It takes thousands of taps from a small wooden hammer onto cowhide to make a fancy saddle, and Talabartería Rancho Grande in Magdalena, Sonora, has been doing it for more than 60 years.
Strips of leather are piled in one corner of the saddle shop, which occupies a corner of a narrow one-way street in the Mexican town about 50 miles south of the border. The smell of leather is distinct throughout the shop.
Luis Molina founded Talabartería Rancho Grande in 1949 after he heard ranchers complaining that they didn’t have a comfortable saddle to ride in for hours, or the saddles they did have weren’t durable and broke too easily.
David Molina, the youngest son of Luis, now runs the shop. “It’s continuing the concept of quality that my father started,” David Molina said in Spanish.
No one at the talabartería speaks English.
David said he started learning saddle making when he was 8 years old.
Molina saddles start at about $5,000. While most of its business is local, Rancho Grande has an extensive foreign clientele. It also has made saddles for former Mexican President Vicente Fox and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Each saddle is custom made to fit a rider and his or her horse, as well as the terrain where it will be used.
Rancho Grande specializes in traditional Sonoran-style saddles that can last 30 to 40 years, Molina said.
He added that he hopes one of his three sons will become interested in carrying on the family business after he’s gone.
Several people work on each saddle, which takes about eight days from start to finish.
Each person in the shop has a specialty. One makes the wooden mold and another assembles the saddle’s skin. Another person cuts the patterns and does the sewing, while a finisher stitches in details.
Today, Rancho Grande will make just about anything out of leather that a cowboy or rancher needs, including belts, hats and chaps.
“We get requests for entire riding attire, mostly for rodeos,” Molina said.
Even though rodeo cowboys keep his shop busy, Molina said the saddlery’s main focus is on the working rancher. And once he sells a saddle, he encourages the customer to bring it back to the shop at least once a year for repairs and maintenance.