A one-of-a-kind mentoring program helps ensure the future of the gearmaking arts.
It's never been easy to earn a living as a maker of custom working tack. Young artisans invest years studying their crafts, pursuing every available educational opportunity, from apprenticeships to the reverse engineering of finished gear. Once they enter the business, these craftsmen face the harsh realities of professions defined by painstaking work, impatient customers, and often razor-thin profit margins.
A decade ago, a group of the West's leading cowboy gearmakers recognized a threefold crisis: a shortage of newcomers entering their trades, an aging master class, and fewer opportunities for apprentices to find willing, qualified mentors.
In response, these saddlemakers, bit and spur makers, rawhide braiders and silversmiths joined together to form the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, with the idea of creating accessible educational programs for student craftsmen, and preserving time-honored methods of constructing handmade tack.
Each of TCAA's 19 active members offers one-on-one instruction in his respective trade; to date, members have mentored 137 students, ranging from novices to professionals with decades of experience. In addition, the group hosts two annual gearmaking workshops at Oklahoma City's National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, and a TCAA scholarship program, created to help students cover travel costs, has paid out more than $31,000.
Here, five protégés share how their experiences studying under TCAA mentors have helped them overcome creative blocks, advance their techniques and find new inspiration.
Mentor: Steve Mecum
Had it not been for a saddlemaker who had fallen behind in completing his orders, Keith Valley might not have entered the profession himself. In the late 1980s, while living in Alabama, Keith put down a deposit on a custom saddle, and then learned the maker already had a long backlog of incomplete work.
Keith could've settled in for an indeterminate wait. Instead, he struck a deal. The maker provided him the materials for the saddle, and Keith tackled its construction. When he finished work on his own saddle, Keith began helping out in the saddle shop, and eventually launched his own career as a saddlemaker, learning his craft largely through trial and error.
"There wasn't any information out there on building saddles," he says. "I'd heard of other saddlemakers starting out and going into shops to ask questions, only to have the older, veteran makers hide their work. It was a secretive thing, and older craftsmen protected their knowledge to the point that questions weren't welcome."
Keith and his wife moved to Billings with the belief that living among Big Sky saddlemakers would help him advance as an artisan. Two years after his arrival in Montana, he scored a three-month stint studying under Billings-based Chas Weldon, and engineered a meeting with TCAA saddlemaker Steve Mecum.
"I'd heard Steve was pretty easygoing," Keith says, "so I just drove to his house in Wyoming, introduced myself, and told him I wanted to talk to him about saddles."
Keith applied for and earned a TCAA scholarship to study with Steve, who helped Keith develop his skills with tooling and design layout, and began offering critiques of works in progress. The two continue that student-teacher relationship today.
"It's really a trickle-down effect," Keith says. "When I visit with Steve, he shares what he knows, but he'll also relate what he learned from [Idaho saddlemaker] Dale Harwood. I'm producing better and better saddles, and the consumer certainly gets a better deal."
Bit and Spur Maker
Mentor: Bill Heisman
A horse breeder, 4-H leader, self-described "farmer's wife," and mother of three, Kate Rosenburg inherited a passion for rare, vintage and otherwise collectible cowboy tack from her father, Pat Crowley, a founding member of the National Bit, Spur & Saddle Collectors Association.
Kate buys and restores antique bits and spurs, and while she occasionally resells pieces, most find permanent homes in her collection. Inspired by the deep-relief work in a pair of steel spurs made by TCAA member Ernie Marsh, Kate decided to try her hand at making her own gear. She began by studying steel engraving, then enrolled in an inlaying workshop with bit and spur maker Bill Heisman. Minnesota's fall harvest prevented Kate from attending the follow-up session, so Bill invited her to study at his Arizona shop.
"Before I traveled to Arizona, I sent Bill some projects I'd been working on," Kate says. "They included a pair of shop-made spurs I'd bought for next to nothing. I'd done some silver inlay on them and worked on the rowels. Bill essentially said, 'Stop that. Make your own.'"
During her session in Arizona, Kate began with the basics of the craft: handling a jeweler's saw, selecting the right blades, cutting metal at the correct angle, and building jigs—pieces of equipment that hold bits or spurs in place as they're being fashioned.
Bill helped his student troubleshoot the pieces she'd already begun, assisted her with a heel band's tricky relief pattern of interlocking diamonds, and walked her through the steps of making a California-style inlaid spur, from start to finish.
From her home on the Northern Plains, Kate still e-mails technical questions to Bill, and occasionally ships a bit or spur to Arizona for a critique.
"I don't know when the public will see my work," Kate says. "I want to make one prototype of a piece I like, and sell the second or third versions. The prototype will always stay with me, though. I'm still enough of a collector to say, 'Hands off. That one's mine.'"
