Tools of the Trade

The making of handcrafted gear has flourished over the past two decades, with makers experimenting with new materials, techniques, and designs and adding their personal stamp to a long legacy of traditional artistry. We hope you enjoy meeting some of the makers, seeing their work, and learning a bit about the skills, ingenuity, and perseverance that goes into making a “good hand.”

The Creak of Leather
Saddles, saddlemaking, and leatherwork


Cowboy Chrome
Bits and spurs, metal and silverwork

Braided, Twisted and Tied
Rawhide reins, reatas, quirts, hackamores, and horsehair gear

We invite you to enter into the Western Folklife Center’s tack room to view our growing collection of handmade saddles, bits and spurs, and other horse gear. These objects are both essential tools of the cowboy trade and works of art, carefully created by craftsmen and women in homes and on ranches around the American West.

The Journey; the process. Getting there, not being there, distinguishes great artists and craftspeople from ordinary. Imagination and desire to take what is common and available and turn it into something uncommon, functional, and beautiful characterize the people who do art and build crafts. What you will see is more than just beautifully hitched horsehair headstalls, or superbly built rawhide reatas, or intricately twisted horsehair mecates. What you also see are ephemeral moments, passing manifestations in each artist’s lifelong pursuit of learning and perfecting his or her specific art form. The artists represented are much too humble to call themselves “experts;” none have reached the end of their journey of learning.

— Blanton Owen, curator, Braided, Twisted & Tied exhibit 1998 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Although they were raised different
Of friends they were the best,
So of each others tack and ways
They often could make jest.

Hot debates were often floored
Of grazin’ bits and spades,
Centerfire or double rig,
Leather straps or braids.

Each piece stands the test of time -
Each serves a certain need.
Each is worth its weight in gold,
They’ve finally agreed.

— From Larry McWhorter’s “Cowboy Count Your Blessin’” in Coolin’ Down

About the Western Folklife Center Contemporary Gear Fund and Collection

The items shown in this exhibition are from the Western Folklife Center Contemporary Gear Collection. In 1992, artist William Matthews approached us about establishing a fund to purchase contemporary crafted horse gear. With Matthews’ support and leadership, the Western Folklife Center established our Contemporary Gear Fund as a means of building a collection of contemporary handcrafted gear representative of the region and its respected makers. It has grown incrementally over the years through the generous donations of gear and funds, and though modest in size, is iconic of the quality and range of work being created today. The collection is housed at the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada, with elements available to travel to other sites. An ad hoc committee oversees the fund. If you would like to contribute, please contact Meg Glaser at 775-738-7508 or at