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Enjoy Magazine

Hand-Crafted Creations with Judd Miller Custom Saddlery

03/28/2019 11:00AM ● By Melissa Mendonca

Saddle Up

April 2019
Story by Melissa Mendonca 
Photos by Jen Peterson

JUDD MILLER laughs at the thought of retirement, if retirement is the idea of leaving a job you’re tired of to finally do what you really want to do. “I guess I’ve been retired my whole life,” says the Red Bluff-based saddle maker. “I still get up at 5:30, 6 o’clock to go to work and I’m glad to do it.”

What started as a childhood hobby on a ranch in Western Colorado turned into a primary income for Miller, who learned by reading and doing. “I just looked at the books,” he says of the guides to leather work he found as a kid. “We made belts and stuff like that. They were pretty crude when I look at them today. We were pretty proud of them at the time.”

While the decision to work leather stemmed from a passion for it, there was also a pragmatic element to the decision. “I was trying to fill a need,” he says. “I went to school back in 1975. There weren’t any saddle makers back then. You couldn’t fix anything.”

“Them boys always used their saddles,” he says of the cowboys he grew up around. “They cowboyed a lot. There weren’t any four-wheelers. If you broke something down, there’d be someone to kind of patch it together.” A true repair job, however, was hard to come by, just as a custom saddle was. That was the need Miller decided to fill.

“It’s been a good business for me,” he says. “I enjoy it today after 40-plus years.”

While four wheelers have changed the way many operate cattle businesses, reducing the need for horsemanship to get the job done, a need for quality saddles remains. “We just make Western-style,” he says. “All different disciplines in the Western division, from cowboy saddles to endurance saddles, roping, team penning, trail saddles. I’ve made them all. I’ve even made a side saddle or two.”

The difference in a custom saddle built by Miller and a factory saddle is tremendous. “I know what a good saddle should set like and shouldn’t set like,” he says. “I’ve wore out several of them.” When you wear out a custom saddle, it can be rebuilt. “You buy a good saddle and it’ll last a lifetime,” he adds. “You’ll probably get tired before they get worn out. If they do, you can always go back and rebuild them. I’ve got saddles coming back to me that are 20 or 30 years old.”

Whereas a factory saddle can be purchased off a shelf, a Judd Miller custom saddle takes a year, and took five when the economy was more robust. “We usually have the customer come in,” he says. “We’ll figure out what they want, what kind of seat, the purpose they’re going to be using it for, what they want the saddle to look like – the shape and the design.”

“If they’d like,” he continues,” they can bring their horse in so we can measure the horse. We try to make them so they can fit several horses, but if they want it to fit just one horse, we can do it. Nowadays, that’s what we do a lot of.”

A custom saddle also bears unique designs developed by Miller. “I draw all of the patterns,” he says. “We made a lot of show saddles at one time using silver corner plates.” The quality of his work is so esteemed that he’s also been sought out to build trophy saddles, including an annual prize for the JP Ranch Rodeo and special saddles commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale and the 75th anniversary of the Red Bluff Round-Up. “I study every saddle to make it unique,” he adds. “The more carving, the more stamping, the longer it takes. That’s for sure.”

Miller also runs commercial cattle on his Red Bluff ranch and still does a bit of horse training, but doesn’t anticipate slowing down as a saddle maker anytime soon. “I still ride,” he says, “I don’t train as many horses as we used to. Not at all. But I still ride.”

“I still try and perfect my craft,” he adds. “If you stop learning, you’re done. I’ve thrown a lot of leather away and started again. You’ve gotta keep trying.” 

He’s happy to see a revival in leatherwork and silverwork these days and hopes there will be interest in his craft for years to come. It’s been more than art and income for Miller over the years making saddles. “I’ve made ‘em for a lot of good people,” he says. •

Judd Miller Custom Saddlery •