Feature: Riding High

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Dakota Saddlery owner Bennie Inman takes pride in building custom-made American saddles.


Ask any equestrian what his or her most valued piece of equipment is, and you’ll likely be told the saddle.

Its functionality, comfort and durability are essential to rider and horse alike. After all, a good saddle can mean the difference between sitting pretty and a sore body.

And of course, even a novice rider also wants the animal he or she has mounted free of discomfort.

For many horse-riding enthusiasts, the best saddles are those carefully hand-crafted here in the United States. Ben “Bennie” Inman shares that philosophy.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]“American-made saddles are the best in the world,” Inman says. “I ship saddles to China because they know the best saddles come from the United States.”

Inman and his wife Dianne own Dakota Saddlery, Inc., located atop Sand Mountain in Ider, Ala. They manufacture saddles from raw materials made in the good old USA. With the exception of English saddles, of which Inman says the best ones come from Germany, England and Italy, Dakota Saddlery custom-makes all kinds of saddles.

Dakota Saddlery primarily makes western saddles including trail, allround, barrel, mounted-shooting, cutting, endurance, ranch, reining, roping, show and training, as well as various subsets to these styles. They are made to the physical conformation based on the type of horse, such as semi-quarter horse, quarter horse, wide, draft, walking, mule, wide mule and Arabian.

I spent several hours with the Inmans and their staff as they began their weekly task of saddle-making. This week, the production order is for 18 saddles of varying types, all made to fulfill a special order from a Dakota Saddlery dealer. The average week includes production of 25 saddles made to fulfill special orders from a host of licensed outfitters scattered all over the country.

Inman said he limits the number of dealers selling his brand so each dealer will have a minimum 50-mile radius with no other dealer selling his saddles. This protects sales for his retail accounts. Dakota Saddlery does not have a retail store; its business is entirely wholesale.

Inman started Dakota Saddlery in April of 1987. He was working for the Sand Mountain/North Jackson County Alabama Water Authority when his interest in horses and riding evolved into the thought of making saddles. Everything equestrian was booming then. In 1992, he quit his job and became a full-time manufacturer of saddles.

At the peak of equestrian popularity, he was making 110 saddles a week in two locations. Since the great recession of 2008, equine-related hobbies have suffered as feed prices have exploded while employment income increases have slowed. Many people sold their horses, lowering the number of saddles needed in the marketplace.

Inman believes as the economy continues to improve, more people will return to their equestrian interests, and new people will get into it for the first time.

I find myself entranced watching the process of making a saddle. “Most saddleries in the U.S. are mom-and-pop businesses of which most are making saddles in the same tradition they have been for generations,” Inman says.

Dakota Saddlery uses heavy-duty sewing machines and leather punch cutters to form large parts of the saddle.

Inman says the machines he has look the same now as they did 60 years or more ago. Dakota Saddlery still uses real stitching on its saddles. Inman said many of the manufactured saddles, such as ones coming from China, glue the parts together. Manufacturers there use a fake perforation in the leather that looks like a stitch. Some Chinese-made saddles use pleather, instead of genuine leather. Dakota uses American leathers that are bought in bulk from tanneries and suppliers of treated leather.

Inman buys a host of different cuts, colors, textures and thicknesses depending on which part of the saddle that particular piece of leather will be used or based on the type and style of the saddle.

There are a multitude of leather parts to a saddle. There also are metal parts that anchor straps and some for décor. All the metal parts are finely tooled with a decorative face. Inman purchases metal parts from U.S. suppliers.

The only large part of the saddle not made by Dakota is the “tree.” Inman orders his trees from Steele Saddle Tree in Nashville, Tenn., based on the type of saddle they are making. Steele Saddle Tree has been producing its trees since 1848. Ed Steele, the current operator, is the fifth generation of his family operating this business.

Most of the trees are wood with metal horns that will be covered with a variety of leather wraps or other durable, easy-to-grip materials. Some saddle trees are made of different types of plastic depending on weight requirements and what kind of saddle it will become.

Inman loves the art of saddle-making. “I love the hustle bustle of sales and getting orders,” he says. “I love to meet and work with so many wonderful people nationwide.”

During my visit, Inman is getting ready to leave for the annual Denver International Western/English Apparel & Equipment Market. He and his wife go every year and enjoy seeing their friends from the industry. They set up an exhibit booth to showcase their saddles and take orders.

There is a rich tradition of saddle making in DeKalb County and throughout the area, which emanated in part due to the fact some of the people who started making saddles here once worked at saddleries in nearby Chattanooga. Once they became skilled, some created their own businesses closer to home. Still, several of the saddleries have closed in recent years due to loss of demand.

Active saddleries in the Sand Mountain/Lookout Mountain region include: Continental Saddlery and Blevins Saddlery, both in Ider; Circle H in Henagar, Ala.; Frontier in Flat Rock, Ala.; Valley Head Saddlery and Horton Saddlery, both in Valley Head, Ala.; Guffey Saddlery in Trenton, Ga.; and Crates Leather Company and American Saddlery in Chattanooga.