Loveland saddle maker revered for craftsmanship
LOVELAND ” Rusty May has had two loves in his life.
“I’ve got a lifetime love affair with horses … and my bride,” he said.
May can’t remember the first time he rode a horse. He’s a native of New Mexico, and horses have always been an inherent part of his life.
At the age of 13, May made a living breaking horses. Since then, he’s worked in almost every area of the horse industry.
“I can’t think of a phase of the horse industry I haven’t made my living in,” he said.
In 1982, May was in Wyoming for a rodeo with his wife, Jo Ann, and son, Ty. On their way back to New Mexico, they decided to drive through Fort Collins.
They instantly loved the area.
On June 1, 1982, the family moved into a house in Loveland and has been there ever since.
That same year, May started making saddles full time.
However, it took many years of dedication, and the influence of two men, to get him to that point.
Part of his life as a horseman was repairing saddles.
“I was raised by a horse trader,” May said. “Fixing and patching saddles was a part of growing up.”
Jack Neeley, his uncle, helped hone the skills May had already developed. During a three-year apprenticeship, Neeley taught May how to make a good, sturdy saddle ” one that would last.
The second man, Austin “Slim” Green, showed him how to make his work pretty.
“Whatever becomes of me in this trade is because of those two,” May said.
Now, May is a revered saddle maker. Customers from around the world solicit his work, which includes almost any type of leather crafting, from saddles to saddlebags to book covers.
Because of his training, his style and techniques in leather crafting could be considered old-school quality craftsmanship. While the influence of his mentors cannot be denied, May says dyslexia also plays a key role.
“I start on the other end of things,” he said. “I see things backward all the time. I’ve had to develop things differently.”
Primarily this affects the artistic embellishments of May’s work.
“There is a deeper relief to my art than a lot of carvers,” he said.
Working recently in his shop, May leaned across a large piece of rectangular leather. Once finished, this piece will hang above a customer’s fireplace.
Most of the leather had a crosshatched pattern. The edge was decorated with swirling flowers. This design is an original May creation that he calls “my wildflower.”
To achieve such a design, May begins with a basic pattern to map out the finished work. Using different sized metal styluses, he gently pounds into the leather with a mallet. This bruises the leather ” creating the darker shadows ” and shapes the design.
May never meets most of his customers. Once he started using e-mail, communicating with them became much easier.
When contracting for a saddle, the customer will send him a picture of both the rider and the horse, patterns of what they want, what activity the saddle will be used for and the physical measurements of both the horse and the rider.
From the measurements, May will then create a template of the horse’s back and begin crafting the saddle.
Though one of his saddles can cost $10,000 or more, May isn’t in saddle-making for the money.
For May, if a person has a passion for what he does, he is never truly “working.”
“I love it,” he said. “Work is a frame of mind. I quit my last job when I was 29 and haven’t worked a day since.”
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