The city expansion halts at the edge of Black Forest, and here at the end of a dirt road, a barn sits between the tall pines. Through the front doors, an old tune faintly plays from an old radio — the Sons of the Pioneers.
“Deep in my heart is a song, here on the range I belong,” sings Roy Rogers and the gang. “Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds …”
A grainy picture hangs on the wall: Colorado Springs resembling more of a dusty frontier than the booming metro it is today.
“That’s the mesa there,” says Bob Brenner, 77, pointing to the slice of paradise he once knew from atop his horse. Urban development now consumes the flat top.
He points to another mostly barren tract as it was in 1928, when this photo was taken. “That’s Fillmore.”
That’s where in 1980 he opened Western Creations, his saddle shop. The Springs’ big tech wave was rising high then; Brenner’s trade was already something of a relic. Like pretty much everything from his memories, the shop is no more.
But his saddle making lives on.
Forty years later, he continues here at Pikes Peak Saddlery, inside this barn where a caller might go to voicemail, busy as Brenner might be, consumed by the fine craft requiring close examination of his round spectacles and the delicate use of his hands: the cutting and shaping of leather; the stitching; the ornate carvings that make it personal for the rider. Brenner might need three or four months to get everything just right.
So yes, one can leave a message. “May you always have a good ride,” goes the parting words from Brenner.
He doesn’t ride anymore. He can’t. Not even the comfort of his customized saddles can save his aching bones.
But nothing can keep him from his craft. Brenner recently got his career’s 963rd order, and he fully intends to see his 1,000th saddle made someday.
Saddle makers keep count like this. They are a few but prideful bunch — prideful members of an old guard.
Back before the big box stores and mass supply chains, back when Colorado was hardly a state, saddle makers would hide their handiwork to maintain their local advantage. Not anymore, says Mike Brennan, the Western Slope-based president of the Colorado Saddle Makers Association.
“We’re dedicated to passing on all the knowledge,” he says. “Us old saddle makers, we’re getting ready to cash in our chips, and we’d hate to let all of that knowledge go.”
The number of committed practitioners like Brenner is uncertain. “In the entire state, there’s probably not more than a dozen,” he says, and he would know, having helped organize the American Saddle Makers Association.
“That kind of died off,” he says. But at last update, the association’s online directory included five other saddle makers selling in Colorado.
Who could blame one for not taking the vocation seriously? “It’s a hard way to make a living,” says the state association president.
With the price and the waiting time, a customer is quick to turn to the likes of Murdoch’s or Big R or even Amazon. And customers are dwindling.
Industry researchers have noted “a path of slow decline,” as they wrote in the latest edition of U.S. Equine Market. Since the recession, the report has estimated the nation’s overall horse business dropping 4% every year.
Brenner specializes in equipment for trick riders, an even rarer clientele. A matriarch of the sport, the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame’s Karen Vold, likens him to herself in a way.
His is “a dying art,” she says from her ranch outside Pueblo. “It’s like what we’re trying to do at the trick riding school here, because it’s not something a lot of people are wanting to get into. It’s very time consuming, and you have to work hard at it.”
The kind of people Vold knew back in her ’50s and ’60s rodeo days seem to her to be from a lost world. Still, she’ll entice some curious youngsters at her school every year. And Brenner will be on hand to ensure they have the right saddle and straps.
She describes Brenner with trademark traits of that old world: “very honest and very dedicated,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade his work for anything.”
• • •
The work began after he returned to his Colorado birthplace after Vietnam. Brenner was an infantry platoon leader. Deployed for 15 months. And that’s about all he’ll say about that. “It was what it was.”
He was eager to get back to the life he knew. Deep in that bleakness overseas, he’d dream about those golden days in the saddle, his childhood steeds Blaze and Rocket.
“When I got back from Vietnam,” he says, “the first thing I did was I went down to the tack store and bought me a new saddle.”
He drifted to horses like his ancestors before him. Horses pulled the covered wagon his grandparents rode from Oklahoma to Gen. William Jackson Palmer’s Colorado Springs.
Brenner’s aunt was instrumental in the early days of the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo. He hangs a hat of his uncle’s on the wall, what he says was given to the man by Spencer Penrose — the entrepreneurial icon’s token of thanks for the horse help.
Brenner’s dad was a carpenter, his mom a school teacher, but the ranching life was precious to them. They were said to put their boy on a horse at 3 months old.
But the Colorado Springs that Brenner came home to in the 1970s was changing. The family ranch was no more, sold for houses to march across the emerging Austin Bluffs Parkway and a connector road called Brenner Place. The world was different. Brenner thought to fit in with a banking job.
“I realized that corporate America was not for me,” he says.
And so horses it was. Something precious. Something lasting. Something somehow relaxing.
While making his next saddle, there’s a stillness here inside the barn. Nothing but the birds and breeze between the pines outside. And inside, an old song from an old radio.
“You get in the zone,” Brenner says. “I lose track of time.”