By Doc Watson
Special to the Herald Times
MEEKER | Bob Klenda, owner of Klenda Custom Saddles a little south of Meeker on Hwy. 13, was awarded the 2016 Saddlemaker of the Year by the Academy of Western Artists at the 21st annual Will Rogers Awards dinner and show on March 16 in Ft. Worth, Texas. The award is represented by an abstract statuette of the famous photograph of Will Rogers.
“What the AWA has been trying to accomplish all these years is to help increase the recognition of our western heritage,” Klenda said in his soft spoken manner.
In addition to the saddlemaker category, many others are recognized each year, such as: Master Leather Artisan, Engraver, Bootmaker, Cartoonist, Artist, Cowboy Poet (and of course Cowgirl Poet) and others, as well as several more in various music categories. There is also the Living Legend Award, which this year went to Roy Clark.
As reported in the Herald Times back on July 15, 2010, Klenda has also won the one other major award in his field, the Al Stohlman Award for Achievement in leathercraft. Such recipients are recognized based on their overall achievements in the craft.
Originally a Kansas native, Klenda has been “carving leather,” as he put it, since 1959. He was busy doing ranch work from the back of a horse during the summers, but in the winter “it was back to the saddle shop.” He founded Klenda Custom Saddles in 1962.
He also got experience in ranching and cowboying in the canyon country around Green River, Utah. “I got to get out with them and learn from them,” he said. “They rode Hamley saddles, and I took a liking to a Hamley.” Hamley and Company still exists today in Pendleton, Ore.
Klenda spent about 20 years in the Silt/New Castle area serving as water commissioner, a job that allowed him time to do saddle work on the side. He has been doing saddle work full-time since retiring in 2002, arriving in Meeker in 2005.
The whole point of building custom saddles is giving the customer what he or she wants. “Once in awhile you get a customer who knows what they want,” Klenda said. “They can just tell you: round skirts, no padded seat, a certain kind of horn and so forth. Others don’t know the particulars, so we look at pictures and patterns and what it’s going to take to fit them.”
As one might expect, such custom work comes with a price tag. On average, a custom saddle is about $5,000. Much of this comes from the decorative leather carving. Even for an expert like Klenda, who has been doing it for 50 years, to carve a section of leather about three inches in diameter takes an hour. An entire saddle, therefore, takes 40 or more hours just in carving.
One can certainly buy a cheaper saddle, of course. “You can go out and buy a saddle today for a thousand dollars, but the quality of the material has been greatly cut,” Klenda said. He also added that the carving process is far less intricate and skips several steps. “A lot of that stuff isn’t even safe,” he went on to caution. “Sometimes there is not enough quality to even repair such a saddle. I hate to tell someone, ‘No,’ but I’ve had to do it.”
In addition to the saddle making itself, Klenda also teaches his craft, teaching three to five students per year. Typically, he takes a student for two weeks, during which time they build a complete saddle. One such student, who was present during the Herald Times interview, is Hunter Hayes, who has been learning for about two years and is, according to his teacher, dedicated and artistic.
Klenda has also had several other newspaper stories written about him and actually has himself written a regular column in the bi-monthly magazine Leather Crafters and Saddlers Journal for several years. In addition to all that, he’s an active member of the Colorado Saddle Makers Association, having spoken at many of their seminars and even serving as President for several years.
It might sound odd to hear an older cowboy say, “You can just Google my name and find articles,” but Klenda was absolutely right—you can. With a leisurely chuckle he added, “I never imagined people would be coming to me for an autograph.”
Marti Walsh of Meeker said her brother, Don Reeves, who is the McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, was also in attendance at the award ceremony and was surprised by the academy by a new award this year. Reeves received the Distinguished Service Award.
For more information on the Academy of Western Artists and the 2017 award winners, visit www.awaawards.com.
By Doc Watson