Three gen­er­a­tions of rop­ers from the Three Forks Sad­dlery.—By G.R. Schi­avino

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Mon­tana’s Peter­son Fam­ily

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, three­time 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, in­skirt 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 sad­dle-mak­ers 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 full­time 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 sad­dle-mak­ing, and to shake the hands of three gen­er­a­tions of rop­ers.





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