Only In America
Their traditional tack has inspired a movement to recognize the men and women serving in the armed forces.
It’s hard to find tack and ranch equipment that’s still made entirely in America. I bought a John Deere tractor precisely because I wanted to buy American, but was disappointed to find out the frame is made in China and the engine in Japan.
Today, many classic symbols of the American West have been outsourced to countries that don’t even have a word in their language for “cowboy.” It’s likely you ride in boots that were made in China, jeans that were made in Costa Rica, a shirt that was made in Taiwan and a hat that was made in the Dominican Republic.
You might even step up into a saddle that was made in Mexico and communicate with your horse using a Chinese-made bit that probably contains unacceptably high levels of lead.
Your horse may be the only part of your outfit that’s American-made.
Yet, as the horse world rockets into 21st century cyberspace and global marketing, and as hard drives and gigabytes replace cattle drives and horse bites, custom craftsmanship is making a surprising comeback, with many goods being made in the United States.
Horsewright Clothing and Tack Company is one such company, priding itself in producing American-made cowboy gear “designed from the saddle, for the saddle.” If you call to place an order, either Dave or Nichole Ferry, the owners, may well answer the phone from horseback as they move cattle around their 1,900-acre lease in California’s Tehachapi Mountains. After they take the order, they’ll make whatever you requested by hand, one item at a time, in their home, which doubles as their shop.
Both Dave and Nichole have spent countless hours in the saddle and worked on the ground at various California ranches. Each of them can ride with any cowboy, or throw a backhand or a houlihan as well as any buckaroo. They are, quite simply, the real deal.
THE FERRYS AREN’T YOUR TYPICAL COWBOY AND COWGIRL. Nichole was born in Long Beach, California, where surf boards and sailboats rule. However, her mother loved horses, and Nichole spent her free time hanging around the local rental stable.
Dave is the only cowboy you’ll ever meet who played rugby for a school in Scotland and was undefeated in five years of fencing with three different kinds of swords (foil, épée and saber). The son of a Presbyterian minister, he was raised in both California and Scotland.
California inspired Dave’s love of horses. A neighbor in the coastal town of Santa Maria had mustangs, and, as a child, Dave and a friend used to amuse themselves by racing jackrabbits horseback through the hills. After college, Dave “drifted” into law enforcement, but throughout his career he couldn’t keep horses out of his life. A friend needed help starting colts, and after a rough, yet educational, apprenticeship, Dave discovered the gentle training techniques of Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt.
Starting horses took up more and more of Dave’s time, until he began conducting his own series of clinics in California. Soaring liability expenses, however, drove him to seek a new occupation.
Dave met Nichole through a mutual friend who referred him to help Nichole with a troubled mustang. The couple were instantly connected and soon married under an oak tree growing in the garden of the home that doubles as their shop and, from time to time, as a rehabilitation clinic for sick cows. Nichole is currently bottle feeding and raising a leppy bull calf named George for their fledging breeding operation.
The troubled mustang that brought the couple together, now elderly and arthritic, also lives in their backyard in happy retirement.
PRIOR TO HIS DEPARTURE from the clinic scene, Dave attended a California cowboy gathering. He’d brought with him a bolt of the Ferry-family tartan to show a friend, who was a gifted seamstress. Noticing how many of the cowboys at the gathering had Scottish names, the seamstress commented, “I beti if we made a vest out of that [fabric], you could sell it.” This was the start of Horsewright Clothing and Tack Company.
The name is appropriate. “Wright”’ is an old English word for a master craftsman—think of wheelwright, shipwright or cartwright. Dave and Nichole are very knowledgeable and passionate about 19th century vaquero-horsemanship traditions. Everything the couple makes reflects that, both in design and in craftsmanship.
“We try to make everything the old-fashioned way, but with an eye to safety,” Dave says. “Anything that might conceivably get hung up, I design to break away. I made a pair of chinks for a lady, and she called me not too long ago to tell me she was riding down a wash when her horse started bucking. She landed on the horn. She was on one side of it and the chink’s belt was on the other side. It broke away, just like it was intended to, and she landed in the sand, while the horse kept on bucking down the wash.”
