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