Ben Swanke crafted his first saddle at the tender age of 14. He found the work immensely satisfying and knew he was destined for no other profession.
"Something inspired me," he said.
Swanke grew up on a ranch east of Billings, and directly out of high school he earned an apprenticeship with renowned Billings saddle maker Buck Bradford. Swanke's first shop was opened in 1982, and he's been in business for himself ever since. Swanke Saddlery, Inc. has been a Billings fixture for decades.
The process of working the leather, crafting the saddle, testing it and turning over the finished product can take anywhere from 40 to 50 hours—one full work week.
The saddles themselves are built for ranch and farm life.
"All my saddles are made for working cowboys," he said. He then noted with a smile, "They're not always bought by working cowboys."
Casual horse owners and recreational riders find their way to Swanke's shop looking for a quality, durable saddle that they know has been crafted with true skill and attention to detail.
"They just want a good saddle," he said.
And that's what Swanke wants to ensure he always provides. To that end, about 20 years ago, Swanke learned to build saddle trees. He's one of the few saddle makers in the state that does it.
"That's a big deal for us," he said.
When a saddle is built, the leatherwork sits over a wooden structure known as a tree. The tree is what gives a saddle its shape and form. A saddle maker who controls both ends of the process – building his own trees and then crafting the leatherwork to fit it – can better ensure the finished product is exactly what he wants, meeting the client's particular specifications.
That's how Swanke likes it. With his well-earned reputation, he sells saddles all over the country.
"Definitely," he said. "The market's not just local."