Building the Future

With these talented young gear makers, all under the age of 35, the future of traditional cowboy arts is in good hands.
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Building the Future

The next generation is picking up the reins of creating traditional cowboy arts. Associate editor Lauren Feldman spoke with four talented gear makers, all under the age of 35, about what it's like to be a young tradesman in a historic tradition. 

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RAWHIDE BRAIDER

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Name: Whit Olson
Age: 33
Location: Salem, S.D.
Website: WhitOlson.com

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How did you get started in rawhide braiding?
Out of necessity. I was rodeoing for South Dakota State and we were at a bucking horse sale when I saw a set of romel reins I liked. Well, I couldn’t afford them at the time so I figured I should learn how to build them. 

Who’s been your greatest influence? 
[Traditional Cowboy Arts Association rawhide braiders] Leland Hensley and Nate Wald. They really opened my eyes to a lot of things and benefited me in a huge way. 

What piece are you most proud of? 
About two years ago I made a 100-percent rawhide Catholic rosary. It was fully functional in every aspect. I got so fine with the braids that there was enough string in that one project to reach goalpost to goalpost on an NFL football field—all for something that fits in the palm of your hand. 

What projects are you currently working on?
I have a lot of projects! Right now I’m working on a quirt and a set of reins that are coming along nicely. 

Which is more important: function or beauty? 
Without function, beauty is irrelevant. Function is key. I’ve seen some absolutely beautiful pieces out there that fall apart if you actually use them. If it’s not functional, it doesn’t do you a bit of good. 

If I wasn’t a rawhide braider, I’d be a…
Pretty sad individual. For all craftsmen, there’s a discipline that just speaks to us—whether it’s a large canvas of leather or the fine engraving of silver. For me, all those tiny strings coming together and forming something unique just speaks to me.

What’s it like being a young craftsman in the world of traditional cowboy artists?
It’s always been a bit of a challenge. When most people picture a rawhider, they think of an old man. When they find out you’re young, they think you must not be a very good braider. I think that’s because back in the old days, there was such a long learning curve so no one would share their secrets. You got old before you got good. Nowadays, especially with the mission of the TCAA and guys like Nate Wald and Leland Hensley sharing their knowledge, what used to take me 10 years to learn now only takes me one. 

Do you remember the first piece you sold?
I was about 23 and sold a set of romel reins. That was a lot of fun. I think the guy who bought them was a lot more excited to own them than I was making them. He was thrilled!

If you could make a piece for anyone in the world, who would it be for? 
Behind every good craftsman is a good companion, and my wife has been very patient with me. It’s not easy to have rawhide soaking in your bathtub. When we were first married I promised I’d make her a set of romel reins for our fifth wedding anniversary. Well, we’ve been married eight years, so I’m really going to have to up my game!

What advice do you have for young people who want to get into the industry? 
Don’t be afraid of failure. It’s only rawhide. You can ruin rawhide all day long.


BIT AND SPUR MAKER

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JOsh Owenby Headshot


Name: Joshua Ownbey
Age: 33
Location: Canyon, Texas
Website: JOCustomOrders.com

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How did you get started in bit and spur making?
I grew up around it. My dad built bits and spurs in the ’80s and ’90s. My now-wife was finishing up school and we were about to get married, both of us were jobless and trying to figure out what we were going to do. I was in my dad’s shop looking at his machines, and figured I’d start building bits and spurs.

Who’s been your greatest influence?
My dad has been my biggest influence. And when I became a bit and spur maker, [master bit and spur craftsman] PeeWee Peebles—he’s one of my best friends—really got me going in one-piece spur making and provided me with a lot of insight into the trade.

What piece are you most proud of?
I built a spade bit for the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association (TCAA) Emerging Artist Contest two years ago. It was the first piece I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted with, and it was the first spade I ever built. I made a one-piece mouthpiece, forged all the bit’s components, and made my own rein chains. I also inlaid for the first time on that bit. It was a great learning experience.

Which is more important: function or beauty?
Function. It’s good to not get caught up on how pretty things are. Beauty is a big part of what we do, but the function and fundamentals are far more important.

Do you remember the first bit or spurs you ever sold?
It was a pair of spurs. I got my friend to ride a horse for me in exchange for making him a set of spurs. They were probably the worst pair I ever built! But they were sentimental to him and to me as well. It was a piece I’ll never forget. And my friend still wears them!

If you could make a piece for anybody, who would it be for?
Anyone who will put one of my bits or spurs to good use and cherish them and keep them for their grandkids to use one day.

When I’m not working, I’m…
Working with my dogs, riding some horses, or hanging out with my family. But there’s an awful lot of work that goes on around here.

If I wasn’t a bit and spur maker, I’d be a…
Rancher. I’d live in some wide-open place and be with God’s creations every day.

