Rawhide Braiding Mentor Nate Wald and Student Caleb French in a video produced by the Wyoming Arts Council
These are the Spanish colonial spurs for this years exhibit ,they represent the most time I have ever put into one project. I was inspired to go the distance on these by the ornamental spurs of the Spanish artisans of the 1700’s thru early 1800’s as well as the works of Master Maker John Ennis who seemingly stretched even their talents.
The men who proudly wore these styles as well as the men who made them lived in a time when life was cheap, warfare, strife and hardship were the norm, their family honor, fighting, and horsemanship skills were their main sources of pride.. rightly so as quite often their lives depended them.
Plenty of time to think of such things while these were in progress..
Over the years I have found there are three questions that I am routinely asked:
1. What made you want to be a Western Silversmith?
2. How did you learn?
3. What advice would you give someone who wants to be a Western Silversmith?
Here are my answers to these questions, I hope you find them interesting!
Where I grew up bits, spurs and buckles were common place, just part of life. None of our gear was anything special so to be honest I never paid attention to it other than for function. Of course buckles were different, they always make a statement about who was wearing them, who you were, who you wanted to be and who you thought you were! I think for that reason they aways intrigued me.
I also watched two parades a year on TV, one the Calgary Stampede Parade and the other The Rose parade. I would sit there mesmerized by the beautiful horses all decked out in the most incredible headstalls, bits, silver saddles and martingales, to me it wasn’t gear anymore it was art! I wondered who made them? Where did they come from? To me they just seemed magical.
One day I was at my Great Grandma’s house, for some reason I was looking at things in her China cabinet and came across this incredible Silver tea pot. Grandma saw me looking at it, took it out and handed it to me then told me how her family had brought it from England. I stood there totally amazed wondering how could a person create this!
The beautiful parade horses and tea pot always stayed in the back of my mind but I was determined to make my living horseback.
After years of doing just that Leslie and I were married and wanted to buy land of our own. Reality told me I would have to do something else for a while to make that happen. I shod horses, worked on oil rigs, pipeline, and welded. I didn’t mind any of those jobs but also didn’t like any of them. I was welding for my step father in Calgary when I came home one night(we lived on an acreage just west of Calgary) Leslie had a continuing education magazine open to a page that offered a beginning night course for Silversmithing, there hours an night for two nights a week with ten weeks in total.
I completed the course and was blown away! I took the second course, loved it. I emptied a room in our basement converting it into a shop. I thought if I could build up a cliental, that would allow me to quit welding, eventually buy land and be able to ranch and silversmith together.
Theory was great – reality was hell of a lot harder.
What I had learnt at the night course all pertained to jewelry, buckles and horse jewelry is constructed out of heavier material, it takes more and different types of heat, fluxes, soldering techniques, etc. I could find Jewelers but No Western Silversmiths to ask for help. I bought any books I could find, they helped but it still boiled down to trial and error.
Another element that differentiates Western Silversmithing is bright cut engraving. At that point in time no one taught this, there were no courses or schools, you literally had to find someone in the trade and ask them to teach you, in the late 70s -early 80s shop doors were closed!
I found at least one book on lettering engraving but couldn’t find any on bright cut engraving. The supply house I dealt with found a catalog from which I ordered various gravers and handles. I searched for photos in magazines and catalogs, studied them, spending hours upon hours trying to mimic the items, it was incredibly frustrating.
What I considered a huge break came when I met Saddlemaker Chuck Stormes. I think he could see the desperation and desire in me, so taking pity he introduced me a great Jeweler, Silversmith and man by the name of Jim Hanna. I owe both Chuck and Jim a lot because I relentlessly peppered them with questions – it was like someone opened a door.
In the early 80′s Chuck introduced me to Cliff Ketchum who agreed to let me come to his shop to learn basic engraving. He charged $100.00 per day plus I had to buy three meals a day for both of us. We had no money but we scraped it together, Les and I both felt it was a great deal! Three years later with hundreds of hours of practice and direction from Cliff, Jim and Chuck, Chuck introduced and recommended me to the great engraver Mark Drain. That was 1985, Mark agreed to let me come to his shop for three days at $150.00 per day, I still to this day think it was the best money I ever spent. One year later I went back to Mark for another three days so in total my formal engraving training was five days with Cliff Ketchum and six days with Mark Drain.
