Hidden mementos within a ranch saddle offer solace for a Marine Corps veteran.

Veteran saddle built with dog tags
Matt Littrell ordered a custom saddle from Tad Knowles and requested he incorporate 16 dog tags from fallen soldiers into the design. Photo by Kristen Littrell

Matt Littrell never rides alone. Within his saddle are 16 dog tags representing the lives of fallen Marine Corps brothers who served with him in the infantry battalion 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines during his second deployment to Iraq.

Littrell now resides in Colorado with his wife, Kristen. The two operate MK Horsemanship and offer horsemanship clinics and camps for veterans.

Fourteen of the tags are hidden between the skirt and sheepskin, and honor the military members who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the United States.

dog tags on roping saddle
The saddle features 16 hidden dog tags. Fourteen are attached under the jockey of the saddle, and two are under the swells. Photo by Tad Knowles

Under the front seat jockey are two distinctive tags. On November 4th, 2004, another squad within the battalion hit a roadside improvised explosive device (IED). Two of Littrell’s close friends, Corporal Jeremiah Baro and Lance Corporal Jared Hubbard, didn’t survive the explosion.

“My squad was the one that called out when they got ambushed,” says Littrell. “They were hit bad that night and neither one of them made it.

“I went to boot camp with Baro and Hubbard, and we were together from day one. Now, Hubbard’s on the left of the saddle and Barrow is on the right, underneath the swells. They ride up front with me.”

ranch roping saddle for fallen soldiers
Matt Littrell says “The saddle is a piece of art. You could hang it on the wall and look at it ever day.” Instead, Littrell chooses to use the saddle on his Valhalla Ranch. Photo by Kristen Littrell

The saddle was built by Tad Knowles of Kiowa, Colorado. Everything on the saddle is American-made. In fact, Knowles says most of the material is from Elbert County, the same Colorado county in which Littrell grew up.

“It’s a Buster Welch roper ranch saddle,” says Knowles. “I tooled it with Marine Corps leaves, which people call filigree. There are only two flowers on the entire saddle, and they are the American Legion veteran poppy.”

Littrell says the day Knowles gave him the saddle, “there was a lot of dust in the air that day,” because he couldn’t help but get teary-eyed. In 2014, he completed a ride from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to Camp Pendleton, California, in honor of his fellow Marines. The ride inspired Littrell to have the saddle built.

“It’s emotional and it should be,” he says. “To know that every time I throw a leg over there’s 16 guys riding in that saddle with me, it goes beyond the functionality of it and how beautiful of a saddle it truly is. It’s more than a saddle—it’s a legacy.”

saddle tooled with a poppy flower
The saddle features a poppy flower on each side, which symbolizes the ultimate sacrifice paid by veterans.

Knowles says he was honored to craft the saddle as it allowed him to pay homage to all the veterans in his life.

“To look at the saddle, it looks kind of just like a ranch saddle,” Knowles says. “But to know the story behind it and what he did for our country and what the saddle means to Matt makes it special.”

Matt Littrell and his wife, Kristen, run a 501 (c)(3) non-profit group called Valhalla Ranch, which offers horsemanship camps and clinics for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. For more information, visit mkhorsemanship.com

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