Spur of The Moment
One of my favorite activities prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was attending bit and spur shows, but in the aftermath, the number and quality of the shows has withered. Organizers have struggled coming up with ways to attract more attendees and younger folks to the hobby.
One show had an appraising panel like “Antiques Roadshow,” a TV show where a person could bring in their grandpa’s old horse gear and have a panel of experts appraise it. Only one person offered up an antique bit he’d bought at a previous show, but the experts all agreed it was made in China.
One show staged a revival of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz. between members of the Cowboy Action Shooting Society, but this idea went over like a crying baby at a wedding, only louder. During a seminar at one show, a professor jabbered about building a horse barn using feng shui – whatever that is. Half the crowd lapsed into a coma.
The most interesting activity happened in the aisles of a cowboy show one year – only the panel discussion was listed in the program. The participants included my friend Chuck, a fabulous bit and spur maker in the vaquero tradition, a savvy bit and spur trader from Texas named Larry who convincingly argued Texas cowboy gear was far superior and a snowbird rancher from Wyoming who came to California to escape the winters. He represented the third style of bit and spur making – the plains style.
Their argument filled the barn to standing room only, and I anticipated the arrival of a special weapons and tactics team when their little discussion turned into a full-scale riot.
“You and your pretty gut hooks and cowboy bootjacks (spurs) wouldn’t last 30 minutes in Texas,” argued Larry. “If you wear your fancy vaquero rib wrenches with all their delicate silver work in the Texas brush country, the horse you’re riding is going to turn around and laugh its butt off at you.”
He held up a pair of plain but well-made spurs from Texas and said, “Now this is a real pair of irons.”
“You gotta be kidding,” said Chuck. “Your grappling irons look like they were made out of two old metal files.”
Chuck took one spur from Larry and filed some metal off the edge of a nearby table and said, “As far as I’m concerned, you ruined two perfectly good files.”
The rancher from Wyoming listened intently but said nary a word.
“And what are these two jinglebob thingies hanging from the shank?” asked Larry. “They’re as useless as pockets on the back of a shirt. They’re like putting a hat on a horse.”
“That just shows how little you Texans know about digging irons and horses in general,” said Chuck. “Instead of just jabbing your shanks into a horse, all a vaquero has to do is shake his foot to communicate with the horse. Jinglebobs also help a horse to settle into an almost musical rhythm where a good horse and skilled rider are in perfect harmony. But I guess those are two things you don’t have in Texas – skilled horsemen and good horses.”
Finally, the Wyoming rancher woke from his nap.
“Chuck, I’m sorry but I’m going to have to agree with Larry. Those jinglebobs and downward sloping shanks can get you killed two ways. First, the jinglebobs can get caught in your rowels locking them up so they don’t turn, and when you get them stuck in the mohair of your cinch, you’re in for a wreck if the horse happens to fall over backwards or you get bucked off,” he said.
“That’s bad enough, but those huge rowels and two chains you prunies got hanging from your spurs almost got me killed when I walked across my wife’s new $20,000 wood floor she was so proud of. The big rowels with downward sloping shanks put a big dimple in the floor with each step. And the chains scratched the floor so bad it looked like someone had disked it with a plow,” he added. “It took me three weeks of sanding to erase the deep furrows they made. Sorry Chuck, your spurs sure are pretty but they almost caused a divorce in my family.”
The bit and spur show did a land office business the next year as spectators waited anxiously for round two of the big fight, but by then two of the participants were deader than the market for counterfeit Chinese spurs.