Hereford, Texas’ Kevin Johnson’s shoeing clientele keeps him plenty busy—busy enough, in fact, that the 41-year-old flies a plane across the Panhandle and into New Mexico so he can get to all of his clients. But the Nebraska native isn’t one to miss an opportunity, so when the famed Lewis family gave him a chance to buy the generations-old Lewis Saddle Tree Company seven years ago, Johnson, along with partner Cody Parks, jumped.
“We saw room for improvement in the quality of saddle trees and in the finished product, and we saw a tremendous amount of room for growth,” Johnson said. “Here we are. This is a full-time-and-a-half job.”
When Johnson and Parks bought the business, the company was producing 400 to 500 trees annually. In seven years, that number has grown to 1,200, sold to mostly small craftsman making one or two custom saddles a month. And Lewis Saddle Tree Co. has another notable fan, too: Trevor Brazile, with his line of Relentless saddles by Cactus Saddlery.
“The evolution of the horse has changed. As they’re bred for specific activities, their bodies change,” Johnson said. “As they change, you have to cater your saddle tree to them. There’s really only a handful of the hundreds of patterns we have that we use. You can continually go back to those handful of patterns, but that may change on the type of horse—younger horses, older horses, flat-backed horses. It all sort of comes down to the way the bars are jigged up, the way they go on the horse’s back, the width, what a person wants to do in the saddle. In a roping saddle, you want a front that sits down on their withers. The farther away, the more leverage there is.”
Johnson found passion for building quality saddle trees early in life. He grew up in eastern Nebraska, outside of Omaha, and he learned to shoe horses and build saddles from his father, Gary Johnson, who still builds saddles and trees in Elkhorn, Nebraska. A calf roper back then, the younger Johnson college rodeoed at Western Texas College, then West Texas A&M University, and decided to stay in the Panhandle when he was done.
“There’s a lot worst places to live. There might be prettier places, but the people in this area are pretty good,” Johnson said.
Now, he and Parks operate a 3,500-foot shop in Hereford, the same shop the Lewis family ran for a few decades before them. Parks, a cabinet-maker with his MBA and ranch-management experience to boot, spends long hours (usually around 11) in the shop, while Johnson is barnstorming in his Piper Super Cub across the Southwest to shoeing clients. Johnson works the late shift after the horses’ feet are done.
“Trees are usually crafted from whatever wood is indigenous to the area, and because we’re close to Colorado and New Mexico, we use white pine,” Johnson explained. “From the start, either Cody’s hands or mine are building each tree. We have a team of fiberglassers, which is a really hard job. We send it back to one of our five or six fiberglassers, who will see it from completion. Then my partner and I ship them. If there’s something we miss in quality control that isn’t 100-percent right, it’s either me or my partner who take the blame. We’re humans and humans make mistakes, but I feel like we have as good of quality control as any of the shops building 100 a year.”
Lewis Saddle Tree Co. covers their trees in fiberglass instead of rawhide, and the technique Johnson and his team use provides unprecedented stability to the trees. Plus, it eliminates the need for adding nails to the tree to tack on the rawhide.
“The fiberglassing technique has put the rawhide on the wayside,” Johnson said. “If they’d had that process 100 years ago, they probably never would have used rawhide. With the fiberglass, there’s no movement in the tree.”
Eventually, Johnson would love to ease off the shoeing business and go back to building custom saddles under the Kevin Johnson Saddles name. But in the meantime, he is continuing to manage his small tree-making business alongside his wife, April Johnson, who teaches elementary school, and 3-year-old daughter Isabelle. Plus, the exposure to dozens and dozens of different horses each week allows Johnson to test out tree designs on his customers’ horses’ backs.
“I will throw the tree in my shoeing pickup and stick it on a horse I’m doing, so I can get a baseline,” Johnson said. “The longer I’m in this business, the more I know. But man, there’s so much I don’t know. And I am continually trying to learn.”