History of Bits & Spurs
History of Antique Bits and Spurs In America
Spanish Colonial Influence On Bits and Spurs In America
The History of Bits and Spurs in North America begins with the Spanish conquistadors who first came to the new world in the 1500s. These conquistadors brought horses along with European style arms and armor. Spanish colonists throughout South America brought over or trained tradesmen who produced forged iron and steel items including bits and spurs. These craftsmen naturally learned to produce elegant bits and spurs in the Spanish colonial style, which is the predecessor of the Californian and Mexican style spurs we know today. For instance, the a la brida style (long stirrup straps and elaborate curb bits) and the a la jineata style (short leather stirrup straps and bridle bits) in ornate saddles became popular among Mexican and South American horsemen as well as American Indians from the Southwest and Plains.
British Colonial Influence on Bits and Spurs In America
The other bit and spur making tradition prevalent in the US stemmed from British colonists which emphasized a less decorative and more utilitarian style of design. During the 18th-century, the British supplied the American colonies with a huge amount of saddlery hardware, resulting in an increased demand for English ironware by the end of the Revolutionary War. Steel, wrought iron, monel, and malleable cast iron were used in British saddlery manufacturing. However, because of the political, social, and cultural differences and boundaries between the British and Spanish, there was very little intermingling of between the two styles of bit and spur-making specifically, and saddlery in general.
Overall, the importation of horses and their equipment significantly helped bring over to the New World techniques of blacksmithing and horseshoeing, domestication of sheep, cattle, and other farm animals, and trade patterns and contacts such as those between Spain and Indian tribes as well as British and American colonists. These aspects of European conquest eventually spread throughout to other states in North America.
American Bit and Spur Styles Develop In Texas & California
With the Spanish tradition firmly entrenched in the Southwest, and Far West, and the British tradition spreading from the American colonies on the East Coast, Texas was an interesting point in the middle. While Texas was owned by Mexico until 1836, when Texas gained independence, it was populated mostly by US citizens who preferred the British tradition. The tensions between Mexico and Texans as well as events such as the Alamo caused most Texans to reject Mexican or Spanish influences and that led to the Texas style bits and spurs tradition we know.
Whether in California or Texas, folks looking for a new bit or pair of spurs had a few options. They could buy products produced at large manufacturers like the Buermann company which were sold in supply stores, they could special order a pair from a catalog offered by many of the same companies as well as some medium sized producers, or they could contact a local maker and order a pair. Large manufacturers tended to produce fairly standardized designs as they used varying amounts of machinery to help speed up production, although large manufacturers would have scouts sending back popular patterns to produce to keep up with changing tastes and demands. Smaller producers often produced every step of the process by hand and could produce simple utilitarian spurs, or repair broken items if they were less skilled or part time makers, or they could produce intricate and elaborate special orders for folks if they were more skilled makers.
Most bit and spur makers started learning their trade under general blacksmiths and would later specialize in bits and spurs if they had a particular talent or interest in the craft. Others would train under an existing bit and spur maker as an apprentice. It’s not uncommon with famous makers to know that they trained under another famous maker, as many great California style makers worked in G.S. Garcia’s shop at one time or another. Texas makers also had a lot of contact with each other and often would form partnerships that would last months or years before one or the other partner would move off to a new town for a new opportunity.
Modern Bit and Spur Making In America
Today, there are still a number a skilled bit and spur makers who are members of groups like the National Bit, Spur and Saddle Collectors Association and the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association. Many of today’s well known and respected bit and spur makers studied and trained at Elmer Miller’s Bit and Spur School. With the help of modern tools and machinery top makers can produce truly stunning works of art that happen to be bits and spurs. The quality of forging, inlay, mounting, and engraving of metals with modern techniques are as good as they have ever been and makers continue to experiment with new techniques and designs that continue to push the envelope even further.