A tip of the white Stetson hat goes to John Gray of Horseshoe Bend, Arkansas, who has gone the extra mile to make sure that everyone who wants to ride a horse has a saddle to fit their needs. He stepped up to the plate when Nina, an avid rider, was left a paraplegic after an accident and no longer able to participate in her favorite equine sports of trail riding and horse showing. She needed something that would allow her to compete independently in shows – once on the horse; any assistance from a second person would disqualify her.
Since there was no division for this type of event, she was instrumental in starting one so other riders could compete for trophies on their own merit. “Help me on my horse, and I can take it from there,” Nina now says.
John says, “Give Nina the reins and off she goes. She has always been a good rider and a handicap won’t slow her down. I’m happy I could help. She doesn’t look at her injury as life threatening, but it is life changing.”
John’s specialty as a saddle maker is in the design and craft of saddles for physically challenged riders. He believes that because a person is physically challenged doesn’t mean they need to give up a pleasurable sport, and he spends time with each client to understand their specific needs.
Elizabeth was a competition gymnast until she was hurt in an automobile accident. She became extremely depressed until she was able to order a saddle, specially designed for her impairment, from John. Elizabeth raised money to purchase the saddle by auctioning off a guitar signed by a number of country music personalities just for the occasion.
For more than 20 years, John has made saddles for people with difficulties resulting from accidents, illness and diseases. He uses his engineering skills to create custom designs on an individual basis.
“I consider it a privilege to watch people achieve their goals. I consider it an honor that I can help,” John says.
He followed in his father’s footsteps in the saddle-making business but learned about therapeutic saddles by trial and error. John adapted standard saddles for challenged or impaired riders when he started his business, then found a saddletree maker willing to customize for any disability. Each saddletree is marked for a rider so that it can be tailored for a particular handicap.
John constructs specifically for the impairment. He devised a saddle for a young man who had been an active rider but lost both legs in the Middle East. He still wanted to trail ride with his wife. So John created the bucket seat. It is like an old-fashioned side saddle in that it has a horn to balance with. Yarmony Creek Lodge, near Vail, Colorado, helps disabled veterans ride again. Sgt. Tim Johannsen says, “I came to watch my wife ride and found I could accompany her. Thank you, Mr. Gray.”
John not only makes new saddles, he will repair a familiar old one, understanding that a saddle is a tool to be kept in good condition. Saddles aren’t the only item in John’s repertoire; he also makes bridles, chaps, saddle bags, canteens and other leather items.
For more information, visit his website at www.GraysCustomSaddlery.com.Connie Vigil Platt, a fourth-generation cattle rancher, grew up on the high plains of Southern Colorado. She has experienced the harsh rigors of everyday life for a working cowboy, and not being content to see the old traditions disappear, she now devotes her time to Western writing.