Not long after I was at Mark’s the second time, I met Al Pecetti at an Art show in Arizona. Al was the greatest Western Silversmith of his generation in my opinion I was incredibly honoured when he invited me to come spend time in his shop. In the end I spent a total of two weeks in his shop working on fabrication and filigree.
As far as the Silversmithing, my so called formal education consisted of one hundred and twenty hours of night courses along with the 2 weeks spent in Al Pecetti shop. At that point in time for me the only other alternative to learn Silver/Goldsmithing was a four year full time course ,which was out of the question. First reason finances, second the course mainly dealt with jewelery.
I do have to add though there always were a lot of books on Silversmithing which really help but as I said earlier nothing on bright cut western engraving.
That is the why and how answered, now the advice how a beginner can start.
A lot of the above story is why the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association was formed. We saw the level of craftsmanship falling with less and less young people coming into the disciplines because of the close door policies of most craftspeople. For any trade, craft or art to flourish and grow ,experience ,knowledge and information has to be abundant! Every member of the TCAA teaches, some mentor one on one, some teach group workshops, most do both. Instead of having to find a way for someone to introduce you to a craftsperson who may or may not let you come to their shop you simply enrol in their work shop. The TCAA offers beginner, intermediate and advanced workshops at different times in all four disciplines – Western Silversmithing, Bit & Spurmaking, Saddlemaking, and Rawhide Braiding. Along with that many other craftspeople who have opened their doors to teach.
Most major centres have art collages that also offer night and weekend courses, there are private schools that offer extensive five and six week courses to do with precious metals, engraving, etc. The internet and self publishings have created another new avenue for knowledge that is fantastic and available to anyone world wide. All this new found excessible knowledge is changing the world of Western Craftsmanship.
Of course the access to knowledge is great and welcomed but with all this somethings never change, in my mind the journey has steps, Beginner- Craftsperson- Master Craftsperson- Artist. The easiest step is the first, the hardest is the last.
Even with all the help available today you need the three “D’s” to succeed – DESIRE- DEDICATION and DISCIPLINE.
Fourteen years ago I took a leap of faith and began my own bit and spur business. The word on the street was there were far easier ways to make a living and I had no idea whether I would be able to exclusively support a family this way or not! Thankfully I have, and my wife is able to stay at home with our two little girls and help run the office end of the business. But, this has not come without its challenges and over the years I’ve worked through some important lessons that I would like to share with you.
I was accepted into the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, TCAA, in 2004, and it became of the utmost importance to manage a successful business. A good portion of my year is spent producing for our TCAA show with no guarantee of a sell! Also, the interest in my work started to increase which led to the waiting list in my order book to be further out. It was at this time the differences between a bit and spur maker and a silversmith were brought to my attention.
I was very insecure breaking out on my own, so to help with the fear I accepted silversmithing jobs like trophy buckles, ranger buckle sets, saddle silver, conchos, etc. All good silversmithing projects, but all a very different process than forging a mouthpiece or filing the inside of a bit shank. Everything from the design to the execution of the project was totally different from my thoughts as a bit and spur maker. The only thing in common was the engraving, which for me was a way to cover up my lack of experience as a fabricator with silver. The properties of silver are different than steel and I was certainly in a tailspin trying to execute the construction to the same quality as my bits and spurs. I was spinning around the shop getting dizzy wasting time to become the best bit and spur maker I could be. For every day I spent silversmithing, I wasted a day bettering my skills with the bits and spurs.
My order book had a 4 1/2 year back log at one time. So as I took more silversmithing orders, I was causing a dissatisfied following and a confused market as well. Not only did people have to wait excessively long, but some considered me a bit and spur maker while others saw me as a silversmith. As a TCAA member I was exposed to real silversmiths that educated me on the difference of the two trades. People don’t differentiate between the two. They only see my skills as a designer and engraver and think of a project that they would enjoy and ask me to create it for them. You can’t blame someone for that. It is my job to explain the difference and the reasons for having to choose.
There was plenty of work to keep me busy even if my orders were cut in half. I made the choice to focus my attention on my bits and spurs. As easy as that sounds, it wasn’t. The very first order I turned down was an $8,000 buckle set for a large collector. My wife thought I had lost my mind! The bank account wasn’t exactly busting at the seams and passing on an opportunity like this appeared to be a mistake. This could be one of the smartest decisions I have made.
