On July 11, Sam Petersen, 8, left the box and roped his first steer. He’s the most recent member of the Petersen family to join the ranks of the roping world, and his World-Series-Finale-roper dad, Joe, thinks it’s pretty neat.
Sam is learning to rope with his mom, Jessica, Miss Rodeo Montana 1994, and luckily for Sam, Joe’s brother-in-law, three-time WNFR-qualifier Nick Sarchett (husband to Joe’s sister, Jody), has been spending the summer with the family in Three Forks, Mont., and is also passing along some of his know-how. It seems to be working: Jessica turned her first steer the same day. Outside the arena, Joe can be found operating the historic Three Forks Saddlery, now celebrating its 70th anniversary. It’s a life he walked away from once, telling his parents, Nancy and Carl Petersen, he wouldn’t be coming back, as he headed off to college and then to pursue his engineering career in Colorado.
During that time, Joe would travel with his dad to Texas to watch sister Jody—a student at Vernon College, and then Tarleton State University—compete in the summer rodeos. Having won Montana’s WPRA Circuit as a barrel racer when she was only 12 years old, Jody now found herself sharing the arena with yet-to-become rodeo greats Trevor Brazile and Turtle and Molly Powell. As Joe describes it, watching Jody “whoop up” on the Texas crowd re-inspired his own roping ambitions, so he got himself set up on Colorado’s Front Range with a horse and some property and committed himself to the nine-to-five commute as he continued to develop his engineering career.
“Then,” Joe admits, “the work thing was kind of getting in the way of my roping thing.”
Circa 2000, he called the folks and said he wanted to come home.
In 1973, Carl and Nancy Petersen were heading home to Montana after wintering their cattle in Texas. On a stop-over in Buffalo, Wyo., to visit with friends, a For Sale ad in a discarded Billings Gazette caught their eye, and by April of that year, they were the proud owners of an itty-bitty saddle shop in Three Forks.
Over the next few years, lots on either side of the shop were put on the market, and Carl and Nancy began to transform the Three Forks Saddlery into the three-city-block Western destination it is today. From the get-go, they hired saddlemakers to build custom rigs for their clients, with the payroll including craftsmen like Bob Kelly, Marc Brogger, Jim Lathrop and Chas Weldon. Then, it wasn’t long before Nancy—the 1969 NIRA Champion All-Around Cowgirl from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a venerable team roper still—started picking up the tricks of the trade, first from her husband, and then from her mentor, Bob Kelly.
Kelly had come from Ray Holes’ Saddle Co. in Grangeville, Idaho, which had roots in West Coast Saddle Trees in Portland, Ore., but employed a number of workers from the Visalia Stock Saddle Co.
“I learned the Visalia way to start with,” Nancy recalls, “and then I refined it to bring in some of the Sheridan styling. [Don] King’s tooling was always real inspirational to me.”
Nancy developed a unique design featuring a narrow seat, in-skirt rigging and inlaid padding. And while the functionality of the saddle seemingly drove the design, aesthetics were never spared. Each saddle is a work of art.
Demand for Nancy’s saddles became so great that the wait time on them was between two and four years—a great testament to her abilities and their quality, but an unsustainable practice in terms of keeping a business afloat. The solution to the problem was as unique and functional as the saddles themselves—Three Forks now contracts saddlemakers to build Nancy’s saddle.
“We do quality control by putting the ground seat on the tree here in the shop,” Joe explains.
It takes each saddlemaker (there are six who work full-time for Joe) some time to get a handle on recreating Nancy’s work, so the saddles then return to the shop for additional work to ensure the quality of the work matches Nancy’s own. The system has been a great success and has allowed Nancy and Carl to spend increasingly more time roping in Arizona during those cold, wintery, Montana months.
Jody and Nick reside in the Phoenix area, where Jody is the Senior Vice President of a commercial insurance powerhouse and contributes to numerous community outreach programs, and Nick corners the sales market for Equibrand. In addition to raising their son, Ryker, 8, Jody and Nick—who is also an AQHA World Champion—remain committed to roping. When Carl and Nancy join them in the winters, the roping becomes a true family affair.
“We live just a three-minute walk across a little wash from their place,” Nancy says. “We ride our horses over to their arena and rope, which is very convenient. Jody isn’t competing as much because of her job … [but] she likes to come home and rope when she can.”
Of the roping community, Nancy comments, “It just keeps growing and growing, and the roping just keeps getting tougher and tougher, and as there are more ropers, the tougher it’s going to be.”
When asked about her game plan when she enters the box and whether it’s changed in the nearly 60 years she’s been roping, she concludes, “I’ve just got to stay aggressive. If you want to win, you’ve got to be aggressive.”
In a way, this community of amateur ropers has played a significant role in the Three Forks Saddlery’s success. It was at the persuasion of team roping’s head honcho, Denny Gentry, that Nancy’s saddles were spotlighted at the 2009 World Series Finale is Las Vegas when she partnered with silversmith Gary Gist to create collectible miniature saddles. While having an appreciation for the miniatures, Joe remembers, the team ropers wanted something full-sized, so Three Forks Saddlery returned to the South Point in 2012.
That year, Joe qualified for his first Finale, Jody took third place (along with a considerable payout) in the #13, and the saddlery nearly sold out of saddles. The 2013 Finale offered similar success in the booth and the arena, this time with Joe and cousin Bret Robinson taking seventh in the #11, while Nancy and Jody took the 25th spot in the #9.
The trend has continued over the years, including last year, when Joe was worried what impact low oil and cattle prices would have. But to his surprise, Three Forks Saddlery, which shared a booth with roping apparel company Go Rope, had perhaps its best Finale yet.
“We’re very blessed. Okay, very blessed. And I’m a believer. The Lord has blessed us and so I give Him that Glory … but I was just amazed. And so, we’re kind of hooked on the Finale,” Joe said, thinking back to last December.
In the meantime, Nancy is preparing to retire from building saddles. She still has a few more orders to complete, but is looking forward to building saddles at leisure. And though it might seem like the end of an era, Joe has the saddlery poised for many decades of success.
A partnership with Neil Merrill has resulted in the Three Forks building the Merrill Barrel Saddle at a rate of nearly one per week, and they’re consistently four to six months out on them. The saddlery also offers Sue Smith barrel saddles, Merrill Barrel pads (which are offered for ropers and trail riders, too), custom chinks and apparel and gifts, as well as offering tack repairs and used saddles (on consignment or trade), in addition to a few new saddles, though it’s a challenge to keep them stocked.
So whether a custom saddle is on this year’s Christmas list or not, don’t miss the opportunity to stop in the Three Forks Saddlery—either in Three Forks, Mont., or at their booth in the South Point—to celebrate 70 years of Western heritage and exceptional saddlemaking, and to shake the hands of three generations of ropers.