Califonia Bountiful

It's a bountiful life: Saddle up!

May/June 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Saddle maker ensures the tradition of the California cowboy rides on

Rick Ricotti, shown in his shop in Clements, has been making saddles for nearly four decades. Photo: © 2018 Steve German

Nearly 40 years after he made his first saddle, Rick Ricotti crafts saddles for all types of riders, but particularly treasures knowing his handiwork helps California ranchers maintain their way of life.

What inspired you to become a saddle maker? My four kids were involved in junior, high school and college rodeos. If their equipment broke, I would fix it. Fortunately, my father was a farmer and I learned how to work with my hands at an early age, doing simple repairs as needed. After college, I worked for a civil engineering firm for many years. Nine to five would be engineering; all other hours would be devoted to learning the art of making saddles. I was hooked.

Making a saddle seems complicated. Coming from an engineering background, I broke it down into steps. When you break it into steps, it's like making a cake.

Where do you make and sell your saddles? We live in Jackson, but our saddle shop and store is in Clements (in San Joaquin County). Clements is a small town—we don't even have a gas station, but we have a bar, post office, mini-mart, livestock office and a saddle shop. When you're coming in to Clements, you're leaving at the same time.

What types of saddles do you make? We've made everything from roping saddles to ladies' sidesaddles. We've made saddles for most all breeds of horses. We make all of the equipment for the San Francisco Police Mounted Unit. We've made saddles for people with special needs who have issues with their saddle seat or difficulty moving their limbs. I can't say we've specialized in one particular discipline or style. We've made some relatively plain saddles and some pretty extravagant saddles.

What is it like to make saddles for California ranchers and cowboys? For everyone here, including the saddle shop and store employees, making any kind of equipment for California ranchers and the working cowboy is very enjoyable, because you know how it's going to be used. There's something about making equipment for someone who has a deep feeling for it. Many of our customers are trying to hang onto their heritage. And that is part of our compensation—we feel good about what we do, who we do it for and how they feel about it.

Ricotti, who has an engineering background, says he simplifies the process of saddle making by breaking it down into steps. Photo: © 2018 Steve German

Of all the saddles you've made, which one is most memorable? My most memorable saddle is the first saddle I made. My youngest son rides it now. It is not very attractive. I had no idea what I was doing. I was concentrating on its function. When I was making the saddle, I was focused. That was the start of a journey, and I had no idea where I was headed. Looking back, this saddle was probably the most important in many ways.

What is unique about making saddles for California ranchers versus ranchers from other areas of the country? Saddles ordered by California ranchers and ranch cowboys still have the traditional look with intricate tooling, including the California wild rose pattern. California has a tradition of training horses unlike any other part of the country. Early California saddle makers, as well as bit and spur makers, set the standard. The "California Look" is now being sought after by horsemen throughout the country and abroad. The California vaquero has been the trendsetter when it comes to the artistry of his tools. We want to help continue this tradition for future generations.

Can you estimate how many saddles you've made over the course of your career? I don't know. When I started, it was just me, but as time went on, I had up to six employees in the shop. At that time, we were shipping saddles and tack to Europe and across the United States. In the late 1990s, after realizing bigger is not better, we downsized. But it's in the hundreds.

How do you customize saddles for people with mobility issues? We have rebuilt ground seats and padded seats for customers with hip problems as well as atrophy in their seat area. We have also altered saddles to accommodate customers with paralysis.

How have you built your reputation as a saddle maker? In our kind of business, there is nothing better than people seeing, using and recommending your product. We have made trophy saddles for the National Reined Cow Horse Association and for 16 years we made the trophy saddles for the Grand National Livestock, Horse Show and Rodeo at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. The Denver Stock Show Committee commissioned four saddle makers in the United States to make their 100th anniversary commemorative saddles: We were commissioned to make the California vaquero saddle, which was displayed at the Coors Western Art Gallery during the National Western Stock Show in Denver.

Is almost all of your business through word of mouth? We do very little formal advertising. For more than 25 years, we set up at horse events and introduced our leather goods and silver to thousands of Western people. If a customer has a pleasant experience with our shop, it means we have created a repeat customer and they often tell a friend and others about their experience.

What else do you work on? We make all of the ordinary leather goods seen in a saddle shop as well as some not-so-ordinary. Almost every item we make is one of a kind. We make parts for custom motorcycles as well as engraved motorcycle parts, too. We restore collectible silver-mounted saddles and duplicate missing silver parts. We also repair a lot of saddles and strap goods.

What would you tell someone who wants to pursue a career like yours? You have to love this craft. If it seems like work, it's probably not the best career choice.

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