As I moved through the order book and came to the silversmithing orders, my customers were given the option of a steel buckle decorated with silver and gold. This process matched my bits and spurs and since I chose to work only with steel architecture I couldn’t ask a silversmith to create a steel buckle for those that wanted steel. Buckles aren’t my favorite thing to make but at times it’s a nice change. Some were indifferent to the base material and some wanted a nice sterling buckle. For those that wanted silver I directed them to silversmiths. People that focused their time on silversmithing just like I have with the bits and spurs.
By turning down the silversmithing projects, my back log went from 4 1/2 years to 2 1/2 years. I have been able to concentrate on my skills as a bit and spur maker. I wasn’t giving my profession the respect it deserved and I was disrespecting the silversmithing industry. Silversmithing isn’t only about quality engraving, it is just one of the few similarities between the two trades. Therefore, neither industry was benefitting from my efforts. A good example of focus is Apple, Inc. They decided to make a phone. The key is one phone, not many different phones. Sure, Apple has the resources to fill many different markets with multiple phones, but they chose to focus on building the best phone they could. I would have to say that their efforts have been successful to this point.
Choosing to focus has allowed me to do a better job of promoting the bits and spurs as well. I have a close friend that told me, “You are only as good as the last job you did.” People talk about the last thing I made. My bits and spurs are what I want them talking about.
As I try and create a market for high end bits and spurs, I don’t need people confused. They need to see my focus and commitment. It has been tough selling the super high end bit or pair of spurs for several reasons. I believe one is simply the“““““`he lack of visual impact they have compared to a saddle. Take a saddle and bit that are comparably priced, the saddle tends to sell before a bit because the size of a saddle is much more impressive. The amount of skill, education, commitment, etc. are no different between the two craftsman. Education is part of the solution. Awareness and appreciation for bits and spurs has to grow. If I am spending half my time doing something else I don’t believe this will change. You don’t find many saddle makers building boots too. It’s all leather, but very different just like it is in my situation.
I’m not here to tell other bit and spur makers that they can’t occasionally enjoy creating a sterling buckle. What I am saying is I believe in order to truly become good at something one must focus their attention. Treat the trade as a profession. By choosing to be a professional bit and spur maker, hopefully I can help the trade reach new levels of appreciation and excellence.
In this these photos below rawhide braider Pablo Lozano shares with us the project he is crafting for the 2013 Cowboy Crossings show. Skill and mastery aside, we hope you can see there is a lot of time and patience that goes into his craft to get the desired results.
The bit can be an intimidating piece of equipment to understand. However, if you break down the five structure points of a bit and examine how they affect the four pressure points of a horse’s mouth, bit function becomes something easier to comprehend.
A bit applies pressure to a horse’s palate, tongue, bars and curb. A bit’s design affects how it applies pressure to these four points. When a horseman understands the individual physical characteristics of a horse and the goal of riding, the better that rider can communicate though the bit to meet his needs. The more comfortable the horse is with the rider’s communication, the better the horse and rider will get along.
By applying pressure to one or more of these four pressure points, the horse will react in certain ways. The challenge: the way in which a signal is applied will be unique to each rider, and the reaction to that signal will be unique to each horse. This is why there has never been a menu or checklist created for bitting a horse. However, if you understand those four pressure points, and how you affect these points by changing the structure of the bit, you can come as close a possible to creating your own menu. And it will be your menu, because each of us is unique, including the way in which each of us handles a horse.
A Bit’s 5 Structure Points
Starting at the top, the distance from the bit’s top ring to the butt of the mouthpiece is referred to as the purchase. This distance affects the placement of the curb strap on the horse’s chin. As the purchase length is increased, multiple things happen. First, as the curb moves up the horses jaw, the jaw becomes less sensitive and the ability to control the face (vertical) position of the horse’s head increases. Second, as the distance increases, the speed at which the bit produces a signal (reaction time) decreases. This gives the rider the ability to move his hand more without creating signals to the horse. This can be positive or negative depending on the task at hand.
