ELLENSBURG, Wash. — There are several sayings written on the garage door in Ellensburg custom saddle maker Janneman Pienaar’s shop, but the one that seemed to stand out read, “It’s your duty in life to preserve your dream.”
For Pienaar, the dream started on a 300-acre ranch in Namibia, South Africa, on the border of Angola to the north and Botswana in the east, and it’s carried him all the way to the Kittitas Valley where he’s become one of just a handful of custom saddle makers in the nation.
Sitting in the shop at his 12-acre ranch out on Cove Road, he glanced out the window at the clouds hanging over the Cascades, a slow drizzle coming down.
“I’ve started over two or three times in my life. It’s getting tougher to get reestablished, making new connections with people. Sometimes it seems like people around town know my dog better than they know me because I take him everywhere I go,” he said with a laugh.
An Australian shepherd named Charro lying at his feet perked up at the mention of its name, then collected the expected scratch behind the ears before settling back down in a comfortable spot.
Pienaar will explain a little bit about the journey that started 20 years ago next week during his lecture at the Western Arts and Culture Museum.
As for his saddle making, the word exquisite probably doesn’t do his work justice, but it’ll have to do. Where M.L. Leddy’s Western Wear shop in Forth Worth, Texas became an institution in 1922, making custom saddles and boots with a production line of different people contributing to the final product.
Janneman Pienaar Custom Saddles is a one-man production start-to-finish. The design that starts in his head, to the woodwork cutting of the frame that becomes the tree, to the leather design on the piece work, to the stitching, to the silver buckles and attachments. From beginning to end, each saddle takes an estimated 150 hours, and he won’t be rushed.
“I’d rather have no sale than put out something that doesn’t meet standards,” he said with a rueful smile under a black cowboy hat. Charro looked up with those steel blues eyes as if in agreement.
“The process starts in my head with the measurements, the size and the shape of it. There are only two or three people I know that can make the custom tree,” he explained.
The rider’s weight, height and leg length determine the size of the saddle. Western saddles were developed to be comfortable and practical for long hours on horseback and to aid in tasks like roping cattle or isolating an animal from its herd.
“What makes my work unique is that every saddle is designed for a good experience by both rider and horse. My customers are looking for something that will give them the edge,” he said. “It’s like a specialized shoe or something that is going to enhance your performance. We’re talking extreme quality, and there are no shortcuts in what I do.”
In many ways, he’s part wood craftsman, part jeweler, part draftsman, part leatherworker, part seamstress, all using a five-part formula that gives each customer a viable product, unique unto itself.
“First is the way I make a tree and how it allows a horse to function. Sometimes if (the customer) is close enough, I visit the horse and rider. But I have a form with required dimensions I need to start,” he said. “Two, the position of the rider (in the saddle), so they’re always in balance. Next is the quality of the stitches, which is important because you don’t want something that’s falling apart in a couple of years.
“The fourth is that it needs to be aesthetically pleasing. I hang onto my old designs, but I’m always trying to make something that is unique for every customer. Each design is drawn out by hand then transferred over to the leather before being pieced together on the tree. All my stuff is one of a kind.”
Where ranchers brand their cattle for recognition of possession, the Janneman Pienaar brand is as much a part of the dream as the man that learned of the American West watching classic Westerns on an old television set plugged into a generator back in South Africa, before he could even speak English.
“I want people to be able to identify my work from a distance,” he said. “I want them to say, ‘Hey that’s a Janneman Pienaar.”