Couple work together to make custom saddles

New Wallowa County residents Clay and Robin Sharp have been making custom handmade saddles for the past eight years. Photo by Rocky Wilson

When they were married eight years ago, Clay and Robin Sharp quickly decided they wanted to work at a vocation they could do together. They had both spent much of their lives around horses (Clay having shod horses for 15 years) and so the decision to work together making saddles was not a surprise to people who knew them best.

Now saddles made by the the couple, who live at Water Canyon four miles northwest of Wallowa, are scattered around the globe.

The Sharps moved to Wallowa County May 1 and quickly adapted to the local environment. "It is nice to live in a beautiful place and do what you want to do. We are really blessed," says Robin Sharp.

The Sharps came to Wallowa County after living six years in Phoenix, Ariz., where they made many business connections, but tired of the urban lifestyle. When Jim Smejkal ran an advertisement in Capital Press for free housing and power in return for being caretakers of some 20,000 acres of land around Water Canyon, the Sharps jumped at the chance. They had been as far east in the state as La Grande, but had never previously discovered the bounties of Wallowa County.

They now have a comfortable work space set up in their basement and racks with four or five constructed saddles upstairs where a dining room table might otherwise go. At present they complete a new mule or horse saddle every two weeks, compared to the more frenzied pace of every seven to ten days while working in Phoenix.

The average price of a new saddle is about $2,200 with prices ranging as high as $5,000.

The Sharps construct their saddles completely from USA products, including #1 USA leather. Such specialty hides as anteater, shark, alligator and sting ray can be used upon request for specific pieces of the saddle. Silver, chrome and brass are also utilized upon request. Clay estimates that there are some 15 different components which go into a saddle.

Though having no children, the Sharps keep busy taking care of eight horses, three dogs and three cats.

Busy trying to keep up with orders, the couple says that much of their business comes from word of mouth. Though they consider their saddles above average in quality, they know that they are using the same materials and skills which have kept saddle makers in business for the past 200 years.

The husband/wife team worked as cowboys in Nevada when they were first married and know the importance of a good fitting saddle when working all day on a horse.

When an order comes in the owners of Sharp's Saddlery glean a battery of information about the prospective user of the saddle and the animal on which it will primarily be used. The height, weight, gender and physique of a purchaser all go into the construction of the custom saddle. The height of the animal is also considered.

Clay Sharp says that getting the proper saddle fit on a mule is much more difficult than for a horse. He says that mules are much more "finicky" about the fit of the saddle and more likely to throw the rider if the saddle does not fit properly.

The turnaround time between the order and the delivery of the final product is three to four months. Even saddles sold as far away as Italy are boxed and sent via UPS.

The foundation of the saddle, or the tree, is constructed of wood then strengthened with a coating of rawhide. To give the customer a finer, sturdier product the Sharps employ bullhide instead of regular cowhide.

In addition to orders coming in through word of mouth, the Sharps have been advertising over the Internet over the past four years. "It's not a silver bullet, but it sure helps," says Robin Sharp. Many of their saddles are sold to the eastern United States.

Though custom saddles are the main staple of their business the couple also make and market head stalls, chaps, chinks, saddle bags and canteens. "It would be a perfect world if we could only build saddles," she says. They are also in the business of saddle repair.

Sharp Saddlery has already sold three or four saddles to local buyers since the move to Wallowa County, including one of their top selling Cliff Wade saddles.

The couple enjoy customers who are creative in how they want their saddles constructed. Like art pieces, each saddle is signed by Clay Sharp and initialed by Robin.

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