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Feature Member: Kim Parkey
Rincon, New Mexico

 
 

Building bits enables Kim Parkey to combine his vocation in welding and metals fabrication – including previous work on defense contract projects – with his passion for horsemanship. “I ride a horse every day. I usually have one or two young ones and a finished one,” said Kim, a team roper. The journeyman welder and fabricator now manages the mechanical engineering student projects lab at New Mexico State University.

Parkey began building bits about 15 years ago when he needed a special one for a horse. He soon began making bits for others in his spare time. The functionality and craftsmanship of Kim’s bits have made them popular with ranchers, cowboys and team ropers who take pride in their gear. Before building a custom bit, Kim discusses with the customer the horse’s personality.
“I then try to build a tool for what both the rider and the horse need,” Kim said. He also continues to push his skills, in part because of the support of his wife, Karen, and their four grown children. About two years ago, Kim’s wife encouraged him to attend the Johny Weyerts School of Engraving in Alpine, Texas. Since the class Kim has taken the aesthetics of his bits to the next level.

“Living in New Mexico, my bits tend to be a mix of the Spanish tradition with both the old California and Texas styles,” Kim said.
Despite the more noticeable embellishments in his bits, Kim’s first priority remains crafting gear that function effectively. “I am always looking for something that is going to help a horse do better,” Kim said. “Sometimes when I am making a bit that is a little different, I put it on my horse first to see how it works.” The most gratifying compliment is when a customer says, “The bit did exactly what you said it would. It looks real good, but it sure enough works,” Kim said.

 
     
   
       
   
       
   
 

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Feature Member: Gannon Leifheit
Yuma, Colorado

 
 

Although Gannon Leifheit was raised on a ranch and has worked with horses all his life, he first decided to build gear after seeing a friend’s spurs collection. “I wanted some, so I thought, ‘I’ll just make them,’” Gannon said. Based on his experience welding and working with metal, he slowly crafted a simple pair in 2006 that now hangs on his shop wall as a reminder of how far his skills have come.

He has since built custom-ordered spurs for customers in Texas, New Mexico, Mississippi and other parts of the country. Some spurs are displayed in private collections, while others are in use by working cowboys and ropers. But, Gannon is quick to say that he has a lot to learn about the craft. “I consider myself still a beginner,” he said. Gannon spent time with gear builder Stewart Williamson of Portales, New Mexico, to further develop his skills. Gannon also credits the generous feedback of other builders in online forums with helping him learn new techniques. “There are a lot of guys I haven’t met but whom I feel I know because of their comments on the forums,” Gannon said.

He enjoys embellishing with silver, nickel and copper and working on the larger creative surfaces of Texas-style spurs. Gannon is now experimenting with an engraver to add richer details to his work. “I try to challenge myself with each pair. For example, I did scrolls on one pair, then on the next one I added flowers to the scrolls,” Gannon said. Through the years Gannon has worked as a ranch hand and horse trainer. He currently makes spurs on the side while working full-time as a lineman. Gannon and his wife, Beth, have two children, Bryce, 14, who competes in roping events, and Sarah, 11, who rides barrels. Both often request ornate spurs from their father. Gannon plans to one day build gear full-time. “I enjoy the time it takes to put together handmade spurs,” Gannon said.

 
       
   
       
   
       
   
       
   
 

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Feature Member: larry fuegen
prescott, arizona

 
 

Intricate detail and uniquely patterned steel using the Damascus forging process are the hallmarks of bits and spurs by veteran craftsman Larry Fuegen. His mastery of metal dates to 1975 when he first began forging knives. By 1987 bladesmithing had become a full-time vocation. Since then, Larry has garnered more than 20 prestigious awards for his craftsmanship. He also is the only contemporary knife maker with a piece in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Luce Foundation Center for American Art in Washington D.C.

