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The intricate leather work of Loren and Lisa Skyhorse is displayed on a saddle at the couple’s home-studio. The locally handcrafted saddles are highly sought after by serious equestrians and art collectors alike./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Transcending the ordinary

Leather artisans go beyond traditional saddle making
by Stew Mosberg

Sometimes, artisans create everyday items that are so exquisite, they transcend utilitarian nature. Local husband and wife leather-crafters Loren and Lisa Skyhorse are one such example, enjoying international renown for their award-winning saddles.
Customers of Skyhorse saddles covet them for their beauty even though they are designed to be useable. When a saddle can be bought for several hundred dollars, a Skyhorse saddle – which can cost upwards of $16,000 for a custom job – may seem extravagant. But to understand the reason for the higher price, one only has to look at the fine detail and craftsmanship. Weighing about 30 to 40 pounds, the saddles are strong enough for roping a steer, yet have less bulk than most “day saddles.”  Lisa, the trained fine artist of the duo says, “No matter how beautiful, how ornate they are, it is imperative that they are all rideable. Each must be functional.”  
Lisa grew up in San Diego County in southern California and studied art and philosophy at UCLA. Her focus was painting, but she put herself through the last two years of school doing leatherwork and selling it at street fairs. It turned out to be a significant direction for her art. After graduation and still in her early twenties, her leather business blossomed and in time she employed more than 30 people.
Lisa always loved horses, so it seemed natural for her to combine that passion with her artistic side, but saddle making in the 1970s was still a traditionally male-dominated trade. Fortunately, with assistance from seasoned craftsman Lawrence DeWitt, she persevered and learned the basics of building a saddle. Perhaps, owing to her feminine outlook, she soon developed her own style, and through DeWitt’s support and encouragement, she eventually opened her own saddle making enterprise.
Loren Skyhorse was born in Montana but grew up in Sacramento, Calif. The couple met rather serendipitously: he wandered into her shop one day, but Loren hastens to add, “We were really meant to be with each other.” His life on horseback was the first obvious bond between the two, and they soon began riding horses together; finding other connections along the way and ultimately marrying and raising a family.
Ironically, leather work was part of Loren’s family heritage and went all the way back to his great-great grandfather. In fact, included among
Loren’s leather working tools are some that originally belonged to his forebear.
As one might guess, Skyhorse is not either of their family names but, as Lisa explains, it was given to her decades ago by a tribal medicine-man and she loved it so much she had her name legally changed. Loren thought it was such an appropriate moniker, he decided to make it his as well.
The duo’s spacious Santa Fe-style home on the outskirts of Durango includes an expansive mountain vista and of course, horses, plus artwork everywhere, some of it theirs, some by others, some created in a collaborative effort. The studio shop is filled with work in progress and scores of tools, many of them tiny, hand-made utensils that look like dental and surgical instruments but are actually used to stamp, carve and bevel leather. Hundreds of hours can go into the making of their intricately elegant saddles and the proof is in the details. The finished product bears the mark of their artistic skill in the truest sense of the word. It is evident in the visual imagery, the choice of colors, the selection of materials, and in the design and execution.
Their success as a team stems from their mutual respect and knowing their strengths. Lisa’s is business and project initiation, and she also capitalizes on her superb design and carving skills. Loren discovered he had a natural aptitude for braiding leather and ribbons of pure silver, both of which add beauty and value to the finished saddle. He also does a lot of the coloring and assembly of the final pieces. His focus tends to be on a saddle’s functionality, while Lisa concentrates on the aesthetics.
Although the majority of their work continues to be the design and production of custom saddles, a quarter of their projects come from one-of-a-kind commissions – furniture, motorcycle seats, wall panels, floors, framed leather art pieces, vases and bags. A number of their projects are done in collaboration with woodworkers, furniture makers, jewelers and ceramicists. They also do a fair number of “sacred skulls,” which combine a steer, moose, elk or buffalo skull with colored art and leatherwork. The designs are incised in the leather in relief, molded around the shape of the head, carved and painted with elaborate designs and symbolic talismans.
Both admit to loving the entire process and the joy of collaborating. “It is always inspiring to combine mediums and technique,” says Lisa, “Other artists bring a new vision to things that expand our imagination.”    
Describing some of the truly unique work they have done over the years Lisa said, “Our most unusual project was an architectural one. For a private office we made a complete entrance that was 12-by-11 feet, carved with the client’s logo and a life sized cowboy, horse and saddle. The entire surface was tooled, sculpted and painted. The conference-dining room had tooled leather chairs that matched the panels in the wall, and a full leather floor was carved to match.”
No profile of the couple would be complete without touching on their altruistic efforts in Mongolia. Living and riding alongside the nomadic tribes, the Skyhorses became enamored with the spirituality of the people and their expert horsemanship. They noted too, that the tack and saddles the riders used were old and in need of repair. Determining that the horsemen lacked the tools and knowledge to refurbish their saddles properly, the Skyhorses decided to teach them what they could. Their effort was so greatly appreciated it led to the building of a permanent structure, stocked with material provided by the couple, where riders could come to repair their equipment and learn proper maintenance; a classic case of paying it forward.
The couple has exhibited at the Durango Arts Center and Sorrel Sky Gallery, and their work can almost always be seen at the Toh-Atin Gallery. For additional information about their art and saddles go to or call 385-7660.