It was Gould’s desire to help others that caught the attention of William “Bill” Reis, publisher of The Leather Crafters and Saddlers Journal. Dorothy Reis, who took over management of the publication when her husband became disabled, remembers how Gould first reacted when asked to teach a saddle making class in Sheridan, Wyoming.
“My husband met Al sometime in the mid-1990s at a Colorado Saddle Makers Association event where Al was a judge,” says Dorothy. “Bill has been around some of the greatest leather-workers in the world and was very impressed by Al’s prowess with a swivel knife and his ability to teach others how to use it.
“Some time later, Bill met Al as a show we sponsored in Ventura, California, and asked him to be a part of Saddle Week, an intensive workshop for up-and-coming saddle makers that we were planning as part of the Rocky Mountain Leather Show in Sheridan, Wyoming.”
Gould recalls being apprehensive when Bill asked him if he were interested in teaching at the workshop.
“As everyone knows, Sheridan is the home of great leather artists, so the thought of me teaching there was more than a little intimidating,” he says. “But I did go, and that allowed me to get acquainted with guys like Don Butler, Chan Gear, Barry King, Jim Jackson, Robert Baird and others who are truly leather artisans. When I had a chance to see their work firsthand and visit with them, it elevated my work.
“That exposure, plus the responsibility of getting up in front of a class in that environment, taught me that you can’t just show people how to lay out a pattern or create an efficient workflow, you also have to explain the ‘why’ as much as the ‘how.’
“Teaching has made me a better saddle maker and leatherworker. This will be my 11th year teaching, not only at the big show in Sheridan, but also in Wickenburg and Elko, Nevada.”
Like other custom saddle makers, Gould has a loyal regional customer base—mostly Central California ranchers, outfitters, horse trainers, and the occasional recreational rider who doesn’t mind paying a premium for a one-of-a-kind, fully stamped saddle. And although he made his first saddle more than 50 years ago, Gould rarely seems completely satisfied with his most recent project.
“I think that goes back to my very first job,” he says.
“When I was a junior in high school,” Gould recalls, “Slim Beaver, a local saddle maker in town, heard that I could stamp a little and offered me a job.”
Beaver Saddle Shop, located on the main street of Clovis, California, sat adjacent to the town’s rodeo grounds and was a popular gathering place for local cowboys, especially during rodeo week. For a horse-crazy kid with aspirations to rodeo, it was an opportunity of a lifetime.
“There was an older fellow named C.H. Mavis in the shop, who built saddles for Slim,” Gould recalls, “but he had bad arthritis in both hands and reeked of Absorbine Jr. When he discovered that I could stamp, he began cutting out the leather, dampening the pieces, then putting them in plastic bags for me to stamp after school. Both men were well up in years, but they were sticklers for doing a job right.
“By the time I enrolled at Fresno State College, Mavis had left the shop and Slim Beaver put me to work building saddles. Well, I’d made a saddle for my brother under tight supervision, but I certainly wasn’t a saddle maker,” says Gould. “But with Mavis gone, Slim had about a dozen saddles backordered and some of his best customers were getting a little testy. I learned how to build saddles like you teach a kid to swim— by throwing them into the deep end of the pool.”
Fortunately, most of the backlog were roping-type saddles built on a Chuck Sheppard tree and with geometric stamping. Once Gould established a production sequence, he was able to knock them out pretty quick.
“Within a few months,” he remembers, “every saddle had been delivered.
That experience of having to produce under pressure was a great confidence booster. At the time, I was taking a full schedule of classes, competing in steer wrestling, team roping and calf roping at college rodeos, and building some pretty decent saddles.”
After college, Gould set up shop on his own and began establishing a reputation as one of the up-and-coming saddle makers in the San Joaquin Valley.
“At the time I was getting started, Art Vancore, who had a shop in Merced, was the saddle maker of choice,” says Gould. “If you were trying to make a name for yourself at the big shows like the Cow Palace or Salinas, you didn’t bother showing up if you weren’t riding a Vancore saddle.
“Most of Art’s saddles were equitation saddles. They were heavy in front, with large square skirts and a deep seat pocket next to the can tie. Fortunately for me, Art heard that I was building a seat pretty much like his and began sending some of his more impatient clients my way. In the 1960s, Art’s waiting list was legendary, and unless you were a big name, you couldn’t even get on it.”