This is one of my braiding classes that was from March 4 – 9th. We started with the basics and discussed the importance of quality rawhide and cutting quality strings. Things we went over were, choosing the right weight string for the right project, moisture content and hide preparation. The students cut strings, helped with some hide preparation, braided cores, twisted cores, braided bodies and we did a little knot work to end the class. Special attention was paid to the selection of the proper weight of string for their bodies and to the way they pulled and tightened while they braided bodies and cores.
Mckatee Mason of Weiser Idaho working in Ernie Marsh’s shop learning the process of bit making. In the second shot Mckatee is sawing out a set of cheek pieces for the bit using the bandsaw, the other shows her hand filing the beveled edges of the cheek piece. As Ernie jokingly says.. it’s a challenge to make that sound very exciting.. But we think it’s awesome!
Saddle makers are often asked what a person should look for in a comfortable saddle. Though it is a fair question, a simple answer is tough to come by. The key lies in what is called the ground seat.
Although many riders are unfamiliar with how the ground seat is constructed and how it works, they will certainly have an opinion about it if it’s not working for them! By definition, it is the part of the saddle that is sandwiched between the visible seat leather and the saddle tree underneath. It is usually made of a galvanized piece of sheet metal called a strainer plate, and covered with layers of leather that are shaved down to the desired shape. This shape is what is critical to the usability of the saddle. Occasionally, the saddle maker will use only leather to span the space between the bars. Most factory made saddles have injection molded plastic trees that have the ground seat already built into the tree.
There is a never ending debate regarding the ‘proper’ shape of the ground seat. Much of this discussion revolves around subjective terms like ‘balance’, ‘narrow’, ‘wide’, and ‘deep’ to name a few. These words roll off our tongue in a way that makes us sound like we know what we’re talking about, but these terms defy our attempts to define them in a way that everyone can understand. Chuck Stormes once said, “When they say ‘narrow’, what they mean, is ‘comfortable’.” Comfort, he says, is maximizing the contact between leather and rider. That is to say, even distribution of pressure from the crotch on down to where the leg starts to separate from the side of the horse. Incidentally,this is the same goal of fitting the saddle tree to the horse.
There are several things to remember that help clarify how this is a moving target. First of all, those who have ridden a certain saddle enough to be comfortable may have learned to compensate for the shortcomings of an inferior ground seat. Anything different may seem uncomfortable until they become accustomed to the new paradigm. Secondly, the stirrup leather adjustment can come to bear in how the hips are positioned in the seat. Thirdly, the rider’s posture has a direct bearing on where the hip bones (ischial tuberosity for you anatomy geeks) are resting in the seat. If the rider has good posture, these bones will align under the torso as they should be. Occasionally we see rounded -back riders whose hips are rotated forward where the ground seat may not be so accommodating. All these factors and more are a part of the puzzle that the saddle maker has no control over.
Ground seat theory will always be an inexact science, but a study of what actually works for a wide range of riders reveals some clues as to what will work for most. Generally speaking, a good seat is one where the hip bones are nestled in the lowest point of the ground seat. This is going to be roughly one third the distance from the cantle to the fork. Chuck Stormes describes this low point as being 3 ½” to 4” rearward from the center of the stirrup leather slot. There are many saddles that have a low point much further back than this. If a rider finds this comfortable, it is likely because they are accustomed to riding with a certain amount of brace in their body from the soles of their feet to the cantle. This would be an example of ‘riding the saddle and not the horse’. You will not see this kind of brace in a rider who is in tune with the motion of the horse.
Once we identify the lowest point in the topline of the seat, the shape from side to side can be addressed. Most of the good shaped seats are fairly flat across the base of the front of the cantle. This relative flatness should extend forward, narrowing as it goes. This shape can be likened to the old-fashioned three cornered bicycle seat. This provides that the hip bones have a relatively level surface to bear, as these bones are going to be approximately 4” to 5” apart on an average person.
