From inside his small workshop in the unincorporated community of Marvel, horse trainer Orly Valencia has been perfecting the craft of making saddles intended for the long-haul cowboys on the range.
Valencia, now in his mid-60s, was born and raised west of Breen. His parents, of Spanish and French descent, homesteaded in the area in the early 1900s. He’s a horse trainer by trade, but about 15 years ago, took on a new skill.
Valencia spent long days riding, and the saddles he bought usually wouldn’t fit his horse, causing discomfort to rider and colt. With a lack of saddle makers in the region, he decided he’d give it a try.
“When you learn to train and ride horses, you learn the value of a good saddle,” he said. “I could never find one to suit my needs. That lured me into doing it. Every horse is built different, so the saddle has to be built different, too.”
Valencia is self-taught, “the school of hard knocks” as he likes to call it. He said the first saddles he made were pretty rough, but through trial and error, he has been able to make each one better. He said now, he’s got it “down pat.”
“I always push forward to get better and better at it,” he said.
Becoming an artist
The whole process of making a saddle takes Valencia about six months to complete. First, he takes measurements to fit the specific shape of a customer’s horse, and then factors in the rider.
After that, he orders the construction of a “saddle tree,” essentially the base of the saddle made out of wood from a company in Utah. It takes the company about three months to send the base back, covered with rawhide.
That’s when Valencia’s favorite work begins. For the next month or so, he will work on the custom-made tooling and casing, etching elaborate designs into the rawhide leather.
Growing up, he never particularly liked to draw. Now, his time in the workshop is a calming and focused experience. He said he’s had to learn to be an artist.
“I couldn’t draw a circle 15 years ago,” he joked. “I enjoy it now. I only work on the saddles in the evening and at night because in the daytime I ride horses. But I enjoy coming in here and taking my time.”
Saddles for true cowboys
In 15 years, Valencia estimated he’s made about 50 saddles. He said most of that clientele are real cowboys.
Mike Leonard, a customer of Valencia’s, said he rides sometimes 25 miles a day herding cattle on his ranch in New Mexico. He said of all the saddles he’s owned over the years, Valencia’s are by far the most comfortable.
“I’ve never found saddles that fit horses like Orly’s, they actually have the exact shape of the horse’s back,” he said. “And he knows how to shape the seat to fit your proportions. They’re the most comfortable saddles I’ve ridden in my life.”
Leonard said Valencia has such a great understanding of how to make a saddle because he’s a traditional cowboy that understands what it’s like to spend long days on the range.
“He’s kind of an unknown treasure,” Leonard said. “He’s as good as anybody and better than most. He looks not only from the rider’s perspective but from the horse’s perspective, too.”
A different era
Valencia’s wife, Nancy, said the two met through a common love of horses and the outdoors. She said her husband caters to a specific type of customer – his saddles aren’t meant to be placed on a mantelpiece in a mansion.
“Durango has changed drastically, and the Western atmosphere has changed drastically in the 35 years I’ve lived here,” she said. “There are not too many authentic cowboys around. It’s become more of a hobby.”
Valencia, prepping in his shop for the next saddle, said the Colorado range is in a different era. The ranch cowboys are fading out, he said, and the next generation is leaning more toward four-wheelers than horses.
What’s at risk is a loss of connection with the land, he said.
“It’s easier to jump on a four-wheeler than it is to saddle a colt that’s going to buck your butt off in the wee hours of the morning,” Valencia said. “I think the cowboy thing is fading out. It’s kind of sad to see that going away. Riding animals, that’s why God put them horses on this planet, for people to use them.”