By: Rebecca Parvaresh
The ride of life takes us all on many stops along the way. For local saddle maker Justin Hawks, his ride started on the Hawks Livestock Ranch in Billings, Montana. From there he’s seen the wilderness of Montana, the 8 seconds spent on the back of a bull and the joy of raising a family in Stephenville, Texas. “I was born in Billings and all my family is from Montana. We currently still have a ranch up there, so during the busy times of year such as calving, haying and the shipping seasons, I pack up shop and head north to help my dad and brother on the ranch.”
His grandparents’ place, the NNN Ranch, is where he first found that spark of interest in bringing old saddles and tack back to life. That spark followed him the rest of his life and became a raging passion that leads him in his saddle making business today.
“I grew up on a ranch in Montana and was around cowboys my entire life. My grandparents also had a large ranch and would get hired men that cowboyed and buckarooed around different regions,” Justin said. “With that comes an influence from those regions, so I was always intrigued by the different styles of saddles, silver mounted bits and gear from other areas of the country. In my grandparents’ barn was a tack room with a work bench and a few leather repair tools and plenty of pieces of worn out and torn up tack I was always trying to fix up.”
Justin’s love of fixing and mending saddles went hand in hand with his love for bull riding. He spent years making his way through dozens of towns while pursuing his love of riding in the rodeo. During that time, he made his way to Stephenville, Texas and he’ll honestly tell you how he got here, “Rodeo and a woman! My ex-wife Joy, who was a champion bull rider and bareback rider and has her name on the walk of fame, she lured me here. My children, Colt and Cody, have lived here their whole lives and are now students at Stephenville High School. So now, Stephenville has become home to me as well and I really like this town and the people. It’s an absolutely wonderful place to raise a family.”
While building his family, Justin also spent time in the military and now works in private security. Through the years, he’d call the leather working passion his hobby but the artistry of his work has definitely turned some heads. The love he has for his craft seems to be something out of his hands completely and rather in his blood.
“An interesting fact I just learned from my uncle, who is an amateur genealogist for our family, is that our first ancestor came here in 1635 but his father was a Saddler and owned a shop in London, so apparently its in my blood. Only took 380 years for it to come to the surface again.”
He humbly refrained from calling any of his work ‘art’ but acknowledged the level some have achieved in the craft of saddle making. “To me, I don’t think of it as art because I am far from an artist, although there are artistic attributes to it, but I consider what I make as tools – functional tools. I do know makers who are artists, and I am in awe of some of the saddles made today for the leather shows.”
His beautifully, handcrafted functional tools are built to last a lifetime, much like the saddles he tinkered with on his grandparents’ ranch as a boy. Perhaps one day, the intricacy and beauty of one of his saddles will spark interest in another young person willing to take up the craft. “I enjoy the fact that someone will use what I’ve made that will last a lifetime if cared for. I see 100-year-old saddles on display in museums and I always look to the makers mark and wonder if someday one of my 100-year-old saddles will be in a cowboy display in some museum somewhere.”
The process of leather working and saddle building has retained a bit of nostalgia through the years. The process remains the same along with many of the tools of the trade. Justin recalls the road that led him to learn the tips of the age old process, “When I had just gotten out of high school in Billings, I asked around and tried to get a couple of local saddle makers to take me on as an apprentice, but it never happened. Then I discovered rodeo and started riding broncs and fighting bulls, which led to an eventual career as a bullfighter in the PRCA and PBR, and the saddle making dream got pushed to the back of my mind and forgotten.”
Forgotten for a moment but not lost for good, the desire to learn more about making saddles remained. Though the standard routes for learning about saddle making are generally an apprenticeship or school, the second would be the route Justin ended up taking. “Fast forward quite a few years and I’d retired from rodeoing and joined the military. Then I got out and became a security contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well, the contracting paid very well and I decided to buy myself a new saddle. I’d always ridden custom made saddles, but they were hand-me-downs or pawn shop specials, so I got to looking around and heard about a school in Montana and decided I’d do that and just build my own new saddle!”
Justin recalled the school’s ability to accomplish his dream of a custom saddle, and also how it gave him a solid start to his career as a professional saddle maker. “The school was Montana Horseman Saddle Building School in Belgrade, Montana. It was a 6-week school if I remember correctly. We built a class saddle and then our personal saddles. Apprenticeships are hard to come by, so I do recommend a school – it’ll give you a solid foundation to start from.”
Saddles are not a purchase made very often by riders. They are an investment that takes a while to afford. A cowboy or occasional rider needs something dependable that will last for years to come. Justin has honed his abilities to create lasting, durable, and beautiful saddles that are not only worth the investment, but able to be enjoyed for decades when cared for properly.
“I truly strive to make a comfortable saddle to ride that fits a horse correctly. It takes generally 2 to 3 weeks for a saddle that has some tooling or stamping. The fastest I’ve ever made a saddle was in 3 days, and I just built a rough out saddle for a cowboy in North Dakota that took a week. There are quite a few steps, and the sequence of making a saddle has to follow general guidelines for it to come together smoothly.”
His experiences have been plenty, as he improved his skills through the years. The learning experience he’s had is something he hopes to pass along to the next generation looking to participate in the saddlery pastime.
“At some point I’d like to be able to offer an apprentice/school type scenario for interested individuals. I’ve been fortunate that I can now make a living as a saddle maker; it is something I truly enjoy and will continue to do until they put me in the ground. I’ve also branched into the making of saddle trees to give me absolute control over the quality of my saddles. My hope is that business continues to grow and flourish, and someday give a hand to someone else looking to make saddles. I recently had a friend stay with me, and I helped him build his first saddle. I found it to be a great experience, to see the pride he had in his work when he finished it.”
You can see Justin’s handy work on his Facebook – Hawks Custom Saddlery or on Instagram: @hawkssaddles.