It’s five in the morning on a ranch in Opp, Alabama. The sun has yet to rise, but a sliver of a crescent moon casts just enough light to make out the silhouettes of horses in their stables. As the chorus of crickets fades into the waking songs of birds, a pickup turns onto the driveway, its headlights cutting through air so humid you’d be forgiven for calling it fog. The truck pulls to a stop. Ben Geisler steps out and opens the tailgate, revealing a special payload: a one-of-a-kind, custom made Western saddle.
He carries the saddle over to the arena and places it on the fence. As he heads to the stable, the sky begins to lighten and the details of the saddle come into view. There’s an unmistakable artistry to every component. The perfectly-wrapped protective leather around the horn, the detailed rosettes and interwoven saddle strings, the fine pattern stamped into the skirt. But the natural, rough texture of the seat and fenders give away this saddle’s true purpose: it’s made for work, not show.
With his tall, broad build, Ben has the imposing appearance of a Hollywood mercenary, but he speaks like a college professor. Neither of these observations at first seem to fit with his career as a saddlemaker, where he spends hours in solitude every day working with his hands. Yet here he is, at the top of his game as one of the select few craftspeople in the world still making leather saddles by hand.
It’s a tradition he’s proud to keep alive and his work has earned him quite the reputation. Saddlemaking is a niche art today, but Ben has found both a loyal customer base and an online audience of over 150,000 fans. His work is so in demand that customers often wait a year or more to receive their saddles after placing an order.
But for all his success, saddlemaking is a vocation Ben fell into almost by accident.
You've heard, ‘You were born to do this — this is what you were made to do,’ I don't think that's necessarily true for myself, or even for people in general. If you truly commit yourself to being great at what you do, you can reach that result regardless of what you pursue.
A circuitous journey
Ben grew up in rural Idaho, embedded in the culture of horsemanship. His family ran a business making the stiff lariat ropes used by cowboys. His father was a cowboy himself, his grandfather a horseman. It’s a world he’s always known well, but he was never trapped by it. His parents encouraged him to try new things, to pursue whatever interests he had. In high school, he studied both art and engineering. Saddlemaking was never on the menu.
“You've heard, ‘You were born to do this — this is what you were made to do,’” Ben says. “I don't think that's necessarily true for myself, or even for people in general. If you truly commit yourself to being great at what you do, you can reach that result regardless of what you pursue.”
Although he’s practiced leatherwork for “pretty much my whole life,” Ben says, “my background is really unusual for a saddlemaker. I’ve lived in a lot of places, I’ve done a lot of different jobs.”
That included going to college for engineering before a serious motorcycle accident took him out of school. When he returned a year and a half later, he switched to international business which eventually led him to spend two years in China, where he found himself thrust into the role of citizen journalist during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and appeared on CNN. With his life and job in China significantly disrupted by the quake, he returned home to Idaho. The world was grappling with the Great Recession and he took work where he could, operating his grandfather’s farm supply store with his brother and teaching night classes in CPR and first aid at Eastern Idaho Tech.
It was in teaching that he realized something was missing. He wasn’t that much older than his students; he felt like an imposter. “I didn't feel like I had enough experience to offer them. I believe a teacher should also be an example. I hit this existential crisis.” So, with the war in Afghanistan closing in on its first decade, he made the fateful decision to join the Army. “My feeling was that I owed some amount of societal debt for the comforts I enjoyed, and that was a way for me to pay for it.”
He was 28 at the time, a decade older than many of his fellow recruits. When the war had started, Ben was still in a wheelchair recovering from his motorcycle accident. Given the severity of his injury, joining the military seemed an impossibility. So when he decided to enlist years later, he knew it would take a monumental amount of preparation to get in. But he stuck to it, his efforts eventually culminating in running an ultramarathon.
But in the Army, he ran into roadblocks. “I wanted infantry, got artillery. Wanted light, got heavy. Everything I tried out for, everything I wanted, I didn’t get.” Except for one thing: it was in a training exercise that he met his future wife, Brit. “So all things considered,” he says, “it was a good deal.”
I would make anything that would pay. It didn’t matter if I'd made it before or if I had any idea how to make it. I just told myself, ‘I'm going to say yes and make the thing and sell the thing so that I can keep doing what I'm doing.
A dog collar is responsible for everything
Ben and Brit had expected to deploy to Afghanistan together, but when Ben’s unit was held back, he was forced to stay home while she left on a 10-month tour. “It was the opposite of all those songs where the girl’s waiting for the guy to come home,” he laughs. They were living in Louisiana at the time, and when Brit returned, they decided to celebrate the reunion with a cross-country road trip to visit each other’s families and spend as much time as possible getting to know each other. Joining them for the ride was Brit’s aging dog, Roxy.
