As might be expected, auditions for EuroDisney (now Disneyland Paris) in Paris, France, attracted several thousand prospective performers for its new Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Although Mortenson’s acting experience was non-existent, the chance to spend time in Europe was too enticing to resist. His horse know-how and youthful confidence paid off.
“I was one of the 15 cowboys selected for that show, so I moved to Paris,” he says. “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show is Disney’s largest live show in any of the parks, and it’s been going on for 23 years now.”
Mortenson roped, drove wagons and did trick riding in two dinner shows each evening. He remembers it being “pretty rough at the beginning,” with numerous injuries to the cast as the show was fine-tuned. But the experience was memorable.
“It was a great time,” he says. “A couple of friends and I, every time we’d have a few days off, we’d jump on a train and go wherever it was going—Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, England. I traveled a lot when I was there.”
Although he was in Paris only a year—leaving after he decided to pursue a career with more stability—working in the show had a great impact on his life. It was where Mortenson met his future wife, Silvie, who managed the show’s stable. Although they are now divorced, they share custody of their 14-year-old son, Wyatt. It also provided him an outlet for his creativity.
“The saddle they used for Buffalo Bill in the show was a 1950s parade saddle, so I submitted a proposal and asked if they would want something more authentic,” he says.
Mortenson received a commission from Disney to build replicas of Buffalo Bill’s and Annie Oakley’s saddles.
“I worked with the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody [Wyoming] on those, and they turned out pretty dang close [to the originals made 100 years earlier],” he says.
“Then I started supplying them with saddles, tack and chaps. They’ve been flying me back for two weeks every year for 23 years.”
Mortenson makes wrist cuffs, chaps, gun belts and horse equipment for the show, and when he visits he makes sure all of it is in good shape.
“I’ve got a little toolbox with an assortment of tools that I need. I send leather over before I go, so it’s waiting on me, and then I set up a little shop there,” he says.
Although Mortenson says he always enjoyed working with leather, he didn’t get serious about it until he returned to the United States. In fact, he built the replica saddles while attending a saddlemaking school.
When Mortenson returned to the United States in 1993, he was ready to find a new outlet for his creativity. As a young boy, he had made belts and billfolds, and remembers both his grandfather and father doing leatherwork, so the idea of getting instruction intrigued him.
“A couple of friends told me about Harry Adams and how good he was,” he recalls. “He was highly recommended.”
So Mortenson headed to Lusk, Wyoming, and attended a two-month workshop with Adams. He ended up staying a year, working in Adams’ shop and developing his skills.
“After that I went back to South Dakota and started my own shop in Aberdeen,” he says. “Then I bought out my teacher’s shop, and he came to work with me for awhile.”
Mortenson credits Adams with teaching him precision, along with flexibility in design.
“There are other saddlemakers who make higher-end saddles, but he was a master about pattern-making and originality,” he says. “He would try anything. At some schools they give you patterns and you cut out a saddle, and everybody makes a saddle just like the saddlemaker’s. Harry made us make every pattern, and told why they’re shaped a certain way, and how to create illusions with the saddle lines. He was one of the best teachers in the world.”
Mortenson kept his connections with Disney, but building saddles, along with doing repair work, was the mainstay of the business. His saddles also have been in demand with working cowboys, ropers and trainers who appreciate that Mortenson rides what he makes, and understands horse conformation.
“All of the saddles I have from him darn sure fit a horse,” says Mozaun McKibben of Whitesboro, Texas, a three-time AQHA world champion who has known Mortenson for about 15 years. “I love showing in them, and have won my world championships in one of them.”