Larry has learned many forms of gear building since growing up on a cattle ranch in South Dakota. He fashioned his first pair of hand-forged spurs in 1978 and focused on building bits and spurs in earnest in 2000 when he moved to Prescott.
Despite the popularity of his gear among discerning collectors, Larry remains true to his vision to be a truly hands-on builder. He personally does the forging, filing, carving, grinding and finishing involved in each piece. He even has designed and made some of his own tools to facilitate the building of one-of-a-kind gear. His forte also includes silver- and goldsmithing.
Much of the flair and detail in his bits and spurs reflect the stylishness of Spanish Colonial and early Mexican and Californian craftsmen. Like the multiple layers of steel Larry seamlessly forges into one remarkable piece, his designs are often a fusion of different influences.

“My inspirations come from many sources – nature, architecture, art movements and periods such as Art Nouveau and craftsmen whose works appear in museums, but whose names have been forgotten over hundreds of years,” Larry said.
Before beginning any commissioned bit or spur, Larry discusses with the customer the style and required functionality of the gear to ensure a finished product that exceeds expectations.

Helping Larry with the non-shop side of his business is his wife, Linda, of 36 years. They have two grown children, Brad, in North Carolina, and Stacy, in Los Angeles.

 
     
   
     
   
 

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Feature Member: Chad cunningham
admiral, texas

 
 

“I can do that” is the attitude that propels Chad Cunningham to try new techniques in fashioning metals into functional cowboy gear.
The result is a steady stream of customers who appreciate his Texas-style spurs, practical bits and buckles and Damascus-steel knives.The native Texan has ridden horses all his life. After working across the state, Cunningham settled a few years ago in Admiral, about 32 miles east of Abilene, to run a cattle operation with his wife, Kim, and two children, Jessica, 25, and Kyle, 20.
“I’ve always been fascinated by bits and how they work,” Cunningham said. “A good bit is one that is comfortable in a horse’s mouth and that encourages him to do what you want him to do.”

Several years ago Cunningham watched Robin Bland affix silver to spurs and tinkered with the process to build gear for himself and his family. He also learned a few techniques from James Jaggers of Putnam. Cunningham has been building professionally since 2005.

Inspiration has come from many sources, including famed makers Joe Bianchi (1871-1949) and John Robert McChesney (1866-1928). He also reads all he finds on the Damascus steel technique, which he uses to forge and pound two, three or four different metals together to craft a knife or spur with unique variegated patterns.

Cunningham enjoys making customer-designed mountings out of sterling silver, nickel silver, copper and brass. And, he likes experimenting, such as repurposing a rasp into gear that appears to have a diamond-cut metal pattern.
With each order, however, the ultimate goal is to build functional gear to a client’s specifications. His customers are usually team ropers and working cowboys, who often track Cunningham down after seeing his work on the back of a friend’s boot or in a horse’s mouth. “I consider myself a part-timer at this, but I usually spend 40 hours a week in the shop working on projects,” Cunningham said.

 
       
   
       
   
     
   
 

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Feature Member: richard brooks
cayley, albertA, CANADA

 
 

Richard Brooks is an accomplished maker in many areas of cowboy gear and wear, including bits, spurs, trophy buckles and other silver. But, the challenge of handcrafting customized bits that meet the needs of horse and rider is what most attracts the native Canadian to his craft. “Bits have a lot of different variables that contribute to how well – or poorly – they will work. I like the ‘engineering’ involved in making them work,” Richard said.

From his rural hamlet about 49 miles (79 km) south of Calgary, Richard has sent custom-ordered bits and some spurs to clients throughout western Canada and the western United States and as far as Yemen, Germany and Australia.
Richard first learned gear-building basics in the shop at his grandfather’s ranch/sawmill established in the early 1900s west of Calgary. He initially engraved and built jewelry at the kitchen table after working during the day at a farm supply/feed store.
“Earrings for mainly family gifts grew into buckles, which grew into bits and spurs,” Richard said.

