HOUSTON — When Julio Peña quit the third grade in Monterrey, Mexico, he knew exactly what his next move was.
Peña, then a 13-year-old, was fixated on an old shop near his home. When he walked in, the smell of leather filled his nostrils. He loved the smell and admired the workers crafting custom-made saddles.
He asked for a job. They hired him on the spot. And he fell in love with building saddles.
“I saw the saddle shop, I said, ‘Let me go work and do something different,’” Peña said.
He learned to master the art of handcrafting western saddles in the shop, unlike so many others who came before him who learned the trade from a family member. He was paid $10 a week. He’d keep a little for himself, which he’d spend going to the movies or watching soccer, and give the rest to his family.
When he was 31, Peña and his brother moved to Houston to live with their mother. And for the next 39 years he’s continued his craft in the state known for its cowboys.
Peña now works in a small corner shop located in the back of Pinto Ranch in the Galleria. He can make just about anything western related.
“I love to make all kinds of saddles, chaps, belts, briefcases, purses and wallets,” Peña said. “You name it.”
Business usually picks up in the weeks leading up to RodeoHouston, when customers bring western wear for Peña to fix, adjust or design. Some of those requests challenge Peña, even with 57 years under his belt.
“Some ladies come in and say they want earrings with leather and designs in them,” Peña said with a smile. “I’ll do it.”
Another customer once wanted his belt adjusted because it was too short – any otherwise easy fix, except for it was made of alligator. No worries. Peña found a spare piece of gator and added it to the belt.
Peña, now 70, has proven he can do anything, which makes him an asset at the store. But he’s part of a dying breed: individual saddle makers who can craft and design nearly anything thrown their way.
“There are saddle makers in the U.S., but mostly all of us are old,” he said.
And the future of his trade doesn’t look too bright.
“There are guys who are interested, but not like before. Now, they want quick money,” he said. “It’s how it goes.”
Because saddle making takes work, and Peña takes as much time as he needs to get the job done. Crafting a saddle can take between 16-20 days from start to finish.
“A good saddle, it takes time,” he said while proudly standing beside a $6,300 saddle he recently completed in the shop. “Art. It’s an art. We need a passion to do this.”
Peña has no plans to retire. He enjoys the work too much and the happiness it brings.
“I don’t know how many years God is going to give me, but the years I have I’m happy,” he said. “If he gives me more, I’ll welcome it.”
Peña has seen a lot in his years. There’s one thing he may fall short in, though: riding in one of his own saddles.
He hasn’t ridden a horse since he was a little boy in Mexico.