One common misconception regarding ground seats is that the style of the fork has something to do with the shape of the seat. For example a rider might say, “The Wade tree (or whatever) has a good seat in it.” or “These slick forks give me the feel of an English saddle.” First of all, the saddle making industry does not have a set of master patterns of trees or ground seats. A Wade tree to one saddle maker may not be to another. Secondly, a saddle maker can install whatever shape he desires behind whatever fork with few exceptions. The shape of the fork has almost nothing to do with the shape of the ground seat. The perception is often that a swell fork saddle has a wider seat than a slick fork. When it comes to the shape of the ground seat, the saddle maker is literally a sculptor in leather. He or she can build whatever shape he desires within the limitations of the tree bars that the ground seat rests upon.
Ground seat theory is a slippery subject at best, but it is a worthwhile study for saddle makers and conscientious horsemen alike. The Traditional Cowboy Arts Association has produced an instructional DVD on the subject that can be helpful for saddle makers and anyone interested in this important aspect of their saddle.
See: The Ground Seat DVD
Video: Silversmith Scott Hardy and painter Tim Cox (former Presidents of their respective organizations) discuss the first Cowboy Crossings event held in 2011 coinciding with the return of the Cowboy Artists to the OKC museum.
Any craftsman who has taken it upon himself to refine his work has heard this statement. The comment usually implies that one is no longer “just a craftsman” and has ascended to the rank of “artist”. It is almost as if one goes to bed a craftsman, and wakes up an artist. It is as though there is an invisible line, a threshold that exists between function and art.
As descendants of Greek thought, we Westerners regard almost everything in a compartmentalized, lineal fashion. Life is considered a progression of events with a beginning and end with crisp lines separating stages. But is this an accurate way to think about function and art? Our culture often encourages us to choose one over the other, but whenever we draw a line of distinction between the two, we inadvertently create tension…one over against the other.
So what are we to do with functional art?
It has been said that if the craftsman can make a plain saddle (or bit, or bosal, etc.) look like a work of art; he/she has achieved a high level of success. Let’s consider for a moment what goes into a plain piece that would make it appear to be a work of art. In order for parts to fit together well, one has to master the unique properties of the medium (leather, metal, rawhide) and have a well developed eye for the lines of the piece. Any work that is architecturally well-designed is pleasing to the eye. The piece has the correct proportion, balance and composition… terms that are used within the art world, but interestingly are found in the realm of function as well. A bit that has the proper ratios, weight, and diameters would be functionally well-balanced. But it would likely also be aesthetically pleasing even if it were undecorated. “Balance” is a word that can be used to describe both function and art, and it can be very difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.
A case can be made that an aspect of the beauty of a piece of cowboy gear is its ultimate usability. How often have we looked at a saddle and it seemed to beckon us to step across it and ride off. There was something “right” about the shape of the seat, the line of cantle, the relationship of the front of the saddle to the seat. These are aspects of a saddle that exist (or not!) regardless of decoration. Simply put, there is a strong connection between function and art when the two are blended successfully. In fact, the best work shows a seamless integration of the two: the craftsman has kept both in balance, taking care that one would not swallow up the other.
The members of the TCAA are both craftsmen and artists (even though they may not be comfortable calling themselves artists… but that’s another story). Their ultimate goal, whether it is work made for an exhibit or for the cowboy down the road, is to make beautiful pieces that are both durable and functionally sound.
I have been building and collecting saddles, spurs and bits since the 1970s and have been a full time bit and spur maker since 1988. Most of my work is California style bits and spurs. I do restoration work on higher quality items for a very few collectors and I work as a consultant to individuals who are just starting or have large collections and have questions. I have done a lot of research on bits and spurs and have a large collection of books that have come out through the years since I was able to purchase was ‘Old West Antiques and Collectibles’ back in 1979. Books have helped very much but I feel that restoration has helped more than anything. When trying to match the work, tools had to be made to reproduce the marks of the piece. In doing this, I have discovered many things in the construction of the old work. It differs from what we do now because we have so many tools that they did not have which allows us to take our work to new levels. Collecting high quality contemporary work is gaining in popularity. This is primarily due to groups that p
romote high quality contemporary work such as the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association (TCAA) and the Texas Spur Makers Association. The TCAA also focuses on the education of makers, collectors and public so that they can identify quality work.
