| Every western enthusiast knows that the products they use are in the dwindling manufacturing class of handmade goods. A saddle requires precise craftsmanship done by hand by a professional. But who are the ones behind the business? What goes on behind the scenes of the saddle industry and how has it changed over the last few decades? Let the Horse Saddle Shop introduce you to Dan Crates, president of Crates Saddlery. Crates’ saddle and tack business creates high-end western saddles that compete with even the biggest names in the industry. But despite his family’s legacy and success, Dan Crates is a laid-back, humble person who is surprisingly easy to talk to. We caught up with him to get his take on how the saddle industry’s faring. Have a peek at our conversation:
HORSE SADDLE SHOP: Why don’t you start with a brief history of how you got involved in the saddle industry?
CRATES: It was a family business established in 1930. My father was a farmer in Ohio and moved south in the Great Depression and purchased a small saddelry and harness shop and it grew to be the largest producer in the world. That company was sold in 1980 and Crates started in 1981, again as a family company.
HSS: That’s quite different than a lot of other companies today.
CRATES: I’m well aware of it. I’ve been in the business for an awful lot of years. My father’s era was after World War II. That era included big names like Raymond Potts, the original owner of Potts Longhorn leather company (the Longhorn Billy Cook saddle), Bill Manning of Tex Tan, and Bona Allen, run by the Allen family. During the 50s and 60s Bona Allen was the largest producer in the world. Those were the old generation and they’ve all passed away. I’m one of the few of their sons left in the industry of that second generation. Now quite a few of them are in the hands of investors. The industry has a few of the so-called “Tier One” companies, then half a dozen “Tier Two” companies, of which we are a part, and then there are many, many small custom makers and producers that make only a few saddles a week.
HSS: So in a nutshell, that’s how the industry has changed over the years.
CRATES: Yes. The industry has also specialized into segments. In the old days we were called manufacturing “jobbers.” We made saddles and tack and “jobbed” everything from bits to saddle soap. Not many do that today. People started specializing in pads, protective equipment, whips, bits, and spurs. So the industry is segmented now and everyone specializes in a particular part. That’s a big change from the 50s and 60s.
HSS: Do you think that results in a better product?
CRATES: I think so. With competition, I think the specialization has produced a far better product than what was formerly available. Now there are some excellent products out there, saddle pads especially. Blankets and pads have really come into their own now.
HSS: How has the saddle-making process changed?
CRATES: We make the saddle the same way we made it in the 1950s. We’re a labor-intensive industry rather than a capital-intensive industry and saddles are just as handmade as they were in the last generation.
HSS: How is the saddle itself different?
CRATES: The trees have become modern. The Ralide® tree has now been around for forty years. Equi-fit fiberglass covered wood tree has been around since the 1900s. The rawhide tree has been here since Ghengis Khan. You have to remember that up until the steamboat and the railroad man moved at the speed of a horse. And that was it. Modern transportation is not very old.
HSS: How long does it take to make a saddle?
CRATES: It takes an average of about 15 total hours over a period of 1-2 months.
HSS: How are your saddles different from imported western saddles?
CRATES: The imported saddle tends to gravitate toward the lower end of the market, the mass market, considering the source, and it’s an area that we don’t even get into. The quality of the styling plus the workmanship and materials very important since it’s a handmade product. The quality of the labor is also very important.
HSS: Have you noticed any trends in the types of saddles you sell such as low-end versus high-end saddles?
CRATES: Every year we continue to sell more expensive products and demand goes up 5-10% every year. Our products such as team roping, trail, pleasure, and reining saddles are our biggest growth area.
HSS: What role does the economy play in the industry, especially in a time of low unemployment?
CRATES: The upper middle class is slowly growing. Of course you have to consider other factors, such as the price of hay, feed, and gas, all of which are very expensive right now. When you’re only getting ten miles to the gallon pulling a horse trailer, the price of gas when going to shows can keep people home. The price of corn and beef is also going up. It’s small industry with a limited amount of people participating. The last figure I heard was that there are nine million horses in the United States, of which maybe half were used somewhat regularly. There are a whole lot more feet out there to wear a pair of boots than horses to ride a saddle, so the saddle industry is not a huge percent of the Gross Domestic Product. While we are a factor in the recreational industry, we’re not a huge factor in the overall economy. People tend to think it’s bigger than it is.
HSS: What do you see in the future for the saddle industry?
CRATES: I think it will have a steady growth, as far as I can tell, as a sport, notwithstanding leather prices. Remember, we deal with a byproduct. Steers are processed for meat, not the hide. We’re in a market that is a byproduct of the food chain. So the world price of hides and leather is heavily concentrated in supply and demand. Right now demand is currently pretty high so prices are very high.