Browning the Cowboy Art of Idaho Saddle Making


Saddler Nancy Martiny is known for her flowing and intricate floral leather carvings. She ranches and builds saddles at her home in the high mountain wilderness of the Pahsimeroi Valley near May, Idaho.

In 2021, she received the Idaho Governor’s Award in the Arts for “Excellence in Folk and Traditional Arts”.

“I say I make cowboy saddles because most of my customers are cowboys or ranchers, and they’re going to ride a certain type of horse,” Martiny said.

Arlie Sommer


Idaho Commission on the Arts

Martiny’s workshop is adjacent to his home. She prefers quiet space to concentrate on her sculpture. “You have more interruptions if you’re in town and you have a storefront. You know, people like to come in and just talk and drink coffee.

In the world of cowboys, your saddle is as unique as where you come from, designed to withstand weather conditions, altitude and to allow you to meet the specific challenges of the terrain you ride on.

“Saddle maker is such a general term because what you ride on a cutting horse is not what you ride here on the mountain,” Martiny explained.

The talented cutting horse is ridden in competitions to keep a calf separated from its herd by swiftly dodging back and forth. The cup saddle holds the rider in place and has a strong horn for hanging the rope.

There are many variables when it comes to customizing a saddle. A saddle designed for Texas riders protects against tall, thorny brush and cacti. A Colorado saddle prevents you from sliding forward when descending in altitude or sliding when climbing a peak. A Florida saddle will resist mold and bacteria.

2022 Idaho Expressive Upholstery

Arlie Sommer


Idaho Commission on the Arts

The tree is the structure of the rest of the saddle, in wood and rawhide, reminiscent of the base of a sculpture or the frame of a house. “I now have this good tree maker. He’s about my age and I said, ‘Let’s coordinate this when you retire. His name is Warren Wright and he lives in New Zealand. We have a good working relationship and he is reliable.

So what makes an Idaho saddle?

In Martiny’s part of the country, cowboys still drive cattle up the mountain ranges for the summer and then down into the valley to eat hay during the winter. Cowboys need a saddle for mountaineering, with a “puffy fork” rather than a “smooth fork” – the front part that the horn sits on. In southwestern Idaho, the terrain is flatter, calling for the “smooth fork”.

But the most important thing for Martiny is comfort.

“I try to make the saddle comfortable for the horse and the person, regardless of gender, breed, color,” she said.

A tailor-made saddle can be adapted to the body of man, horse and landscape. Form follows function in saddlery, but decoration is at the top of any cowboy’s wish list. The love of beautification unites everyone, no matter where you’re from or what you ride.

“With the cowboy saddle, I always told people that a cowboy was going to order as much carving as he could afford on his saddle.”

A little finger pointing to a section of the design on a leather saddle.

Arlie Sommer


Idaho Commission on the Arts

“Most people want as many flowers as they can afford, as many sculptures as they can afford. So for that, we put the flowers where we see them when we ride it, usually the camel’s back, the back jockeys”, specifies Martiny, showing the parts of a saddle in progress.

Martiny freely shares her ideas about the craft and has been recognized for her generosity in teaching others the art of saddle making. She offered her talents and mentorship through an organization that provides scholarships to women who practice Western arts.

His artistry is the culmination of many hours of practice, but Martiny humbly admits that students only gain true understanding by trying techniques themselves and learning from their mistakes.

Through all of the practice, she has developed a distinctive character in her work. She draws inspiration from the nature around her, designing flourishes and patterns from photos of flowers she takes around the ranch.

A flower engraved on a piece of beige leather placed on a marble slab.

Arlie Sommer


Idaho Commission on the Arts

“I got to where I like to do things quite freely. I will make several flowers and put them in different positions. Even if I use the same flower, I change it a little.

“I like my flowers to look very natural, very close to nature. And I want each petal to be a little bit different,” she said.

As intuitive and organic as the illustrations seem, they are done with diligence and precision. Martiny’s designs reflect mathematics in nature.

“Much of art is what looks pleasing to the eye – symmetry, balance. If the line is meant to be straight, it must be straight. If the line is meant to be in a circle, then this shouldn’t be an oval. There shouldn’t be any wobble in there.

Although smooth and symmetrical, she says her sculpting technique isn’t super complicated, and for the most part she only uses a few favorite tools. This is what only works for her.

“No one can teach you how to be good because you have to have an idea. If your leather is too dry, you won’t get that burnish. The tool prints that moisture in there. When the moisture goes , it’s like a footprint.

