How the West’s Largest Tack Store Successfully Adapted to a Changing Environment
By Nick Pernokas
Baldwin Park, California doesn’t seem like the place you’d find a tack shop, let alone the “West’s Largest Tack Store.” Driving east out of Los Angeles there is just unbroken urban sprawl. True, this was all ranch country at one time, but now as you cut through an “under construction” hospital district, you may be skeptical. But when you pull into the parking lot in front of the huge Spanish-style building, you become a believer. The rows of feed sacks and jump standards out front only hint at the merchandise within. Inside are several levels packed with boots, saddles, clothing, and equine products that stretch into the distance. Broken Horn Saddlery seems to be thriving in this urban location. The reasons might surprise you.
Broken Horn’s founders were Charlie and Mattie Nuzzo. Charlie had worked for United Tent and Awning. They had a huge business building tents for the military. In the early Fifties, Charlie met a guy who had an expensive boat. The boat owner had noticed the weathering that his boat was getting, and asked Charlie if he could build a cover for it. Charlie went down to the marina, measured the boat, and built a boat cover for it in his spare time. It worked so well that Charlie started building boat covers in his basement. But that original boat owner had another hobby – horses – and asked Charlie if he could make a horse blanket. Using tent materials, Charlie started making day sheets for horses. At the time, the Los Angeles area’s postwar recreational horse business was booming. There were about six horse and mule sales in the area, so Charlie started taking his horse blankets to them as a side business. Eventually, Charlie went full time and formed a blanket business with his brother-in-law. But, he found out that his partner was keeping two sets of books, so he left and formed a new company in Alhambra, California. The year was 1956 and the company was Broken Horn. They continued to wholesale blankets and sheets until a large account in the southeast stiffed them for quite a bit of money; Broken Horn launched a retail line under another name to hedge their bets a little. The retail line grew tremendously, so in the early Sixties they dropped the wholesale and raised their prices by 15%. In their first week as a full retailer, they made more than they had in the previous month.
“I started as a cutter in the sewing room in 1969,” says manager Jim Scullati. “When I started, we were a wholesale manufacturer exclusively and we only made blankets and pads.”
A couple of years later, the owner’s son, Joe Nuzzo, decided that he wanted to get into leather. In the 1970’s Broken Horn moved out to the current Baldwin Park location. The original building was 13,000 square feet and housed manufacturing and retailing. In 1984 they added another building, bringing their total space to 40,000 square feet, which is today’s store. By the mid Seventies, 77% of Broken Horn’s business was manufacturing blankets, pads, leather tack, and silver. Over the next few years they added saddles, show saddles, and show halters. Their manufacturing remained at 77%. This is a contrast to today, when all that remains under Broken Horn’s direct control is the leather tack. Their silver department has become an in-house independent business that Broken Horn buys from, but which also sells to the public. The saddle shop is also an independent business, in house.
“This all happened in 2007 when the housing market and the economy took the big dump,” says Jim.
Prior to this, Broken Horn went to all the major equine events like the American Quarter Horse World Show and the Quarter Horse Congress. At the time Broken Horn made twelve saddles a month in house, everything except the trees. Typically Jim would sell twenty show saddles, and take orders for fifteen more, at the Quarter Horse World in Oklahoma City. In 2007, Jim went to the World Show and sold two saddles and took one order.
“In the store we just weren’t selling saddles or silver either,” says Jim.” People just weren’t traveling, and some of our good customers were getting older. Horses were selling cheap, and stallion owners didn’t have the incentive to go to horse shows.”
The show industry took a big hit. For this reason, Broken Horn no longer stocks show saddles. By divesting themselves of the two businesses, but keeping them in house, they have access to products when they need them, without having to maintain the shops. That move was an ingenious way they gained flexibility in a changing market. The leather shop is still part of Broken Horn and is run by brothers Willie and Raoul Reyna. Together these expert craftsmen have worked for Broken Horn for over seventy years. They make thirty styles of headstalls, many types of breast collars, and several types of reins in their small shop. They also tie up long ropes in various lengths for charros. One of them is father to assistant store manager Sammy Reyna.
Today, Broken Horn has about 360 saddles in stock, sixty of which are consignment. The rest are brands like Circle Y, Martin, and Billy Cook. The biggest single department is pleasure trail saddles. Barrel and roping saddles fill out a lot of the inventory. The heads of the saddle departments must be avid riders.
“It used to be that our average customer came through the door with a pressed western shirt and pressed western jeans. Now if that person comes in, he’s a salesman,” says Jim of the changing regional market.
Today’s customers are 70% Hispanic, and they’ve brought the horse culture from Mexico with them. They ride traditional western saddles, except when they are competing in the Charreada, a traditional Mexican rodeo. When they are finished competing, they shed their charro clothes and wear traditional American cowboy clothes.
“Their horses mean a lot to them, and they’re not about to give up that lifestyle.”
