Tom Balding hunches over a small worktable, acetylene torch in hand. With a ball cap on his head and his clothing protected by green shop coveralls, the slight, spritely, gray-haired craftsman heats a bar of steel red-hot, places it in a jig, and deftly bends it into a “U” shape. This is a first step in making a mouthpiece for a bit; hundreds of procedures will follow.
Renowned throughout the Western horse world as a maker of the finest bits and spurs, Balding regularly sells to top trainers (like reining’s $2 million-winner Andrea Fappani) and up-and-coming working cow horse stars (like Zane Davis). Reining horse trainers in Texas, barrel racers in California, and collectors in Italy also purchase from Balding. It would be impossible to count the dollars won by horsemen using Balding’s wares. In fact, Larry Mahan, the six-time pro rodeo all-around cowboy, once traded a museum-worthy pair of his old competition spurs for a new set made by Balding. Both men were plenty satisfied with the exchange.
Balding is known for his sense of style and prodigious skills—flawless execution is a given. He tends to favor simple but elegant designs and looks beyond the Old West for inspiration and has even been influenced by tribal tattoos. Though Balding is ever sensitive to customer’s desires. He likes to say that “custom” is part of “customer.”
Raised in Southern California, Balding got his start in the aerospace industry fabricating high-precision parts. A trip to Wyoming piqued his interest in horses and mountains and drew him to settle in Sheridan. When a neighbor asked him to help repair a broken bit, a light bulb went off in his head. Twenty-one years later, his peers consider him an elite craftsman, often coming by his shop to observe his techniques. Customers, however, are his favorite visitors.
“I encourage people to come to the shop and tour it, so they can appreciate what goes into making these things,” he says. “If I like a particular piece of art, it makes me want to meet the artist and find out where he is coming from and who he is.”
Tom Balding Bits & Spurs, Sheridan, Wyo.; 307-672-8459, www.tombalding.com