His horse is a cowboy’s most important tool. But, the mount is worthless without a saddle.
That’s where Mike Seeley, Eureka, comes in.
“I build saddles that fit the horse first, then the cowboy, so it’s dependable in the toughest storm a horse and rider can get in,” evaluated Seeley.
A cowboy all of his life, Seeley said, “I’ve been riding horses and working cattle ever since I can remember. I still spend lots of time in the saddle caring for pasture cattle. From personal experience, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t.”
The cowboy-turned-saddle-maker emphasized that every horse is different, every cowboy is different, and different cowboys expect different things from their equipment.
So, the Flint Hills rancher spends considerable time first measuring the horse “if possible,” then evaluates the cowboy’s physique, with personal preferences coming third in the development process.
“All cowboys are really particular about their saddles, and they’re the ones who ride it, so they have to be satisfied for me to be satisfied,” Seeley said.
His parents and grandparents on both sides have been in the ranching business in Kansas and Oklahoma all their lives, so the cowboy life just came naturally.
“My dad, Paul Seeley, managed ranches, had a feedlot and operated the sale barn at El Dorado,” reflected the cowboy, who “got the leather bug” at a young age from cowboy leather craftsman Albert Pickell at Fall River.
However, right out of high school, Seeley started the cowboy life on his own, working for several outfits.
“When it got tough in the ‘80s I started supplementing the cattle business with boot repair and fixing saddles in Eureka,” said Seeley, who then got the opportunity to manage ranches, but still kept his finger in the leather business.
With their children, Alisha, Margo and Jared, raised, five years ago, Seeley and his wife, Michele, settled back on his maternal grandfather Newt Thornton’s Greenwood County ranch that’s been in the family more than 50 years.
“With the home place and leased grass, I look after about 5,500 acres, double stocking with yearlings,” he said.
Of course, Seeley is in the saddle in the spring and early summer caring for those cattle, but he’s also in demand helping other ranchers.
“I’m extremely fortunate to have good neighbors that I can trade a lot of day work with,” said Seeley, who keeps five geldings in his remuda.
“I like foundation Quarter Horses. Use to be they couldn’t be too big, but now I want 14-2 hands, 1,250-pound horse, easier to get on,” claimed Seeley, who has competed on ranch rodeo teams and was a winning jackpot team roper at both the head and heels.
“I’m a spectator now. Our vacation is attending the ranch rodeo finals in Amarillo. Fortunately, my son-in-law Grady Gibb and many of my customers have qualified, so it’s a great time,” Seeley contended.
Knowing horses and saddles from every angle, it was logical that one of buildings at his Seeley Ranch headquarters has been converted into a saddle shop.
“This works perfect with my pasture cattle,” said Seeley, who has now custom made 16 saddles, including several for ranch rodeo champions, over a wide area.
“I’ve had 10 saddles built for myself, and I was fortunate enough to be there watching some of the best saddle makers at work. I’ve coupled their knowledge with my experience,” he noted.
“I’m slow, but I want everything to be right,” insisted Seeley, explaining that building a saddle requires more than 100 hours of time.
Backbone of the saddle is the tree which Seeley buys according to specifications from Utah. “Most of the trees have ‘Arizona bars’ and a ‘Will James swell.’ They’re made of cottonwood and covered with rawhide,” he described.
Leather is purchased from Herman Oak in St. Louis. “It’s the only tanner of saddle skirting left in this country, but environmental regulations have really made leather prices go up,” Seeley claimed.
Base price for a Seeley Saddle, stamped as such for authenticity, is $2,850. “I’m going to have to increase that since my last leather price hike,” contended Seeley, who emphasized that individual customer preferences determine final cost.
With a saddle being made for a Fort Scott rancher in the beginning phases at his shop, Seeley noted, “I also custom make a lot of chaps and other equipment. Saddle repair, cleaning and oiling with olive oil are also a big part of the business.”
“I enjoy building saddles for cowboys, who will use them hard enough to wear them out. But, the first saddle I built was 30 years ago, and it’s still in use. Demand has really expanded for my saddles as working cowboys hear about them from other satisfied customers. I hope that will continue,” Seeley concluded.