If you pay any attention to the saddle-making business and maybe even watch the AQHA World Show, you just might have noticed the extravagant, silver-clad show saddles top competitors are riding in the Western pleasure industry. But you might not guess that these high-priced Wenger Leather Works saddles are handcrafted by East Berlin, Pennsylvania team roper J.R. (Joey) Wenger, who now is double-dipping by creating elite team roping saddles with the help of seven-time World Champion Header Jake Barnes.
Before Wenger, a heeler in ProRodeo’s First Frontier circuit, made his mark in the Western industry, he obtained a passion for the business lifestyle from his grandfather, Robert Beil, who owned car lots, auctions and horse sales, which Wenger’s parents, Steve and Cindi, later acquired. After his parents took the reins of the horse sale business and started a tack shop, Wenger’s passion for leather work exploded.
After graduating high school, Wenger expanded his career with leather work, building headstalls and reins. His work evolved into making quality gear to private label for major companies in the horse industry. But Wenger wanted to continue to grow his business, and in 2001 he found himself invested in Western saddle making business.
“At the time my father had some guys that would private label different stuff,” Wenger explained. “I took advantage and decided to learn to make saddles. I probably would not advise anybody to do it the way I did it. I hired a guy at $50,000 a year. I bought him a house and we went to work basically supplying my dad’s store with saddles. We basically became his private labeler. I had to have a full-time employee right off the bat. Through that process was learning to build a saddle. Over the years I’ve migrated more towards the custom. We predominantly are in the pleasure horse business. We’ve always done some rope saddles because I’ve always been a roper.”
Though Wenger Leather Works is most known in the Western pleasure industry, Wenger has his focus on the fit and performance of saddles. That emphasis led him to create his own custom tree company in 2015.
“There’s a lot of ways that you can manipulate measurements in a saddle tree to make a customer happy but, you’re really not changing any better. A lot of our best technologies in our industry are pretty much all figured out, per say, from your best saddle makers who are the oldest guys out there. There’s a lot of gimmicks out there from what a lot of companies are doing and to get to the point, we want to control our own fate.
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“I wanted to dive deeper into it and see what was working and learn what a lot of companies were doing—the whole standard practices in saddle-tree making. You don’t think about it, but the bars of a saddle tree, there are companies that will use two different bars, on what’s supposed to be the same tree just because they don’t have the correct size.”
With his trees now made in his factory in Welch, Oklahoma, Wenger is finding time at his local shop in Pennsylvania to work on the 2020 launch of Premier Rope Saddles—a new rope saddle endeavor that involves seven-time World Champion Header Jake Barnes.
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“Jake and I have become pretty good friends and he’s got a couple of my saddles that I’ve done for him. The idea is going to be to provide the best saddles—a lot of people say this but we truly mean this—provide the best saddles that somebody is going to be able to buy that’s not from a one-off maker.”
Wenger and wife Katie, with the support of their two girls Jozlyn, 7, and Tinsley, 2, continue to build elite saddles along with a team of three men working in their shop in Pennsylvania, and two in Oklahoma.
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“The pleasure industry is our bread and butter. It’s been great for us and continues to be. Obviously we’re blessed with that. But, if we’re getting a choice, me and my wife, we’d sure rather be knocking on those rope saddles. We’re proud of it and I want people to know it. I’m real passionate about saddles and saddle trees and that business and rodeo in general, and I have goals to be a top team roper, too.”