His experience in teaching the trade shines through. As she outlines her process with manageable metaphors and explanations, Martiny draws and sculpts a sunflower, freehand, in minutes.

A woman seated above a marble blade sculpting a piece of beige leather.

Arlie Sommer


Idaho Commission on the Arts

Martiny sits and bends over a large piece of marble where she shapes and carves the leather. She quickly draws a sunflower in the leather. “I got to where there’s a certain look that I like. I didn’t learn that from a book. I kind of adapted it from the basics of using the tool.

“I’m going to wet this piece of leather. I take a tool, after I’ve drawn this, and I trace over it with what’s called a stylus. When I push that, it leaves an impression. And then I cut that with a knife and then I use the hand tools, the hammer driven tools.

The leather industry, like any industry, is full of specific jargon. Martiny goes through the terms without pretension and with the humility of a true master who understands that there is always more to learn and that you have to start somewhere.

A big old black sewing machine.

Arlie Sommer


Idaho Commission on the Arts

The Randal hook-and-awl sewing machine of the 1920s is popular among leatherworkers for its strength. The parts are replaceable and the machine repairable.

“Burnishing is what you get when you bang this tool into leather. It causes a darkening, a bit like a bruise, but it stays there and that’s what gives you, what we call, the color.

Building a saddle requires not only precise cutting and carving, but also mechanical skill. Martiny uses an old, sturdy treadle machine that’s taller than her, strong enough to handle and fuse the thick bits of leather.

“It takes two sides, so it takes a whole cow to build a saddle and a few more.”

She has been making saddles for 35 years, learning first from her father and then from some of the greats.

“I was always around guys, doing what they call ‘guy stuff’. Because my dad had helped me out and built a saddle, it never felt like I shouldn’t be able to do it.

Nancy Martiny

Having first learned to work with leather, at age 15 Martiny started making saddles with a solid foundation to build on. She continued to work in the craft throughout her life, developing her skills even when she had to juggle work on the ranch and raising her family.

Quiet and reserved, she makes saddles alone, but it is also a collaboration. Martiny sources every part of the saddle from a network of trusted craftsmen and manufacturers.

For example, the base of the Douglas fir saddle, called the tree, is built by a craftsman in New Zealand, who has been supplying it for 25 years. There is also the client side. Martiny has built many lasting relationships with his clients over his years supplying rodeos with bucking horses.

Although there aren’t many women in the profession, Martiny doesn’t see gender as a barrier, and doesn’t even seem to notice the gender difference.

“We all do the same job, whether we are men or women. So we do cowboy. We do animal husbandry.

Nancy Martiny

It’s a changing lifestyle, but she believes handmade saddles are here to stay.

“’Cowboys are a dying breed,’ I’ve heard that all my life. Granted, there aren’t as many working cowboys as there used to be, but there are more and more people riding horses, lots of them. It’s a fun thing.

A woman holding a swivel knife, showing the different parts.

Arlie Sommer


Idaho Commission on the Arts

Martiny is particularly fond of knives used to cut leather with precision. “I cut that with what’s called a swing knife. The kingpin is up here where your finger rests, and that’s the saddle. This is the barrel and this is the blade.

Martiny feels lucky to be doing what she loves in changing times. She doesn’t take this life for granted.

“It’s a privilege to live here. If I wanted to make more money, I could go do something else. But I never understood what it would be.

For a solitary saddler in the middle of nowhere, his know-how is highly sought after. Most of Martiny’s saddles are built for loyal customers and there is no end in sight. It also designs and manufactures belts, headpieces and other accessories, as well as a line of accessories and clothing.

A variety of leather goods hanging from a four-pane door.

Arlie Sommer


Idaho Commission on the Arts

Martiny Saddle Co. provides customers with a variety of handcrafted leather goods and equipment, including headstalls, reins, spur straps, ropes and chinchas. Martiny also has a clothing line featuring her designs and makes leather accessories like wallets, handbags and jewelry.

“I feel like there will always be a demand for high quality. Who, since the beginning of time, hasn’t wanted something more beautiful than someone else’s? said Martiny.

She will continue to plug in, try new things and perfect her craft.

“You get the basics of building the saddle, then you spend the rest of your life perfecting it. It never gets boring because it’s never the same and you always have that challenge. When you get up in the morning, what can you do better today than yesterday? »

This piece was made for Expressive Idaho in partnership with the Folk and Traditional Arts Program of the Idaho Commission on the Arts, with financial support from Dr. Suzanne Allen, MD and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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