Collaborating with top performance horsemen gives Tom Balding an edge in the bit- and spur-making industry.
People often ask Tom Balding how he comes up with functional, innovative bits and spurs when he didn’t grow up riding horses. His response is simple: He consults the best horsemen on designs and then does what he does best—molding metal into shanks, rowels, mouthpieces and cheekpieces like a sculptor shapes clay into figures. “I come up with new shapes for bits all of the time and send samples to top horsemen, who I call the ‘big guns,’ to try,” Balding explains. “It might take a few months, but they get back to me on whether it works or not, what phase of training it’s good for and how to use it. It’s like a musician fine-tuning a new instrument.”
Raised in Southern California, Balding uncovered his talent for welding and manufacturing when he was a teenager while working for a company that made exhaust systems for racecars. He also worked as a precision welder on aircraft and sailboat parts. In 1973, at age 23, he started his own certified precision welding business, and then in 1980 he moved to Sheridan, Wyoming, to escape the city. He worked on ranches and in construction, and bought his first horse.
He found his calling as a bit- and spur-maker and started Tom Balding Bits & Spurs in 1984. His work is known for its precision, quality and functionality, and is found on the headstalls and heels of top performance horsemen worldwide.
After welding parts for racecars, aircraft and sailboats, what made you want to make bits and spurs?
I fell in love with riding and anything having to do with horses. When I moved to Wyoming, I didn’t think I’d ever want to weld again. I talked to saddlemaker Don Butler about learning to make saddles, and I played around with shoeing horses, but nothing really worked out.
Then one day [in 1984] a lady knocked on my door and had an aluminum bit with a broken shank she wanted fixed, and she’d heard I was a welder. That was an amazing moment, because I figured out what I was going to do. That night, I fixed her bit and started another. The next morning I ordered business cards. On the way to town, however, I realized I didn’t know anything about bits, so I had Tom Balding Spurs put on the business cards and started making spurs.
A few months later, actor Ben Johnson was in King’s Saddlery [in Sheridan] and saw some spurs I’d made and called to order a bit from me. I told him I didn’t make bits, but he said he’d seen my spurs and knew I could make a bit. The first bit I finished was for Ben Johnson, and I charged him $100. It was hard to get local business, and Don told me to set up a booth at a horse show in Gillette, Wyoming. I was unfamiliar with that concept, but for $30 I set up a card table with my spurs and slept in my 1971 Ford Ranchero because I couldn’t afford a hotel room. People lined up to see my work and I took a dozen orders that weekend.
Where do you get your ideas for bit designs?
In the beginning I’d travel to horse shows and set up booths, and pick people’s minds about their bits and spurs. A horseman like Ted Robinson or Bobby Ingersoll would come by and show me their favorite bits, and I’d try to make something similar geometrically but add some of my own elements to make it unique. Through the years, I’ve been fortunate to have worked with the best trainers in the industry to develop different designs. I appreciate their help and input. I work with them to build samples for them to try, and we modify them until they’re right.
How has the bit- and spur-making industry changed since you started?
The quality of offshore manufacturing has improved, which actually inspires me to come up with new designs and constantly improve our quality and customer service. When I first started my business, I remember going to [horse shows] and people having very harsh bits. Then I saw a swing toward milder bits and gentler training practices, but now I see it swinging back and some people thinking the way to achieve results with their horses is to be more severe. A bit is like a fine instrument and you have to learn to use it subtly, not fall into the habit of getting harder.
How have you streamlined the process of ordering a custom bit and spurs?
We have a feature on our website where you can click different options and build a bit or pair of spurs. It took three years for a company to develop this feature, and they told me there are more than 5 million different combinations of spurs alone [on our website]. Some people like to go in and spend hours customizing their bits and spurs, and I laugh because they know the names of the pieces better than I do. Other people like the convenience of clicking and buying an in-stock bit, and they can do that, too. Kelli Anderson, our office manager, has 20 years of experience and has helped thousands of customers design their bits and spurs. We also have a loaner bit program. People visit with Kelli about their horses and style of riding, and she sends them two or three bits from our comprehensive library to try out. We do everything we can to connect people with the right bits and spurs.
With so many similar bits and spurs on the market, how do you recommend makers prevent their designs from being copied?
It was devastating for us to have our designs knocked off, and we spent a lot of money in legal fees and in the end the attorneys really couldn’t do much. It’s really hard to protect functional art from being duplicated. I think the best way to distinguish your work is to make it unique and the highest quality out there. Sometimes a phone call asking for credit for the design is the best way. I actually unknowingly designed a bit that I later found out was similar to a Myler mouthpiece, and I called them and told them I’d come up with a design and saw that it was like one of theirs. They were fine with it.
Which of your bit designs stand out in your career?
The ballhinge is something I developed. I made the first ballhinge bit in 1986 for a polo trainer in Kentucky who didn’t want a bit that pinched. I spent months trying to develop that hinge. I knew I was onto something, but it was hard to make. My all-time favorite bit is bit #154, the Advantage Short Double Cross. It has a heavier shank that provides a quick action and release. The Double Cross mouthpiece is our most popular mouthpiece. It began with a local rancher having trouble with horses getting their tongues over snaffles and asked me if I could put something in the middle of the mouthpiece. I put a little spoon in there with a copper roller and it makes a good all-purpose or transitional bit.
What designs will you be adding to your collection?
We work hard to come up with new bits, because it’s the new stuff that keeps us going. We’re really excited about our newest mouthpiece, the Verona. It’s a 2¾-inch-tall mouthpiece offered with or without a roller. It’s a great all-around mouthpiece accepted by most horses, allows tongue relief, promotes upright body position and collection. The most popular combination has been the mouthpiece with the Tahoe shank. Both the shank and mouthpiece have a California/vaquero influence.
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Western Horseman.