He perfected his skill by attending two Traditional Cowboy Artists seminars and “talking shop” with other bit and spur makers, ranchers, trainers and saddle makers at ranch rodeos and other cowboy gatherings. For the last five years Richard has worked as a full-time silver smith. The process for building gear involves listening to the customer’s needs and making recommendations based on his extensive experience to ensure the equipment’s effectiveness.

Richard prides himself on making working gear with a California-influenced style. His favorite customer feedback after they have used his gear is "'it works perfectly,'" Richard said. “For me, function is an absolute must. Making them look good also is important, but they have to work.” Richard’s spare time is spent with his family – wife Brenda, an 18-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son – and tending to a small herd of beef cattle.

 
   
   
   
 

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Feature Member: Doug Cook
lenapah, oklahoma

 
 

Necessity inspired rancher Doug Cook to try his hand at making bits and spurs. “I had a horse that needed something different for a bit. I couldn’t afford a custom one so I got to tinkering and built what I needed,” Cook said. A need for spurs to fit his wife Lisa’s smaller boot prompted Cook to fashion a pair for her for a Christmas present. He perfected his technique through trial and error, expanded his tools to include engraving equipment and watched a friend build belt buckles to learn the basics of silver work.
As a result, since the mid-1990s Cook has been making custom bits and spurs for customers. His business has grown by word of mouth. Cook’s definition of good equipment is forthright.

“They need to fit your boot. They need to be built to last. They ought to look nice. And, most importantly, they need to please the customer. That’s the main thing,” Cook said. His knowledge of the form and function of good bits and spurs comes from personal experience. He has trained horses, studied animal science at Oklahoma State University and worked on a ranch for more than 20 years. Additional feedback comes from his 22-year-old son J.D., who competes in roping events.

“Most of my bits go to steer ropers, calf ropers and ranch cowboys. I also make quite a few spurs for barrel racers,” Cook said.
He also enjoys crafting trophy spurs, on which he can embellish the pieces with bright cut engraving and other overlays.
Spurs made by Cook have been displayed at the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo., and for the last three years at the Custom Spur Show & Live Auction benefiting Women’s Protective Services in Lubbock, Texas. Although his style tends to be in the Texas tradition, Cook is a resourceful maker who finds inspiration all around.

 
   
   
   
   
 

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Feature Member: George Blackwood
Farmersville, Texas

 
  One word best sums George Blackwood’s strength as a spur and bit maker: versatility. During the last 20 years, fans of the craftsman and his ever-evolving style have broadened from cowboys and rodeo competitors to art collectors. As the son of renowned spur builder and rodeo gear supplier Bob Blackwood (1943-1998), George first dabbled at the craft as a youngster. At 20 he began in earnest building spurs and other gear while competing in various rodeo circuits. George later supplemented his father’s tutelage by training with other artisans, including an apprenticeship with legendary spur maker Greg Darnall. The detailed craftsmanship of gun engravers also inspires George.

After his father’s death, George took over the Farmersville, Texas-based family business, which specializes in producing wholesale and private label bits, spurs and other products. In recent years, George branched into creating one-of-a-kind artistic but functional spurs, bits, saddle hardware, buckles and jewelry defined by intricate engravings and overlays of silver or other precious metals. He describes his style as a hybrid of both the California and Texas spur-making traditions.

George’s commissioned pieces include the “Running W” spurs for the King Ranch in Texas in 1999, trophy saddle hardware for the 2005 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo winners, conchos for the 2007 Houston Livestock Show trophy saddles and saddle hardware for the Timed Event Champion of the World at the Lazy E in Guthrie, Ok., from 2007 to 2009. Customers outside the rodeo world also appreciate George’s artistry and workmanship. He has made spurs for the 2004 Corporate Leader of Toyota, the Texas Motor Speedway Samsung 500 in 2005 and 2006 and the 2010 Custom Spur Show & Live Auction benefiting Women’s Protective Services in Lubbock, Texas.

George is in the process of moving his business to his nearby home. He enjoys spending his free time with his wife, Joanna, and four-year-old son, who is following in his father’s footsteps of hanging around the shop.
 
   
   
   
 

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