When they made it to Ben’s parents’ place in Idaho, he noticed the dog’s collar was all worn and tattered. “I told Brit I’d just run into the shop and make Roxy a new collar,” Ben remembers. It was no big deal to him, but to Brit, who was still discovering Ben’s various talents, it was a surprise. Then she said, “Of course! Why wouldn’t you know how to do that?”
The rest of the trip took them through the Grand Tetons, Devil’s Tower, Gettysburg, and down the East Coast before returning to Louisiana. Ben had left the Army by this point and had started job hunting, but Brit was building a military career. She knew she would be reassigned in six months and, remembering the effortless way Ben had produced a dog collar, suggested he pursue leatherworking temporarily rather than get a job he would inevitably quit when they moved.
So that’s what he did. “I would make anything that would pay,” he says. “It didn’t matter if I'd made it before or if I had any idea how to make it. I just told myself, ‘I'm going to say yes and make the thing and sell the thing so that I can keep doing what I'm doing.’”
And as Ben’s skill and confidence as a craftsperson grew, so did his desire to take his temporary job to the next level. Coming from a long line of horsemen and cowboys, he knew what his endgame needed to be. “The mountaintop for leatherwork is Western saddlemaking,” he says. “There’s nothing else that gives you so much room to work artistically.”
The only problem? Convincing someone to teach him.
When you have your hands on these tools all day, every day, they each have a weight, a memory, a feel. They are an extension of my hand, my arm, my will. The saddle connects the horse to the rider; the tools connect me to the saddle.
Ben knew exactly who to ask for help: a friend of his grandfather’s, a legendary saddlemaker by the name of Dale Harwood. In 2008, Dale won a National Heritage Award, a lifetime achievement bestowed to the country’s best traditional artists.
“I’d known Dale my entire life. So I called him up and asked him to teach me,” Ben recalls. “And he flat-out refused.” But Ben didn’t give up. After three years of working with leather full-time and incessantly asking Dale to teach him saddlemaking, Ben finally got the answer he wanted — and soon learned why he had been refused for so long.
“Even after years of working nonstop with leather, I barely had the ability to get a saddle done to standard. It was arduous; I was sweating the entire time.” But he soldiered on. He was able to sell that first saddle, using the money to buy tools to make the next one. Just like that, one saddle at a time, he developed his own take on the craft, eventually turning it into a business.
Ben now works out of a garage shop on a cul-de-sac in an otherwise unremarkable neighborhood. The walls are covered in art and ephemera, including works by the great Western artist Mark Maggiori and fantasy painter Frank Frazetta. “I’m firmly of the belief that set and setting are important to doing high-quality work,” Ben says. “I’ve made a place I want to be, where I’m in the mental space to do creative work.”
The shop is small, but the space is expertly organized. It contains tools from all different eras, combining antiquity and modernity in ways that honor tradition while servicing efficiency, from 3D-printed jigs to a Cambell-Randall sewing machine patented in 1882. And there are, of course, long rows of industry-specific knives and other leather cutting and shaping tools.
“When you have your hands on these tools all day, every day, they each have a weight, a memory, a feel. They are an extension of my hand, my arm, my will,” Ben says. “The saddle connects the horse to the rider; the tools connect me to the saddle.”
As an artist, you absolutely will doubt yourself at every corner. Everything that you ever make, you'll simultaneously be both proud and horrified by. You're proud of what you did, but at the same time, you know where all the bodies are buried.
Ending close to home
It’s not lost on Ben that he took a surprisingly winding road through life only to end up so close to where he started. To look at where he began and where he is now, the dots seem all too obvious to connect. But to examine any point in between — from studying engineering to learning Chinese to serving in the Army — it feels almost impossibly unlikely that he would end up a saddlemaker. Perhaps, though, this is exactly the reason he did.
“Had I started learning to make saddles when I was 14, had I just gone into Dale Harwood's shop and apprenticed and swept floors and followed that path, there would be an entire category of rich experiences I never would have had,” he explains. “There would be perspectives that I didn't get. There would be whole wells of experience I wouldn't have now to draw on to do what I do. And as a craftsperson, going out into the world and collecting those experiences to inform what you're doing, I think, is pretty important.”
And while it may be modesty, he’s quick to acknowledge the role a seemingly insignificant detail can play in changing the course of your life. For all the praise his handcrafted saddles receive today, he says, “my success was predicated on a hastily made dog collar.”