Why is it important to keep the knowledge and know-how of traditional cowboy arts alive?
Because it was a way of life for so long. I grew up 10 miles from where Adolph Bayers and Billy Klapper made their bits and spurs, so it’s a tradition that’s dear to my heart. Keeping these traditions alive and going keeps the cowboy way of life alive and going.

What advice do you have for young people who want to get into the industry?
Work as hard as you can and learn from as many people as you can.

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SILVERSMITH

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Name: Braidie Butters
Age: 29
Location: Dalhart, Texas
Website: BButtersSilver.com

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How did you get started in silversmithing? 
Upon looking for a new way to support myself, I started playing around in my dad’s [spur maker Randy Butters] shop and learned I liked engraving. I took my first class with Traditional Cowboy Arts Association members Mark Drain and Dave Alderson, and things just took off from there. 

Who’s been your greatest influence?
There are three: Dave Alderson, for taking me under his wing and really giving me my start; Mark Drain, for helping me refine my style; and my dad, who was responsible for getting me going! 

What piece are you most proud of?
My lock. The idea came from my friend who had made an iron padlock. I loved the feel of turning the key and feeling the bolt slide—it made a big impression on me. I thought it would be cool to do a lock in silver, which I had never seen done before. [Editor’s note: The lock (pictured here) won the 2015 TCAA Emerging Artist Contest in the silversmith category.]

What projects are you currently working on?
I just got back from a show, so I really need to get started! I’m working on a set of headstall silver. 

Which is more important: function or beauty?
It has to be a combination. I strive to create things that have functional mechanics, but are also pretty. 

When I’m not working, I’m…
Playing with my dogs!

If I wasn’t a silversmith, I’d be a…
Dog trainer or vet tech. 

What’s it like being a young craftsman in the world of traditional cowboy artists?
It can be difficult to make a name, cultivate a reputation, and market myself—especially when I want to do something new and bold and different. But at the same time, it’s really exciting to be able to work with experienced craftsmen who are so talented and willing to help. 

Why is it important to keep the knowledge and know-how of traditional cowboy arts alive?
There are fewer and fewer people who understand the mechanics and importance of gear that was used every day as a function of life. But there are still a lot of people who make their living with that gear, so it’s important to keep the traditions alive. I’d hate to see awareness of these trades and goods fade away. 

What advice do you have for young people who want to get into the industry?
Identify what you want to do and focus on that. It’s easy to get excited about learning everything, but it’s better to hone in on one area rather than ending up all over the place. So find your focus and find someone who will help you. There are so many resources out there—it’s very different than it was 50 years ago, when people didn’t want to give away their trade secrets. There are so many people willing to help, so don’t be afraid to ask for it. 

SADDLEMAKER

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Tyler Frecker Headshot

Name: Tyler Frecker
Age: 30
Location: Dillon, Mont.
Website: FreckersSaddlery.com

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How did you get started in saddlemaking? 
Through my father [saddlemaker Kent Frecker]. I learned most of what I know from him.

Who’s been your greatest influence? 
My dad, for sure. 

What’s the best part about your job? 
I enjoy working with my hands and creating things that can actually be used and appreciated. I create not just an art piece, but something that works. I like being able to combine the art side with the construction side. It’s not a high-paying job, but it’s fulfilling and I get to do what I love. 

What projects are you currently working on?
Right now I’m working on a saddle that’s a little different than what I’ve done before. It’s 3/4 tooling, so lots of tooling. And the tooling is all flower clusters. I’ve never done a whole saddle with clusters like this, all mixed floral of different flowers. I’ve just started working on it, but I think this saddle is going to be pretty neat. 

What’s your typical workday like? 
I do the finances in the shop and manage things, so my day usually starts out on the computer. I go through bills, organize the books, and line up everyone with their projects. I usually don’t get to work on my own saddles until the afternoon. Then I’ll spend that time drawing out my patterns or working on construction. I can be at the shop for 16-plus hours.

Which is more important: function or beauty? 
Function. Getting the rigging right is most important. I make sure that’s in the correct spot, and then make sure the saddle tree fits the horse. After that, I make sure the seat fits the rider and the rider is balanced. Only after all that is squared away do I shift the focus to the aesthetic details, like the tooling. Function, construction, and tooling, in that order. 

When I’m not working, I’m…
Spending time with my family. I also like to get up to the mountains. 

If I wasn’t a saddlemaker, I’d be a…
Veterinarian. 

What saddle do you ride in? 
I ride in one of the first saddles I ever made. It’s a Wade saddle with a bunch of wildlife tooling on it. When I look at it now, I can see I’ve come quite a way since I made that one, but it fits my horse well and it’s an old favorite.

What advice do you have for young people who want to get into the industry? 
Do your best and don’t take shortcuts. Avoid the temptation of making things the cheapest way possible to up your profits. If you take your time, you’ll get your big breaks. People will realize your quality, and that will get you more business than quantity.