As a cowboy and competitive horseman, Tad Knowles is no stranger to spending all day in the saddle. The beautiful-yet-functional saddles he creates are a testament to his familiarity with logging long hours on horseback, and his intimate understanding of how working tack should perform.
“If it never gets rode, it was never a saddle,” Knowles quips about his saddlemaking philosophy. “Part of the reason my clients appreciate my saddles is because I spend so much time in one. I sure admire pretty stitching, but saddles are meant to be ridden in. If you need to run and stop, the saddle should work with you.”
Knowles grew up surrounded by leather scraps, awls, and rivets. His father owned a retail saddle shop in Elizabeth, Colo., and did repairs. Growing up, Knowles had plans to become a horse trainer, but his career track changed out of practical necessity.
“I broke a lot of tack,” he explains. “I had to learn how to fix it and that’s how I got started. Then I got into reined cow horses and cutting horses and just couldn’t find a saddle that suited me. So I built one.”
Knowles says he learned his craft from books, DVDs, and whatever information he could glean from master horsemen and leatherworkers who were willing to share their knowledge.
His greatest mentors have been the legendary saddle crafters Don Butler and Don King. King in particular shared some words of wisdom that shaped Knowles’ approach to saddlemaking.
“Before I built my first saddle, I visited with Don King in Sheridan,” explains Knowles. “He said, ‘Build your first saddle then ride in it. You’ll know exactly how good a saddlemaker you are once you ride in your work. It’ll teach you all your shortcomings if you have to use it.’”
And Knowles’ saddles are certainly built to be used. Testaments from his clients—mostly professional horsemen and working cowboys—all praise the comfort, functionality, and durability of his products.
Even though Knowles’ top priority is a saddle’s usability, he still has an eye for aesthetics. One of his favorite pieces is a full floral saddle he built for his sister (pictured).
“There were no time constraints, and I was able to put a lot of thought into the appearance,” he says. “There’s a lot of significance and symbolism. For example, it’s tooled with 90 flowers because my sister graduated in 1990. It’s a beautiful saddle, but she can also use it.”
Through his life and craft, Knowles does his best to promote the Western way.
“Western values are the foundation of our country,” he says. “And cowboys represent the can-do attitude, the freedom, and the hard work that defines America. By keeping the traditions alive, we can keep those values alive. As long as there’s one guy looking out for one cow, the cowboy way isn’t dead.”