Broken Horn’s English market hasn’t changed as much, and is still mostly Caucasian women. Absent are the young people that used to have an interest in Western disciplines. The store’s focus now is regional and they advertise in four local equine magazines.
Broken Horn has always advertised itself as an equestrian superstore; they carry everything for horse and horseman. Broken Horn tries to have low, medium, and high price points in every department so they don’t miss anyone.
“Whether they are English or Western, we try to have everything they might possibly need to give them one-stop shopping.”
They aren’t kidding – they have everything from feed to jumps. Jim admits that it’s hard to compete with the internet, barcode scanners, and virtual stores that don’t charge sales tax. On a saddle, sales tax is a large factor in price. In their favor though is the customer loyalty that they strive to cultivate.
“We have people who load up and drive in from Las Vegas or Santa Barbara, for a day of shopping. We have some customers from Australia and Europe that come in every few years.”
Sales have been flat in the last few years, but they consider it better than a decline. They’ve tried new things like a horseshoeing department, which has evolved into a nice, steady business. They’ve also added knives, and sell a tremendous number of knives every year. Each department head runs their department like their own store. They constantly review what needs to be dropped to make room for things that should be added.
“We’ve always been forever changing. You certainly can’t stand still.”
Trevor, in the impressive English department, handles all of the English saddlery repairs directly as a side business. That way he can explain the options personally to the customer.
Mario Solis’s Silver Shop specializes in custom buckles, and he has been engraving there for 37 years. Mario, Jose, and Marco do some incredible work including personalizing spurs and engraving guns.
Sal’s Custom Saddles is run by Salvador Gomez, who made Broken Horn’s show saddles for years and has been there for 42 years. He still makes saddles under his own name, but 80% of his work is repair. He is making mostly silver mounted show saddles and can make two saddles a month. His base price is around $2,000, but the loaded show saddles are up in the $7,000 range. He employs one saddle maker, Juan Manuel Barba, who makes high-end charro saddles. Another man, who has worked for Sal for 35 years, does the tooling. Sal’s daughter, Maria, sits at a bench, patiently painting the backgrounds of some beautiful carved wallets. All five of Sal’s sons have also worked there.
“In 1996 I made 320 saddles,” says Sal. “We didn’t do anything else. I started here when I was 12 years old.”
Next door is Galdino Gomez’s shop; he is Sal’s brother and also a master saddle maker. Galdino specializes in repairing some of the historic California silver saddles. Today he has an old Bohlin saddle that needs to have 400 pieces of silver replaced. Almost half of his time is dedicated to working on these parade saddles. This includes replacing rotten parts and replacing the silver, as well as building new tapaderos and breast collars. The old, rotten, cotton thread in the skirts must be sewn by hand when the sheepskin is replaced. Each saddle waiting to be worked on carries a little California history.
“The only problem with fixing one of the Bohlin parade saddles,” says Galdino, “is that you will not see it again for years because they only use them a few times a year.”
Galdino also builds silver mounted chaps for the parades, as well as silver mounted vests to match. He has huge washing machines bolted down to the concrete in his shop. Not everyone has a parade saddle, but many folks have dirty horse blankets.
The boot repair shop is run by Felipe De Santigo. He began working on boots and shoes when he was 11. Felipe has worked for Broken Horn for over 21 years. Some cowboy boots are not repairable, but if they are, Felipe can do it. He can repair English boots as well, and put elastic and zippers in them. Sometimes being able to talk to a repairman makes it easier for the customer to decide whether to repair an old boot or buy a new one. Felipe can also handle any issues in new boots that a customer may have purchased recently. Felipe knows about horse supplements and horseshoeing equipment as well, so he can help customers in these departments, which are just outside his shop. He likes dealing with the customers, as well as basically running his own shop. Sometimes he arrives before the store opens just to get an early start.
“If a customer just needs a few stitches or a small thing, I don’t charge him,” says Felipe. “I want him to come back.”
Broken Horn has a large blanket department, but with milder winters, blanket sales are slower in the area. Jim likes to order blankets later in the fall when manufacturers are running specials. That way he can get exactly what he wants at a lower price.
The knife department is very popular and has a wide selection, from cowboy knives to tactical ones. The show cases are designed so that a customer can walk around them and see every knife and price tag, without having to ask for help.
“We are still a family run business. Joe Nuzzo is the president and his son Jerry is the vice president. Joe’s sister Rosalie Nuzzo is the secretary/treasurer. Joe’s wife still works in customer service. The grandkids come in and help when we have a sale. A lot of the people who work here are related to each other too. It’s a joy to work with people that you can trust, honesty in a small business is critical.”
All of the employees wear Broken Horn t-shirts. The artwork is continually updated and they sell a lot of the t-shirts and ball caps. The loyalty seems to go further than the shirts though. The continuity created by the long-term employees and the family ties has created a team that can weather any storm – including an unpredictable economy.
To find out about Broken Horn Saddlery call 800-367-6492 or go to www.brokenhornsaddlery.com
Broken Horn Saddlery
1026 Leorita St.
Baldwin Park, California 91706