Dallas Prince’s saddle-making and leather-crafting career has certainly taken some interesting turns.
Raised and schooled in Calgary, the strapping athlete knew he didn’t want university, so in 2000, he joined the Reserves [part-time soldier.]
“I really enjoyed myself,” he said. “So, in 2002, I joined the regular force [full-time soldier] and was moved to Borden, Ontario, for a year. It’s a training base.”
In 2003, Dallas was posted to Edmonton as a combat engineer in 1 Combat Engineer Regiment. (1 CER). “A combat engineer is basically in charge of mobility on the battlefield, making roads and bridges, clearing obstacles, concrete bunkers and denying the same to the enemy. So, clearing minefields, stuff like that.”
He paused. “Then I went on two tours in Afghanistan with 1 CER.”
Right there, I stop. Two tours? In a steaming hot hellfire region infamous for vicious, guerrilla-style, use-kids-as-shields warfare?
“It had its moments,” he deadpans. “It’s different when you’ve been training for it for a long time. It’s nice to be able to go on tour and actually do your job.”
I was shocked at how casual he was about his experiences. “But you were in extreme danger,” I said, the mother in me coming out.
“At times, I think there was probably extreme danger, but it’s over for me. There were a couple of times that we were pretty sporty, but nothing too crazy. You just deal with it as it shows up. Most of the time, we’re having a good time, building stuff, blowing up stuff, driving around the countryside, and doing soldier stuff,” he said, underplaying the stressful conditions.
He was in the Kandahar region in 2006 and again in 2008; 1 CER did some operations with the French and a few with the Americans. “But most of the time,” he continued, “We just did our own operations because we were the ground holders in Kandahar. We were the force of choice.“
A military career means that as you progress through the ranks, you get posted to various other places for leadership roles or management — or any number of reasons that the military decides to post you.
By the time Dallas was on his second tour in-country, his rank had increased to a Master Corporal. When he came home from Kandahar, he was put on a sergeant’s course in Gagetown. “During that time, I was posted to CANSOFCOM,” [Canadian Special Operations Forces Command].
He said it so casually, but it’s the equivalent of Navy Seals — the best of the best. Think Rambo crossed with Schwarzenegger — only with live rounds and real enemies.
He continues, “In 2009, I was posted to Ottawa to CANSOFCOM, and then I did two tours,” he paused. “I’m not really sure what I can say about what I was doing, but um, I was on tour in 2011 in Afghanistan, and then I did another tour in Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) in 2016. I was a Master Corporal; then I got posted to sergeant and then a warrant officer.”
Four tours of duty.
In 2019, Dallas officially retired with a chest full of medals.
To go from the high-octane world of active military and plenty of support to the solitary life of a leather craftsman in the small mountain town of Edson, Alberta, is quite a change, but the desire to learn the craft was always simmering on the back burner.
“When I was 16, I had a job on a ranch,” he said. “I really wanted my own gear and couldn’t afford it, so I started making my own.
I first made a pair of chaps with the help of Ken from Caledon Leather in Calgary.”
We stopped and reminisced about Ken and Caledon’s late owner, Don Wudel. “I met Don when I went to Pioneer Ranch Camp when I was young feller,” he said.
“But then I got busy being an army guy. I still dabbled in leather, stamping a piece or something, then in 2013, I broke my neck and my shoulder. I couldn’t do much, so I really got into tooling leather.”
The therapy became a passion, and by 2015, Dallas decided to make his own saddle. He bought DVDs, a bunch of books and went at it, finishing “three (or four)” saddles.
In 2019 Dallas retired, and to jumpstart his civilian career, he applied for funds from the military to learn saddle making, but it wasn’t to be.
That’s when his biggest supporter stepped in to help.
“My mom contacted Chuck Stormes (premiere saddle maker and one of the founders of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association) and gave him the ins and outs of who I was. Chuck agreed to interview me before taking me on as a student, and also, Veterans Affairs approved me for funds.”
He laughs. “I took two of the first saddles I’d ever made, and I think the sixth one, too. He told me what he’d recommend. He said, ‘Well if I were you, I’d burn them.’ Dallas laughs again at the memory. “That’s the trainer I want.”
The young soldier and the master leatherman got along just fine, and to this day, Dallas still consults with Chuck as he masters the craft.
“I feel super thankful and blessed to be able to work with Chuck,” he said. “It’s been my saving grace, leather work, to me, is my therapy. Being to war four times, I’ve got a couple of issues…” he trails off.
“It keeps my mind focused, puts my hands to work, and attention to detail is key. And you have to put your ego aside. You can’t be married to a project, and you have to be able to accept criticism if you want to get better or be the best. I always strive to be the best; otherwise, I don’t see the point. Chuck is definitely on the same level in regard to having no ego and striving to be the best and not sugarcoating anything, and I love that about Chuck. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That is exactly what I need.”
With each saddle Dallas crafts, he asks the master for a critique, and it was on one of these trips that Chuck told the fledgling craftsman about the TCAA Fellowship. The Fellowship is provided to up-and-coming people in the cowboy trades to train with the best in the world.
Dallas applied but wasn’t chosen because there was only room for one saddlemaker recipient that year. But that’s not where the story ends.
The TCAA didn’t want to turn down this elite soldier, so two board members threw in $6,000 each so Dallas could receive a fellowship. “I wish I could tell you their names,” he said. “I think they liked my military career and my dedication.”
Initially, he was to train with Pedro Pedrini, but due to Covid, he spent his fellowship with Chuck. “It was excellent; learning from the best was all I could ever hope for.”
These days, touring through Dallas’ social media sites shows many items made for his brothers in the military, all stamped with FNV, an acronym for Facta Non Verba, Latin for Deeds Not Words.
“I try to live by it, and now that I’m retired, I try to take that aboard. And like I said, I’m not usually much of a talker; I’m more of a doer.”
So this soldier’s life trajectory has gone from high stakes, where concentration and attention to detail aid in survival, to high art, where concentration and detail are demanded to make the grade.
He’s travelled a long way down the craftsman trail from his first saddles, and word has gotten out about this young man’s skill. He usually has at least a saddle on the go, but he still resolutely carves out time to make leather gear for his brothers-in-arms.
Dallas still travels quite a bit, but it’s to Ontario. “I try and go once a year just to see my army buddies. I text them probably every day because they are dealing with their own struggles.”
For some, the war never ends. “I see a lot of army guys that still commiserate about the war in Afghanistan. I don’t because I don’t want to sit in a dirty diaper for an eternity,” he said. “It’s time to move on, the war is over. So, I try to live a full life that I earned. I wasn’t killed in theatre, so I try and live like I deserve this.”
He paused, “Terri, do you think I could say a little something about our plans for the future?”
“My girlfriend Ellen and I are buying a small ranch west of Edson, and our plan is to start a pack trip for veterans and first responders. When I was in special ops, I went on a horse packing course,” he explains. “I found that being out in nature and being with the horses was super beneficial. So that’s our plan — to start a veteran pack trip ranch for first responders and veterans, and we’re gonna call it FNV Ranch. My goal is to be a full-time saddle maker and to run FNV Ranch.”
Deeds not words. Facta Non Verba, indeed.