Working on saddles wasn’t a choice for Bill Maloy early in life. His grandparents first started running a pack string and horse concessions in Sequoia National Park in the 1920s. Eventually, his father joined the business and, as soon as he was old enough, Bill was a regular employee.
“I spent a lot of time working on saddles and pack saddles and all kinds of gear,” says Maloy, now a member of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association (TCAA).
With some 50 years of saddle-making experience, Maloy creates saddles in the style developed by the Visalia Stock Saddle Company in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“When I was in high school, I took a craft class and they had leather for us to work on. That’s where I first learned to carve leather and really took an interest in saddle work.”
An art major in college, Maloy went to work for Bill Rogers in a Visalia, California, saddle shop in the mid-1950s. Within a few years, he’d left to open his own shop in Reno, Nevada. He made a couple of saddles for display purposes, but has worked almost exclusively on custom orders since those early days.
“I never had a lot of time to make saddles that were just going to sit around the store,” he admits. “From the start, I always seemed to have plenty of orders to work on. Before long, I was two or three years behind on those orders. I was never quite four years behind, but close.
“I have had some guys die before their saddles were finished.”
While he wouldn’t want to wait years for a custom saddle, Maloy says he saw the benefit it provided for some of his customers. Often, it gave them time to scrape together the necessary funds to pay for his custom work.
These days, Maloy takes orders only from friends and family. After 50 years in the business, he hopes to stay active enough to leave custom saddles for his three kids and four grandchildren.
“I guess they can sell them if they want to, but I think that’s something I can leave for my family that they’ll be able to cherish for years to come,” he says. “There’s no reason why they should ever have to buy a saddle.”
One unique factor in Maloy’s business is that he produces all the silver for his saddles. Most saddlemakers leave the silverwork to experienced silversmiths, but Maloy picked up the trade working with legendary smiths Al Pecetti. Fellow TCAA member Mark Drain worked in Maloy’s saddle shop for a time.
“I wasn’t doing my own silver at that point, so I’d have Mark or Al [Pecetti] do it for me,” Maloy admits. ” made a saddle in 1975 that had the first silver I’d done that was good enough to sell to someone. From then on, I’ve done my own silver.”
Through the years, Maloy has produced saddles for all occasions-everything from fancy horse-show and award saddles to basic ranch-hand rigs. At times, he was cranking out as many as 52 saddles in a year.
“I had my brother working for me for a while doing all the dirty work that I didn’t want to do. They weren’t always fancy, but it was still a lot of work. Most of the stuff I’ve made for the last 20 years has been pretty fancy, so I don’t make nearly as many in a year as I used to.”
Maloy’s skills have earned him many accomplishments through the years. He won the leather-stamping contest at the 1997 Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, Will Rogers Award as saddlemaker of the year in 2002 and the Nevada Governor’s Award for Excellence in Folk Arts in 2006.
A veteran saddlemaker who knows how tough it is to make a living in the trade, Maloy says he is thrilled with the success of TCAA. At the group’s show in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, saddles routinely sell for $30,000 or more. Similar sale prices of collectible tack are routine elsewhere, such as the High Noon sale, held each year in Phoenix, Arizona. One reason for increased sale prices is the continuing education of saddle buyers-something that TCAA sees as a primary mission.
“I think it’s neat to see these items selling for that much,” Maloy says. “Of course, with those old saddles, the guy who made it probably sold it for $20, and now it’s going for $30,000 after someone found it collecting dust in an old barn.”