The next point to discuss is the shank length, which is the distance from the butt of the mouthpiece to the bottom of the shank. This measurement is taken along an imaginary vertical line that carries straight down from the center at the top of the bridle ring through the butt of the mouthpiece; if the shank swoops back, the angle is not measured, simply the vertical distance. Shank length affects a rider’s leverage. As the distance increases in relation to the purchase length, the leverage and speed of the bit is increased. A bit ratio of 2:1, for example, means the shank length is twice as long as the purchase. Most spade bits are around this ratio because of the speed of the bit.; it creates a maximum amount of signal with a minimum amount of hand movement, which is the purpose of the spade.
Shank design and point of pull are the next two structure points. Shank design is the path the shank takes to get from the butt of the mouthpiece to the bottom ring. Point of pull is defined as the distance from the vertical center line to the back of the bottom ring, where the reins are attached. If the shank travels straight to the point of pull with minimal amounts of material, less weight is created in the bit, which affects the signal of the bit. As weight is added to the bit, it becomes easier for the horse to feel the movement in his mouth.
Shank design can also affect the leverage of the bit by changing the point of pull. If a shank’s design puts the point of pull straight down from the mouthpiece on the vertical line, leverage is at a maximum. An example of this is the Las Cruces shank. The Santa Barbara is an example of how a bit can maximize leverage and signal. A lot of material is needed to create the design, which adds more weight and increases the signal.
The next and final point to discuss is the placement, angle and height of the mouthpiece. As the mouthpiece is moved further in front of the vertical line, the bit’s speed is slowed. Height can be added to the port of the mouthpiece to affect palate pressure. A spade, for example, applies palate pressure where a straight bar with no post does not.
The angle of the mouthpiece affects two things:
First, a mouthpiece angled forward takes pressure off the tongue — pressure applied by the port as it sits in a neutral state with no rein pressure — and applies it closer to the palate. If the mouthpiece is capable of applying palate pressure, the closer the mouthpiece is to the palate and the quicker the palate pressure will be applied as the reins are pulled.
Second, the mouthpiece angle affects the balance of the bit. Again, with the vertical line in mind, as the mouthpiece angle is moved behind this line, the balance of the bit becomes flatter — the bit becomes overbalanced. As the mouthpiece is kept vertical and the shank design has little to no weight behind the vertical line, the shank is underbalanced, hanging vertically. This produces a bit that continues to apply pressure if the horse doesn’t pack his head in a vertical position.
One last element to consider is the difference between a loose-jawed bit and a solid-jawed bit. This is how the shanks attach to the mouthpiece. A loose-jawed bit has shanks that swivel independently of the mouthpiece. This accomplishes several things:
First, signal is increased because there are more moving parts to cue the horse that a command is being asked as the rider pulls on the reins. The shanks move, signaling to the horse through lateral movements without necessarily engaging the mouthpiece.
A loose-jawed bit also makes it easier for the horse to differentiate between signals given from one side versus the other. Since the shanks move independently of one another, a rider can cue using single rein pulls to help a horse with lateral signals and movement. This can be a great advantage in young horses that are not yet neck-reining.
A solid-jawed bit moves in its entirety as one or both reins are pulled, requiring the horse to know what the rider is asking based on other signals being given simultaneously. However, with the bit being solid, there isn’t much movement, which might keep your horse quieter in the mouth, given that there’s little signal being inadvertently produced by the horse’s own physical action.
Equipped with knowledge of the four pressure points, a bit’s structure, and how these elements work together, you can now take your favorite bit and break down how it affects your horse and why the horse gets along with that bit (or why he might not).
The Santa Barbara shank for example, offers a straight shank, more leverage, with weight behind the vertical line, adding overbalance, which helps the bit rest in a more comfortable position for the horse to carry during a day’s work. Each Santa Barbara is unique, though, so the rider must check the balance and leverage of the bit. A 2:1 ratio, for example, gives a rider leverage and signal speed.
The amount of weight behind the shank’s vertical line, and the angle of the mouthpiece, will determine your bit’s balance. Comparing the bit’s balance to the natural carriage angle of your horse’s head could determine if you two are on speaking terms at the end of a long day.
This analysis can be done with each shank design and each mouthpiece. The better you understand yourself, your horse, and how a bit reacts, the better you will be able to accomplish your riding goals.
About forty years ago I started hearing stories about Ray Hunt and his clinics. Usually, the account came from a wide-eyed cowboy who had witnessed twenty or thirty “colts” turned loose in a pen, saddled and ridden but with nothing on their heads. Those riders and spectators were getting their first inkling of Ray’s principles, which spawned the “natural horsemanship” movement that is now familiar to so many.
