The Ambler Saddle: Where Western music met rodeo history with Ian Tyson and Cody Bill Smith

Bill Smith with the famed "Ambler saddle" he rode to three world championships. Bill Smith | Courtesy photo
Bill Smith

Two men made the Ambler saddle famous, and neither of their names is carved into the seat. “Cody” Bill Smith won three world championships in the saddle, and Ian Tyson wrote a song about it. But the saddle is named after Jerry Ambler.

Jerry Ambler bought the saddle in 1941 for $73.  Ambler was a Calgary, Alberta cowboy who won the saddle bronc riding in 1946, riding that saddle. He carved his name in the seat. Ambler was killed in a car accident, and his saddle floated around for years, until one day in 1964.

The “Ambler saddle” inspired an Ian Tyson song. Courtesy photo.
The “Ambler saddle” inspired an Ian Tyson song. Courtesy photo

Jim Houston was the world champion bareback rider in 1964, and he and Bill Smith, “Cody Bill” were headed to the Cow Palace in San Francisco that fall, Smith said. “He come driving in there with his car to pick me up. He said, ‘I’ve got a saddle for you in the trunk of my car.’ Cowboys had told me if you want to ride bucking horses, you’ve gotta have a gold seal Hamley. He had this one, which he’d found in a pawnshop. They got it from Joe DePew, whose name is carved in the saddle.”

The gold seal Hamley bronc saddle Cody Bill Smith rode for most of his career.
Gold Seal Hamley

Nobody told him that gold seal Hamley needed to fit, and it didn’t.

“Nobody told me it was too little for me, or old fashioned. The saddle was made the same year I was born. It was way too short. But I learned to ride it, and I rode it the rest of my career.”

Bill Smith said Descent, a big palomino, was the best bucking horse he’s ever seen or ridden. Smith rode most of his career in a too-small gold seal Hamley bronc saddle.
Bill Smith on Descent

Smith’s career spanned another 20 years, and included three world titles, all in a saddle that was too small, and old-fashioned.

“I never was tempted to upgrade,” Smith said. “I had to ride different than other guys rode because the saddle was too small. The cantle was jacked back–no cantle hardly–the swells are low, it fits low on the horse. It’s not a form-fitter like they ride nowadays. I kind of rode on top of it. I didn’t know the difference. I thought I had the right thing and no one told me different.  I wouldn’t have known how to ride one of those other saddles. I got all I was supposed to win, and with my talent I did alright. I wasn’t as talented as half the guys I rode against.”

Smith estimates he won about $270,000, most of it in that saddle. He broke the saddle bronc winnings record in 1961 when he pocketed $26,000.  At the National Finals Rodeo this year, first place money for one night was $28,914. “If I had to ride against the guys riding now, I’d never win,” Smith said. “But people wouldn’t borrow my saddle. I loaned it to a couple people and they were mad forever.”

The saddle spent some time at the National ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, but Smith brought it home, where he can enjoy his long-time traveling partner.

“It’s the same saddle it was when I got it. I rode it for 20 years. It got tore up sometimes. The rigging got jerked out of it, a horse reared over backward in the chute. I never put anything new in it, just patched up the old. Even broke the tree, and patched it up.”

Smith met Ian Tyson in Billings, when Bill and his wife went to a concert, and got to talking to a guy Bill knew, who started telling them about a new song Tyson was writing, about Jerry Ambler. “I said I’ve got his old saddle,” Smith said. “We get to Ian and he got all excited about that. He said he might want to write a song about that, and started researching it.” Smith talked to Tyson a few times on the phone after the song came out. “I didn’t think much of it. It was kind of silly to me. It was alright. The subject wasn’t that catchy, but he had the facts on it. It’s more of a story. The song didn’t do much, but I doubt there’s another bronc riding saddle in the world that’s got a song written about it.”

Read more about Ian Tyson and his contribution to Western music.