A hand-carved rocking horse with custom, half-sized tack rides away in the hearts and minds of collectors at the 17th annual Traditional Cowboy Arts Association Exhibition & Sale.
A rocking horse has long been an item on the Christmas lists of starry-eyed children. The toy is often a primer for a pony and handed down through generations. At the opening reception for Cowboy Crossings last October, a crowd of people gathered around a glass “stall” at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, admiring a handcrafted wooden rocking horse decked out in intricate, half-sized trappings.
Standing 33 inches at the withers, the rocking horse was one of six pieces showcased by Oklahoma saddlemaker John Willemsma. The idea emerged in August of 2014 after Willemsma read an article about a rocking horse that Oklahoman Jackie Wilson built. It was commissioned as a gift from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to Prince George of Cambridge.
“I looked at that [article] and thought a rocking horse would be a fun project to do with half-sized tack,” Willemsma says. “Putting it all together was the hard part.”
In December of 2014, Willemsma made arrangements to have the horse made, but by May the deal fell through. Then he found someone else interested in doing the project, but his equipment failed. By July—three months before the show—Willemsma was losing hope.
During a telephone conversation with custom saddlemaker and saddletree manufacturer Jon Watsabaugh of Des Moines, Iowa, Willemsma mentioned he was trying to find someone to carve a wooden rocking horse.
“Interestingly, the past 15 to 20 years I’ve wanted to build a lifelike rocking horse with artistic flair, not the animated kind you typically see,” says Watsabaugh, who has made several saddletrees for Willemsma. “John sent me some pictures of what he wanted to do, and called me the next day and I agreed [to build the rocking horse].”
Watsabaugh went to work right away, creating several half-sized templates and regularly sending photographs to Willemsma of his progress. He was nearly done with the horse when his hand slipped into his woodworking equipment and cut off a portion of his left ring finger. With the help of friends, however, he was able to finish the horse and deliver it to Willemsma in time to finish before the show.
Watsabaugh chose to carve the horse from poplar, because of the straight grain.
“I can get large dimensional lumber from poplar without knots,” he says. “Typically, poplar doesn’t stain as well as a lot of other woods because of its color, but it turned out really nice the way John stained and finished it.”
Willemsma, with the help of fellow TCAA craftsmen Wilson Capron, Scott Hardy, Leland Hensley, Chuck Stormes and Troy West, created the half-sized tack for the horse. Stormes and West joined forces to build the saddletree for the half-sized saddle Willemsma made. The leather-lined, Visalia-style saddle with tapaderos is fully carved in a California poppy and wild rose pattern that is highlighted by the hand-dyed background. Hardy hand-engraved 25 pieces of sterling saddle silver with 14-karat gold accents for the saddle, as well as silver for the matching martingale. The browband headstall made by Willemsma features silver accents engraved in a floral motif with 14-karat gold centers and a coordinating bit made by Capron. Leland Hensley’s rawhide reins and romal complete the bridle.
“When you collaborate with someone, you have to explain your vision to them so they can share the vision,” Willemsma explains. “Your vision has to be infectious to them, too.”
Each craftsman was proud to contribute to a project of this caliber. Valued at $55,000, the finely crafted piece commanded the highest price tag of the more than 50 items on display. When the show wraps up on January 3, the horse will rock its way into the home of its new owner where it’s destined to become a treasured heirloom.
As for Willemsma, he’s already thing about next year’s TCAA show.
“Our collector base already has saddles, so it’s a challenge to come up with something they don’t have or that will grab their attention,” he says. “I already have a vision in my head for a project for new year’s show. Now I just have to figure out how I’m going to do it.”
For more on the TCAA, visit tcowboyarts.com.