At about the same time, I started to receive more requests for Wade trees among my custom saddle orders. By the mid-eighties it was one of the more popular trees among my usual run of orders that included 3Bs, Taylors, Louellens and Modified Associations. By the nineties, the Wade was the most requested tree, not just in my shop but with nearly every saddlemaker I spoke to.
The long-established regionality of tree styles was disappearing. Generalities such as “Texas cowboys ride swell forks” were giving way to Wades showing up in West Texas and dyed-in-the-wool Arizonans decked out like Great Basin buckaroos. Of course by that time it wasn’t just Ray Hunt. There were literally dozens of clinicians travelling the country, trying to help horses get along with their people.
Most of the clinicians, like Ray, had come from a ranch background. Most of them also rode Wade saddles.
The Wade tree was developed, beginning in 1937, by Walt Youngman, renowned treemaker at the famous Hamley saddlery in Pendleton, Oregon. Ordered by J.C.”Cliff” Wade of Enterprise, Oregon, it was a 14 1/2″ tree which the order form described as “made after old tree sent in as pattern.”
In their catalogs of the period, the Hamley Wade was accompanied by the statement “The bars on this tree have been fashioned from an old saddle brought across the plains by a customer’s father….”
The most notable features of that first tree called a “Wade” after the customer who ordered it, were a five-inch diameter horn with a rounded, or domed, cap and the fork and horn made entirely of wood.
Of even greater importance was the large front bar pad, caused by the greater depth of the bar (six and one-quarter inches) and the five-inch stock thickness of the fork. This combination nearly doubled the surface area that contacted the “pocket” of the withers when compared to most trees of the nineteen-thirties which typically had bars five and one-half to six inches wide and forks three to four inches thick.
Combined with a scooped-out gullet made possible by the all wood construction and extreme fork thickness, it allowed the base of the horn to sit much closer to the horse’s back. The increased leverage afforded the horse when working a rope and holding heavy stock made the Wade tree a favorite of stockmen throughout Hamley’s wide-ranging territory.
With popularity comes imitation, followed by misinterpretation and misinformation. Soon there were so-called “Wade” trees on the market with a fork thickness of three to four inches, a cast bronze horn, a gullet an inch higher than the original and bars five and one-half inches wide, all of which completely negated the design advantages of the true Wade tree. Uninformed or unscrupulous saddleries, eager to ride the Wade “fad,” used these low-cost imitation trees and a sales pitch that promised the best fit for your horse, a narrower seat and a closer “feel” than could be had in any other tree.
None of this was true, even if they had a real Wade tree to work with.
A skilled saddlemaker can construct exactly the same ground seat in a swell-fork tree such as an Association. The close feel is a product of the rigging and stirrup leathers, not the tree, and the fit depends on the specifications of the bars (angle, width, spread, rock, flare) not the dimensions or style of the fork.
This brings us to the crux of this article, which may not be politically correct for readers of Eclectic Horseman.
In my opinion, a great many of those who own and ride Wade saddles do so because of the influence of their favorite clinician and not because it’s the best saddle for the riding they do. If they happen to be a pleasure rider who makes no great demands on the saddle, it probably doesn’t matter. If the main use of their Wade is to have a convenient place to rest their beer can while they sit in it to watch “True Grit,” it really doesn’t matter.
But if they need their saddle to help them in a cutting, a stock horse event or schooling a young horse, a Wade may not be their best choice. In fact, there may be several trees that would answer their requirements much better. I would not hesitate to recommend a Wade to a cowboy customer who has to routinely rope and doctor in the open and ride a big circle daily.
But, I would also not hesitate to recommend an Association tree to a rough-string rider in Seligman, Arizona, a Louellen to a student of horsemanship schooling young thoroughbreds in Lexington, Kentucky, or a Toots Mansfield to a competitive roper in Midland, Texas.
Just as dressage, jumping and polo have, by their specific requirements, led to specialized English saddle constructions, schooling, roping, cutting and trail riding have needs that can be addressed by skilled saddle- and treemakers, using solutions specific to their events.
The Wade is one of the well-designed trees that fills a specific and important need. But it is not a universal saddle that fulfills the needs of all western riders.
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