Some of my most asked questions are: “How do I know if a spur is contemporary or an original old piece?” “Is this an original G. S. Garcia?” “Is this a Mexican spur?” G.S. Garcia is being marked on contemporary pieces coming out of Mexico for the J. M. Capriola Company in Elko, Nevada. Capriola legally has the right to mark the pieces which makes it harder to identify if the piece is old or contemporary. With just a little practice and education, learning what to look for is easy. I will attempt to give you a little advice in what to look for but remember, there are exceptions to every rule.
First thing to look for is how the shank is connected to the band. This is one of the easiest ways to identify the work. If the work is an old California piece it will most likely have a riveted shank. That means the shank has been riveted on the band by filing a square hole in the band to fit the square end of the shank. The square end of the shank and hole in the band is made that way to keep the shank from twisting. The shank should fit the band well with a visible line around the point where the shank meets the band. If the piece is contemporary or from Mexico it will most likely have been welded where the shank meets the band and have a shoulder that is visible.
Some of the California pieces and contemporary pieces are forged from one piece of steel and the shank on those spurs will be a crisp 90′ angle where it meets the band with no dividing line and in most cases will not have a shoulder as a welded shank. Mike Morales made one piece spurs as did Phillips and Gutierrez. There are a very few makers out there now that make ‘one piece’ spurs. Another thing to look for is the way the piece was inlaid. Most of the old California and U.S. contemporary makers chisel out their silver cavities and set their silver by undercutting the edge of the cavity and hammering the silver into the cavity, while in Mexico they use a very thin piece of silver and just undercut the steel for the edges of the silver with no cavity and burnish the silver in place causing it to spread smoothly and look like an inlay. They use tools to engrave that do not dig as the old gravers did so that it does not cut through the silver. The way to tell the difference is to look at the stripes on the edge if there are any and the inlay itself. On an old piece, the silver inlay will be flush with the steel (if it has not yet rusted under the silver) and the stripes will also be flush with the steel and you may be able to see the undercut. On a Mexican piece, the silver inlay will be very slightly above the steel and on the stripes you will see a chisel cut on each side with the silver again slightly above the steel.
The engraving will also tell a lot about the spur but engraving is easy to copy. The old California engraving was usually done with the same tools that were used to cut the cavities. Most of the engraving on the old pieces looked something like this. Note the chisel marks are done with a flat chisel leaving a long cut to the outside.
Now on most of the Mexican, and a good part of contemporary work, the engraving is done bright-cut style using modern tools. One of the easiest ways to tell old engraving from Contemporary is the use of a liner. A liner is a graver that makes uniform side-by-side lines on the piece engraved. The liner is used for shading in bright cut engraving, remember, the old engraving was done with what tools they used to cut the silver cavity. Old work will not have a liner because they were not readily available. Some of the master level makers now are going to single point or firearms style engraving which is different than the old way as only a square graver is used and not the flat graver or chisels. The difference is in the way the gravers cut the material.
With these few pointers you should be able to tell the difference but nothing takes the place of experience. I suggest those interested take the time to buy a few books, look at as many different pieces of work as possible and ask questions of the makers working now. Times have changed and makers are now more willing to answer questions and explain the differences in work. Ask someone trustworthy what they think before buying a piece you are not sure of. Do not be in a hurry to buy that G. S. Garcia from the old cowboy that has had them since the teens if they just don’t look right. It takes a while to get an ‘eye’ for engraving patterns and such but it is better to wait until you are sure than to just buy a piece because it might get away if you do not buy it right now. There are too many people out there who are more than willing to sell something they know is not right and once you buy it, it is yours. There are also a lot of people out there who would be glad to help and answer questions. Be careful, study as much as you can, and do not be afraid to ask lots of questions. That is how we learn.