Al says he can’t remember the day when he realized that going to his shop felt more like a day job than a career. The joy he once felt when bringing razor-sharp steel in contact with honey-colored hide and seeing beauty emerge from his fingertips was gone.
“One day Johnny Motta, the top salesman for McPherson Leather Company came in my shop complaining about problems he was having with saddles being made in their Los Angeles shop,” Gould recalls. “Today, McPherson is still one of the country’s major suppliers of leather and other materials for saddle makers, but at that time they also employed quite a few saddle makers. Although they were trying to copy what I and other custom saddle makers were doing, they were having a lot of trouble building a seat that customers were wanting at that time.
“At that time, cutting and working cow horse events were becoming popular on the West Coast, thanks in part to trainers like Bobby Ingersoll and Don Dodge. The Doc Bar horses were coming on in this part of the country, too, and people were looking for a different type of saddle to compete in. Rather than the equitation seats that locked you in place, they wanted a seat that allowed for more movement for the rider.
“I’d seen some of the cutting saddles that were being made in Texas, that had a slab seat with virtually no pocket for the rider to sit in,” says Gould, “and to me, that seemed extreme. I happened to be at a hunter-jumper show in Fresno and glanced over at a saddle on this Thoroughbred and noticed the pocket was in the middle of the saddle, yet the riders appeared very balanced.
I began experimenting with my ground seats, moving the pocket about an inch or two forward and opening up the front a bit. I loaned a couple out to local trainers, including my brother Carl, who later won the Snaffle Bit Futurity, and got good feedback. It is a slight modification but has become standard on the California-style stock saddles I build.”
Several of the saddles Motta had sold were returned, so he asked Gould if he would go to Los Angeles and show the McPherson saddle makers there how he was building the seat.
“Even though I was pretty green, I was smart enough to know that you can’t teach old saddle makers much, but I needed a change so I shut down my shop and moved to Los Angeles. While I was there, I built a saddle for Monty Roberts that he’d ordered while I was still in Clovis, but it didn’t impress those old saddle makers. After a couple of months, I went on the road for McPherson, selling saddles and tack until I met Harold Porter, who had a saddle shop in Tucson.”
Porter and Gould became good friends. One day, he told Al about a job with Resistol Hat Company, and Gould interviewed, got the job, and moved to Albuquerque for a few years before eventually relocating to Dallas.
“In the early ’70s, Resistol was getting into other merchandise—shirts, sweaters and outerwear—but they were having some turmoil inside and the president of the company asked if I would come inside and work in the merchandising department,” says Gould. “I wasn’t there 30 days when the people who ran the merchandising department for Resistol (Byer-Rolnick) quit and left me with the whole merchandising department. Although I always carried my tools and enough leather to build a saddle now and then, I was immersed in the Western apparel business and didn’t have time for much else.”
Back in the Saddle
After nearly a decade and multiple changes in management, Gould had enough of corporate life and moved back home to Clovis.
“While I was unloading what little furniture I had at a house I was renting,” Gould recalls, “a lady pulled up and asked if I was Al Gould. I told her I was and she said, “Great. I need a new saddle. How fast can you build it?”
“I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but I did have a tree that would work and enough leather to get the job done. I started working on Friday night and delivered the saddle on Sunday night. You might say I was highly motivated.”
Today, Gould has the luxury of choosing his clients and his projects more carefully. The saddle he built for the Art of the Horse showcase was unique in that the carving was a multi-flower collection with a minimum amount of stem work.
“I call it a bouquet pattern,” says Gould. “There are a roses and poppies, but there are also original floral designs. Believe it or not, the inspiration for this saddle came from a bronze grave marker I saw when I was visiting a cemetery. Usually with flower stamping, there are leaves, vines and buds. With this design, I chose to combine floral and geometric stamping.
“The folded ribbon border is an adaptation of a ribbon I saw on the side of a delivery truck going down the highway. As soon as I saw it, I pulled over and made a sketch. It has become one of my favorite border treatments because it does more than just hold a design together; it creates a sense of movement”
Gould says that in part he owes his skill with a swivel knife to an old Indian leatherworker who he never met.
“Over the years, I’ve developed a reputation for my swivel knife work,” he says. “When I was working with C.H. Mavis, he was going through an old suitcase one day and pulled out a belt that had been made for him by an old Indian stamper at Porter’s Saddle Shop in Phoenix. That was the most magnificent piece of swivel knife artwork I had ever seen.
If you looked carefully, you could see birds were integrated in the design, yet it just flowed all together.
“I had never seen anything like that in leather, and that made me realize that you could use the swivel knife to cut in a pattern, or you could use it to make a stand-alone piece of art.
“A few years ago, I came across an old notebook from college where the notes from the class were in the middle of the page, but in the margins were pages of swivel knife patterns. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was preoccupied with these intricate designs. That is when it started and it has developed from there.”
This article was originally published in the May 2010 issue of Western Horseman.