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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Sayler Saddlery in Three Rivers

May 27, 2016 03:10PM ● By Ronda Alvey

Threads of the Trade

June 2016
By Jordan Venema
Photo: Rosa Mills

It’s rare that a man’s life so perfectly, almost symbolically, becomes tied by the multiple threads of the trade that he has made his own. From his younger years working his grandfather’s ranch in Lockwood to his later years owning the saddlery in Three Rivers, much of Kevin Sayler’s life has been spent either riding in saddles or repairing them. The very cattle he would herd could provide the leather that made up his seat. It’s a romantic notion, but city-dwellers do like to make poets and stoics out of the American cowboy. Sayler certainly is as quiet as a stoic, though, and nearer to nature than Wordsworth could ever have dreamed, but if you pressed him about his craft to ask if saddlery were an art, he’d humbly answer, “Naw, it’s mostly work. I haven’t given it that much thought.”

“A cowboy all my life,” Sayler describes himself, “we’d always have to work on our own equipment cause we lived too far out of town, and my grandfather always told us, ‘If you broke it, you fix it.’” So Sayler grew up repairing his own saddles and equipment, learning from his grandfather and “a couple old boys that used to work back home, from watching ‘em.”

Now the 56-year-old spends less time in the saddle and more time repairing them, which is just way the cookie crumbles, perhaps, when you start your own business, as did Sayler about five years ago when he opened Sayler Saddlery. He’ll still help with ranching here and there, but less often “because of the body gettin’ busted up. Plus I got a wife that didn’t want to be the one packing everything away to a rodeo while a crippled old guy follows her around,” Sayler says with a chuckle.

While the move from saddle to saddlery could be described as a physical shift in perspective, “it was still tough starting off having to talk to all the people,” he says, acknowledging he’s a quiet fellow. “Yeah, that comes from working by yourself all that time out on the ranch.” 

Which is why Sayler is grateful for his wife, Melissa (“Mo”). The two make a good team, admits Sayler, and if you were to boil their partnership down, Mo puts a project in front of him and Sayler makes or repairs it. 

Other than working with orders and customers, “Mo, she does, what is it called,” Sayler pauses, “Facebook?” She maintains the saddlery’s online presence posting photos of Sayler’s different projects, but as for the cowboy, “I don’t even know how to turn on a computer.” But get the man going about saddles, and he’ll paint you a picture.

“There’s all kinds of different saddles out there,” says Sayler. You’ve got your ranching saddles, barrel racing saddles, cutting saddles – some that are heavier and some that are lighter. Sayler knows his way around its leather, buckles, straps and how to stich sheep’s wool, but he’s also family with a saddle’s other accoutrements, like chinks, bridle and saddlebags. 

By both custom and appearance, his shop couldn’t be a traditional saddlery anymore, but that hasn’t stopped the old rancher from applying his skills beyond the saddle. “It was harder to learn how to weld than work with leather,” Sayler says matter-of-factly, but since opening shop, he’s gotten some custom requests that have stretched the leatherworker’s craft.  He’s upholstered leather chairs, even created a saddlebag for a motorcycle – which, he assures, is much more complicated than a saddlebag for a horse. “That was one I really had to think about. You’ve got to make sure the leather doesn’t fall near the exhaust.”

Not one to rely upon computers anyway, Sayler doesn’t refer to YouTube instructional videos when starting a unique project – he’s old school, and will learn as he goes.

One such project, and perhaps the most interesting – for Sayler anyway – involved a tourist from Malaysia. 

“I was just getting ready to close up, and he swung in and he said he wanted to meet the guy that was gonna make him a bag, instead of somebody from China.” The customer wanted a leather satchel for his computer, and you could argue the project thrust Sayler, briefly anyway, from saddler to fashion designer.  

“Mo was having to email the guy back and forth cause he kept kinda changing stuff,” Sayler muses, but in the end the bag sold for a reasonable $175 and “it turned into making quite a few more.”

But for Sayler, working on a satchel will never compare to working on a saddle. It brings him comfort, he admits. Call it compulsion or nostalgia, but like a well-worn saddle that has conformed to the shape of its rider, Sayler has been shaped by his work. Does he love the scent of leather? “Oh yeah,” Sayler responds, and though never prone to more than a yep or no, he nearly pens a poem: “Especially when you get a saddle that’s just been pulled off a horse so you got all that sweat and everything, it just brings back those memories.”

Sayler Saddlery •  41891 Sierra Drive,  Three Rivers

(559) 561-4545 • Wednesday–Saturday: 10am – 6pm • Find them on Facebook