In his lifetime, leather craftsman and custom saddle maker Mark Hurley has made 819 saddles. Many of them he made while he worked at the iconic Luskey’s/Ryon’s shop in Fort Worth.
“I made 623 there,” he said.
After 23 years specializing in roping saddles with Luskey’s/Ryon’s, Hurley decided to open his own shop in Denton, off Interstate 35 next to Smith Brothers, in January 2012.
For eight months that year, Hurley, 55, worked on his barn to get it ready for opening. He started from scratch.
“I had lights, but it was on an extension cord and water was out of hose in the back,” he said. “That is all a saddle shop needs — good lighting and water — and we are still working on it.”
The 24-by-36-foot barn that houses Hurley Saddlery has all the equipment he needs to create custom saddles, from the leather to his tools to the trees — the initial foundation for the saddle. The shop also make custom albums, coasters, purses, cellphone and tablet cases and other items.
The shop is adorned with photos of its owner’s roping days, including a picture of one of his many wins, like amateur team roping at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 1995.
Being part of the rodeo for so long helped him understand what’s needed to make a good saddle.
“You see so many horses get sore because the saddle does not fit them,” he said.
Sometimes, Hurley said, it’s the other way around: The saddle doesn’t fit the rider.
“So I would take the saddle apart and add leather or take away leather, so it would fit them,” he said.
In his early days, he would make four to five saddles per year, so that professional trainers and horse people would try them at cost. Seeing people come to him now, to thank him for creating what many consider a piece of art, is rewarding, he said.
“They [clients] go to the shows and let other people know where I am now,” he said.
Hurley’s saddles are midrange in price. On his Facebook page, some of his elaborate saddles are priced around $2,000.
He said most cowboys just want plain saddles with not a lot of “bling.”
Hurley said there are companies that make around 700 saddles per month, selling for $600 to $700 each.
“They are put together pretty quick and in an assembly line,” he said. “We build one at a time.”
Last year, Hurley made 15 saddles. He can make a plain one in four days and an elaborate one in about three weeks.
“It takes eight to 10 weeks to get the trees,” he said.
Hurley said he hasn’t yet had a single client return a saddle.
He said clients have gotten so excited about Hurley building their saddles that they start calling days after placing an order.
“It is like a kid at Christmas,” Hurley said.
Getting his start
Hurley began roping at 19. His parents were professional horse trainers. They did not rope, but they thought Hurley needed to.
Primarily, Hurley said, his parents believed he should not be in rodeo all his life.
“Rodeo paid for my saddle shop, and then my saddle shop paid for my rodeoing,” Hurley said.
He was part of the rodeo world for 14 years, winning many competitions, and even losing a portion of his right index finger when he roped in 1993.
During rodeo events, Hurley said he noticed a lot of his saddles would tear and need repair, so he began his work out of necessity.
After graduating from Denton High School in 1975, he went on to saddle making school in Amarillo. He spent two years welding and making his own shop in Marietta, Okla.. He also went to another school for six months to study the craft in Oklahoma, on a rodeo scholarship.
“But you really do not know what you are doing until you have built at least 50 of them,” Hurley said.
Through the years, Hurley saddles have become known for their workmanship.
“His workmanship is so precise,” said Max Wheeler, a Hurley saddle fan and a friend for about 40 years. “He does not cut corners on anything. That saddle I got will last me for the rest of my life.”
Wheeler met Hurley during their sophomore year at Denton High. They both were part of the city’s rodeo team in 1975. They lost touch after high school, but reconnected nine years ago.
“I bought the last saddle he made for Luskey’s/Ryon’s in Fort Worth, about a year and a half ago,” Wheeler said. “The day I got my saddle, that was the day Mark left and started his own business. He always talked about wanting to go on his own.”
Hurley said his wife, Leslie, inspired him to start his business.
“She is a godsend,” he said. “I would have probably not opened my business if it was not for her. She talked me into it and is also a rider.”
They have four children and one grandchild. His wife, who works in the health care industry, helps him with his filing at the shop. On most days, Jackson, his ranch dog, also comes to visit. And his kids, who range in age from 13 to 21, also stop by.
Sharing his knowledge
Hurley loves to share what he knows. He said that when he started, not a lot of saddle makers were willing to share their knowledge.
Dylan White, 19, stops at Hurley Saddlery at least twice a week. He said he does a little bit of work for Hurley as a silversmith, but he primarily works for Hurley’s tooler, Eli Ganzer.
White said Hurley is always willing to help him, and one day he wants to be a saddle maker himself.
Hurley said he wants to pay it forward and help aspiring saddle makers learn the trade. When he began in the profession, Gary Luskey, founder of Luskey’s Western Stores, invited him to work in his shop in Fort Worth. He said Luskey asked him to build saddles for his business and even granted him his own space.
“That is what every saddle maker wants to be,” Hurley said. “He promoted me like crazy and I was still pretty green. He had a lot of faith in me.”
Hurley hopes to one day offer classes for people interested in saddle making.
“I am showing these guys all the hard parts of the job because I did not get that opportunity [at first],” Hurley said. “It a mental thing too — it is not just physical craft. I think they find that out as they work. At times it can be kind of stressful.”
KARINA RAMÍREZ can be reached at 940-566-6878 and via Twitter at @KarinaFRamirez.