Mortenson also rides the saddles he makes. While in Aberdeen, he team roped on his horses. He also began dabbling in silver work. In the years since, he says, several silversmiths have helped him.
“One person I’d like to give credit to is a good friend who passed away a little over a year ago, Linda Doyle,” he says. “She was a great teacher. I didn’t go to silversmithing school, but I worked with several silversmiths. Ernie Marsh, Greg Darnall and Wilson Capron are a few others who have inspired me.
“Some people get stunted in their creativity or stop looking for new ways to do things. I like to be creative, and I’m fortunate to have had creative teachers.”
Darnall, who now makes custom bits exclusively, says Mortenson’s willingness to learn has allowed him to keep improving through the years.
“His work has to be good to be competitive,” Darnall says. “Clint has managed to not only survive, but has done very well.”
After seven years in Aberdeen, Mortenson and his then-wife decided to move to Santa Fe in 2001.
“I was busy with the business, but we rode year-round and didn’t have an indoor arena,” he says. “There were days we were riding and it was 20-below zero. It was so cold in the winter and so hot in the summer. I like South Dakota, but the weather is more cooperative here [in Santa Fe].
“I had friends here, and there wasn’t a saddle shop in town. It’s a beautiful place, and there are so many artists here. It was a good place to set up shop.”
Although he didn’t know it at the time, the move to New Mexico was another fortuitous decision that would lead him down yet another inspiring path.
Santa Fe has long been a draw for artists and artisans, actors, and film producers looking for unique sets, particularly for Westerns. Films from Lonesome Dove, Appaloosa and the John Wayne classic The Cowboys have been shot in and around the city, where both the scenery and the architecture are magical to a camera lens.
When Mortenson found a hacienda style home and barn, it seemed the perfect spot to set up a small horse facility, and it was close to town, where he first had a shop.
He added an arena and, eventually, a shop where his business would move. It’s a comfortable place, with warm adobe walls and windows where his horses can nose their way into his shop while he’s working. The location is between two ranches that are frequently used for movie sets, so the neighborhood traffic frequently consists of actors, directors, extras, props managers and set designers.
“Probably one of the first [from the movie industry] to stop by was [props manager] Keith Walters. He had us make a saddle for Tommy Lee Jones for The Missing,” Mortenson says. “We made saddle bags for Pierce Brosnan to carry in Seraphim Falls, and just made some holsters and gun belts for Jeff Bridges for a movie they’re filming now.
Mortenson also has given riding lessons, housed livestock and provided a few horses for movie scenes.
“Viggo Mortenson rode here during [filming of] Appaloosa, and Hilary Swank took some of her first riding lessons at my place [for The Homesman],” he says.
The movie business keeps things somewhat unpredictable and encourages creativity to flow in different ways on Mortenson’s ranch, but his world always circles back to horses. They have led him to Europe, helped him hone his craftsmanship, and play a big part in his day-to-day life.