Mentor: Chuck Stormes
A fellow saddlemaker once shared with John Willemsma this piece of wisdom: If you stop learning, you might as well put away your tools.
John completed the saddlemaking program at a Texas trade school in 1976, and has made his living as a saddlemaker ever since. During his 32-year career, he's spent countless hours in other makers' shops, studying their methods and finished work in a continual effort to improve his own.
In 2003, TCAA awarded John a scholarship that enabled him to study saddle construction with Dale Harwood. Three years later, John earned a second scholarship, which he used to travel to Chuck Stormes' Alberta shop, where he worked on improving his handsewing techniques.
"The first scholarship experience, when I went to Dale's, was like going to a horsemanship clinic," John says. "You absorb so much, and that's when you see the biggest changes in your work. The next time, when I went to Chuck's, the changes were subtle, but made just as big a difference."
John, who's at work developing his own signature approach to leather stamping, continues to seek Chuck's insight on carving techniques and saddle aesthetics. The working relationship between the two craftsmen thrives, John says, because they've built a student-mentor rapport based on honesty—an unvarnished, uncompromised brand of truth that helps a student become increasingly candid with himself.
"The down side is that you can become incredibly critical of your own work," John says. "But if you want to be the best you can be, you have to think of your next piece as your best yet."
Pincher Creek, Alberta
Mentor: Scott Hardy
Twelve years ago, Kelly McRae made a reluctant career change. Her father, a veteran Quarter Horse trainer, began making bits and spurs, and experimenting with silversmithing. He encouraged Kelly to join him in his new pursuit.
Kelly had grown up around handmade tack, and had what she describes as a "fancy for silver." At that point in her life, though, she was a hairdresser, looking to buy her own salon; a mom, caring for two young boys; and a rancher, tending a hundred head of cattle while her husband worked a full-time job.
"I didn't want to take on anything else," she says. "But to humor my dad, I sat down and did a little engraving. I was hooked."
Kelly began making buckles, conchos, horn caps and jewelry, with coaching from her husband, an experienced metal worker. Customers came easily, and she sold finished pieces to buyers throughout Canada and Europe.
After a decade in the business, though, she began to feel burned out, and struggled with creative challenges. Each time she began a new project, she could clearly picture the final product, but couldn't always find a way to achieve it.
"Pieces of the puzzle were missing, and I didn't know what those pieces were," she says. "I was at a point where it wasn't easy to ask for help. People might've said, 'You still don't know what you're doing?'"
In December 2006, silversmith Scott Hardy, who lives just 90 minutes away from the McRaes' ranch, invited Kelly to study with him. Scott provided Kelly the "missing pieces" she'd sought—specifically, the logic behind layout and design.
"Scott had reasons behind his design decisions—reasons why a scroll started where it did, and went where it did," Kelly says. "That made it easier for me to comprehend a bigger picture. I work with much more confidence now. Even a concho is exciting again."
Mentor: Nate Wald
As the first person in his family born in Texas, Alan Bell grew up convinced he should become a cowboy. He finally learned to ride just after his 30th birthday, 19 years ago. The experience triggered in the history buff a fascination with the Spanish Barb, and with Spanish-influenced tack.
"Historically, the bosal played a big role in the Spanish Barb's training," he says. "Making my own bosal became the holy grail."
Alan studied the Bruce Grant books How to Make Cowboy Horse Gear and Encyclopedia of Rawhide and Leather Braiding. He began making hobbles and romal reins, which he sold to his fellow Texas horsemen. Still, the finer points of the bosal eluded him.
In his travels as a professional truck driver, Alan made frequent side trips to glean insight from some of the West's top braiders. Unfortunately, most of those sessions left him with more questions than answers.
"They'd show me how to improve one or two things, but then we'd run out of time," he says. "I did learn that I needed to stop buying rawhide and begin making my own, so I could have higher quality. That was daunting. Not only did I still not know how to make a bosal, now I had to learn to make rawhide."
In 2001, TCAA awarded Alan a scholarship to study with Montana rawhide braider Nate Wald. The two collaborated on Alan's first bosal, and in Nate, Alan found a teacher willing to impart the trade secrets of their craft.
Nate, a student of South American rawhide braiding, also shared with Alan the techniques behind little-known Argentine knots and patterns, information much sought after by veteran braiders north of the equator. For the time being at least, the two men are among only a handful of North Americans familiar with certain obscure South American braiding methods.
"Argentine braiders cut much finer strings for more intricate work," Alan says. "At some point, these techniques will become part of what all U.S. braiders do. Right now, I might not be the greatest braider in the country, but I'm in an elite group, learning about the Argentine influence in its infancy."
A.J. Mangum is the editor of Western Horseman. The Traditional Cowboy Arts Association's 10th annual show and sale opens at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City on September 27. Learn more about the group's educational programs at tcowboyarts.org. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.