Texas’ Own One-Stop Cowboy Shop

In: Texas Times Column   Posted 08/31/2015

In 1917, two well-known Texas landmarks opened their doors for the first time: Dallas Love Field Airport and the Oliver Saddle Shop.  But while the planes flying out of Love Field look considerably different now, the saddles coming out of Mr. Oliver’s Shop haven’t changed much.

In fact, in the workroom of the Oliver Saddle Shop in Amarillo, you can still find 100-year-old machines in use. When I visited in July and asked current owner Richard Oliver about them, he told me, “Well, they’re still good machines!”

TexastimesRichard’s grandfather, Claude W. Oliver, first opened Texas’ oldest family-owned saddle business in Vernon, TX.  When his sons Bill and Jack took over, it continued there as “Oliver Brothers Saddle Shop” until 1960 when Bill brought the business to Amarillo, which his grandson calls the “hub of the cowboy culture.”  Richard, Claude’s grandson, now runs the business today with his two sons Bryan and Zeb, meaning the Olivers’ secrets to saddle-shaping and leather-carving have been passed down through four generations.

While the techniques and machines are the same, no two saddles are exactly alike.  Each custom-made saddle is built to perfectly fit the rider’s seat, and the tree -- the framework that gives the saddle its shape -- also differs depending on what the saddle will be used for. Traditional cowboys, who make up most of their clientele, require deep, heavy-duty seats in order to stay comfortable on a horse for 12 or more hours a day, while arena ropers prefer a shallower seat more optimal for their performance.

If you visit the shop in Amarillo, the open floor plan lets you see the art in action.  Just behind the storefront, a bright light shines over a tall workbench where Bryan and Zeb stamp and carve leather belts.  A full wall-length shelf holds dozens of cowhides ready to be cut, tooled, and sold.  Richard told me each saddle uses about two and a half hides.

Three out of every four saddles from the shop are custom-made down to each stitch, and if you’re in the market for one, you’ll have to wait your turn. While it takes about a week to craft a saddle, demand is so high that there is about a 10-month wait list.

The wait doesn’t stop folks all over the world from ordering.  Cowboys as far as Germany and Japan can be found sitting on Oliver saddles, marked by their iconic triangle logo.  Even President George W. Bush owns an Oliver saddle -- his has the Presidential seal stamped on it.

With all of their time crafting custom saddles, spurs, bits, and chaps, this one-stop cowboy shop doesn’t have much time to spend on advertising.  But the Olivers don’t need to – the quality of their product speaks for itself.  The biggest change in the past century of saddle sales has been the addition of a website.  But the demand for Oliver saddles comes mostly from word of mouth.

As the Olivers will tell you, buying a saddle is a personal decision.  A saddle can make or break a cowboy, and a good one will last a lifetime. Fortunately for riders in Texas and around the world, the Oliver family formula for strong, reliable saddles is currently being passed onto its fifth generation. Teenagers Colton and Austin are already learning saddle repair, and it won’t be long before they take on the Oliver family rite of passage: completing their very first saddle.