despite the role of the horse changing in the modern ranching world, Dan said some people still see a real need for the custom saddle maker. "Saddles need to be built properly using good leather. A saddle doesn't have to be made from heavy leather for ranch work. It just needs to be durable," he says.
For more information, see the website at nilevalleysaddlery.com or find them on facebook. Dan can be reached at (308) 765-1020.❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.