Makers and mentors: Montana saddle makers learn through Art of the Cowgirl
When Chelsea Sazama rolled out of Idaho last summer, she was headed home with not only a new saddle she built herself, but a lifetime of education in saddle making packed into a week with master Nancy Martiny.
Sazama, a saddle maker from Fallon, Mont., works full-time building saddles, tack, chinks and other goods. This spring she was awarded the Art of the Cowgirl Saddle Making Fellowship, an all-expense paid opportunity to work with an expert in her field with the objective of promoting and continuing arts and trades amongst western women. Sazama spent a week with Martiny at her ranch and saddle shop as they worked long hours and passed the torch of knowledge from one generation to the next. Joining Sazama was Heidi Petermann, who lives just down the road in Wibaux, Mont. Petermann was runner-up for the fellowship and was invited to audit the weeklong learning process.
“We were in the shop from 7 until 9 or 10 at night, just soaking up as much as we could from Nancy while we were there,” says Sazama.
“I would say I knew how to build a good, stout using saddle before, but the additional knowledge I learned from Nancy was incredible,” says Sazama, who came home with pages of notes, pictures and video – things like how to lay out pieces to get the best fit and function from a side of leather, how to build a lightweight yet rope-hardy saddle for a working woman, and what parts of the saddle are going to take the most wear.
This is the second year Martiny, who is working on saddle number 487 after first learning from the legendary Dale Harwood in 1987, has served as the master mentor for the program. She said she accepted the honor of training other women because she is intrigued with the idea of a program and event that brings together women from so many different aspects of the Western world to share their knowledge. Although the three women spent long hours and built two saddles in one week in a space made for one, the cozy quarters made for a great bonding experience.
“We played ‘musical saddle stands’ a lot,” says Martiny. “It was a bit of a challenge, but Heidi built an entirely different saddle than Chelsea so they were both able to learn from each other’s work.”
Martiny says she was blown away by the skill level both Sazama and Petermann showed, and the quality of saddles they were able to produce. But more than that, the relationships built were most important. “Getting to know these women and share stories while we worked was very special,” Martiny says.
“There were lots of jokes and laughter, and lots of hugs when we left,” says Sazama.
As Sazama was being taught, one of her biggest takeaways was also learning how to instruct. “I don’t have a teaching background, but to share this knowledge with others I need to teach. Nancy just got us in there and got us right to work, and that was really encouraging and made it less intimidating when it’s my turn.”
Although the week is over and the saddle getting broke in, the learning is far from over. As part of the fellowship, Art of the Cowgirl encourages the mentor and mentee to maintain a relationship and continue the education process. “That itself is just priceless, to have not only my saddle as a reference point to look at but to be able to give Nancy a call at any time and keep that door open,” says Sazama.
Sazama says one of the reasons she was selected for the fellowship was her desire to bring in younger kids to the trade and teach them about leatherwork. “They felt that really coincided with the mission of Art of the Cowgirl, to teach the next generation,” she says. A single mother, Sazama considers herself blessed to be able to work her own business and raise her daughter Reata, 4, in the saddle shop playing right next to her. “Hopefully someday she’ll want to join me in this trade too,” she says, “and I’ll continue to pass along these skills.”
At the heart of her work is Sazama’s faith. Her saddle built with Martiny has a beautiful western cross tooled on the horn, a reminder to herself to share the Lord with the world. “It’s a perfect spot for me to look down and if I need a little reminder to praise God or just say a prayer and really keep God at my center,” she says. “I’ve tried to make it a part of my work to share a little bit of the Good News with everyone who comes in to my shop. God is the one who has blessed me with these opportunities and I want to use what he has given me to expand His kingdom.”
As part of her fellowship opportunity, Sazama will travel to the Art of the Cowgirl event in Phoenix Jan. 13-17, 2021, to present her work with Martiny. Petermann will have the opportunity to apply again for the full fellowship and the accompanying publicity that goes with it.
Art of the Cowgirl offers a variety of fellowship in the western arts and trades each year, usually including horsemanship, silversmithing, fine art, photography, boot making, saddle making, hat making, horse hair hitching and rawhide braiding. Fellowships are normally open for 30 days starting in March.
The Art of the Cowgirl event in January will be at the Horseshoe Park and Equestrian Center and include five action-packed days of hands-on artist workshops, horsemanship clinics, concerts, a tradeshow, the elite ranch horse sale, women’s ranch rodeo finals, and the World’s Greatest Horsewoman Finals.
For more information visit ArtoftheCowgirl.com.
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