The couple started their business making leather products, knives, vests and wild rags. Dave had been making a variety of leather goods and knives for friends for a long time, so ramping up to do it professionally was an easy step. When the war in Iraq started, the Ferrys felt an outpouring of patriotism due to a sequence of events that could only happen in America.
The couple began getting orders for knives and various leather items from cowboys on active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. As a gesture of gratitude to the soldiers, they included a free wild rag with every order. Their handcrafted wild rags are made out of a rare sand-washed silk. Due to fire danger, silk is one of the few materials the military will allow soldiers to wear. It’s also one of the best materials for protecting the soldiers’ lungs from the region’s prevalent sand and dust. Soon, they started getting orders just for the wild rags.
Enter Steve Smith, a retired naval officer and cowboy living in Tehachapi. He heard about the success of the wild rags with the soldiers and told Dave and Nichole he’d pay for any wild rag ordered by a soldier on active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.
About the same time, a former military officer ordered a pair of spur straps with conchas made out of challenge coins. Challenge coins, a holdover from the covert operations of the Cold War, are an identifying coin carried by soldiers past and present to show the branch of the military in which they served.
Next, a cowboy from Montana named J.D. Vukonich happened to see a pair of challenge-coin spur straps on the Horsewright Web site and liked the idea of honoring the troops. So, he called Dave and Nichole and offered to pay for the next pair ordered by any soldier. The next pair was ordered as a present for a Marine major by his wife. Told the spur straps were already paid for, she promptly volunteered to pay for the next set. About once a month, Dave and Nichole get another order for the challenge-coin spur straps, and each time, the chain of paying it forward continues.
IN ADDITION TO EVERY KIND OF TACK, Horsewright offers unique, handcrafted leggin’s called “charmitas.”
All cowboys are familiar with shotgun chaps. They offer great leg protection, but they can make mounting a horse difficult, and in hot weather they’re about as much fun to wear as plastic wrap. Chinks offer almost as much protection as shotguns, but they, too, are often made out of heavy leather, reducing their comfort. Armitas, which is Spanish for “little armor,” were the Californio vaqueros’ solution.
Made out of lightweight leather, usually deer or elk hide, armitas were more comfortable and less constricting than chaps or chinks. Their drawback was that they were made without any buckles, because the vaqueros had little access to hardware. Instead, they were stitched to fit, and the horseman had to step in or out and hope his size didn’t fluctuate too much.
To combat these problems, Dave came up with the idea of “charmitas,” combining the looks, flexibility and comfort of armitas with the safety, ease and durability of chinks. They’re made out of lighter leather than that used for chinks or chaps, but the legs fasten with straps and buckles, just like chinks, and the belt can be made either with a buckle or with the traditional wrap-and-tie strap.
If you spend long days in the saddle, chaps or chinks will serve you well, and Horsewright Clothing and Tack makes beautiful versions of these, also. But if you’re like most cowboys, you spend your share of time mounting and dismounting your horse to do ground work, or get on several horses a day. Charmitas will make your life much more pleasant.
TODAY, HORSEWRIGHT CLOTHING AND TACK COMPANY is still very much a collaborative family business. Dave makes the knives and the leather goods, while Nichole sews the wild rags and does much of the leather tooling. The couple’s 16-year-old sons, Logan and Josh, and 11-year-old daughter, Alyssa, also help in the family business. Logan helps grind knife blades, and Josh is the company Web master and helps with shipping and catalog production. Alyssa aids in packing and shipping merchandise, helps make wild rags and does some tooling. She has also started producing her own leather goods, and recently traded a pair of cowboy cuffs for a bit made by Mike “Tapadero” Vatalaro.
There’s nothing Horsewright Clothing and Tack makes that you can’t buy imported from some other country. However, the difference lies not in the price, as you might expect, but rather in the Horsewright products’ quality, which comes from being made by an American, family-owned business.
Jameson Parker is a California-based writer and the author of the memoir An Accidental Cowboy. For more information on Horsewright Clothing and Tack Company, visit horsewrightclothing.com. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.