By Gene Fowler
“The Traditional Cowboy Arts Association encourages us to be creative and innovative,” says Azle, Texas-based saddle maker Troy West. “That’s especially true for the annual Cowboy Crossings exhibition held at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. They want us to push the envelope. Think outside the box. Do something that’s not been seen before.”
For this year’s Cowboy Crossings show, Troy adorned his saddle with a timeless icon of the American West, the buffalo. “The idea just came to me one morning while I was praying,” he explains. The saddle maker carved bison figures on both sides of the mahogany swell, and another buffalo can be seen on the back of the cantle. Troy named the saddle, “Thunder Beast.”
“I’ve never seen a saddle like that,” he adds. “And I’d never studied the buffalo that closely, so I looked at many, many images. I found that there are many different shapes and facial features. But I wanted it to look realistic, not cheesy and goofy. So I put the head down and had the swells rise up like a buffalo hump. It was a challenge, and those buffalo stirred up dust in my shop just like they did in life.”
The annual Cowboy Crossroads is a joint exhibition with the painters and sculptors of the Cowboy Artists of America and the TCAA, which includes saddle makers, bit and spur makers, silversmiths and rawhide braiders. In addition to the Thunder Beast, Troy’s pieces in this year’s show include a carved leather table runner, a full flower-carved, leather walking stick and two wine decanters covered with flower-carved leather. For last year’s outside-of-the-box project, Troy covered a Telecaster guitar. “I’d thought about that for years,” he confides. “I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull it off, but people loved it.”
The saddle maker was first attracted to the art and craft of leatherworking while growing up in the East Texas piney woods town of Center. “My oldest brother bought a Tandy Leather beginner’s kit,” he recalls. “With all the carving tools and swivel knives, I thought it was a really cool thing. The first thing I did was glue a piece of leather on the seat of the Bob Crosby Roper saddle my parents got me for Christmas. Then I made a pair of chaps.” Troy roped calves competitively in Little Britches Rodeos and high school rodeos. He continued roping in college competitions in 1977, when he enrolled in the year long, saddle-making course at Texas State Technical Institute in Amarillo. Four decades later, he’s still pushing the envelope while preserving the traditions of the cowboy arts and making fine saddles.
In 2000, Troy won Best in Show at the Wichita Falls Boot and Saddle Makers Trade Show. A delegation from the Texas Young Republicans attended the show to select a saddle maker to create a saddle for Texas Governor George W. Bush, should he win the presidential election the following month. “It was during the episode of the hanging chad,” Troy remembers, “so it took a little time for the commission to become finalized. But when it did, it was a blast.”
The delegation told Troy that they wanted the Presidential Seal on the fender and horn, “G43” on a silver seat plate and a cross on the back of the cantle. “The seal is super refined, so it was quite a challenge,” he says. “But I found a company that could make a die to stamp cut an eagle in the middle of the cap, so I made a sterling silver horn cap with the Presidential Seal.”
Troy regards his election to membership in the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association as one of the highlights of his career. “The judges are meticulous. They’ll run a finger around the saddle’s skirt, looking for bumps. No stitch can be out of the groove. They’re tough, but the process will elevate your skills. Pretty soon, you’ll be building every saddle like it’s going to be critiqued.”
The TCAA sponsors classes and workshops that help members and other artisans continue to improve and perfect their craft. Troy attended a tooling seminar in the early 2000s, led by Dale Harwood and Don King. “I learned a number of tooling ideas, including new ways of shading and undercutting and a number of new leaf ideas,” he explains. “I also benefitted from Don King’s methods of tool making, using files and checkering files and hack saws.”
Troy has also received scholarships from the organization to enable him to spend time with saddle makers Cary Schwarz in Idaho and Chuck Stormes in Canada. “The information I got from these visits was invaluable,” he says. “Cary talked about the importance of making your edges round. And we spent a tremendous amount of time discussing saddle design, the length and shapes of skirts and the placing of riggings and conchos. Many saddle makers will occasionally build one that they really like, and it’s important to determine what it was that made that saddle attractive, so that you can replicate it or use those attractive design features again and again. There are artistic design features, such as visual weight, that can be incorporated into the saddle design as well as the tooling, i.e. a larger flower would be placed in the lower end of space and smaller flowers toward the top, just like in nature. Trees are wider at the bottom.”
Troy also attended a seminar on hand sewing with Jean-Luc Parisot. “Hand sewing is a very high quality form of work, and taking the seminar gave me the confidence to do the Telecaster guitar cover.” In January, Troy will wear the professor’s hat himself, teaching a seminar with California saddle maker Pedro Pedrini at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
The Azle saddle maker has also paid his knowledge forward by serving as a judge for TCAA’s Emerging Artists’ Competition. Entrants don’t have to be beginners or novices in their field of competition—they just have to be newcomers to the TCAA programs. “The Association gives us 10 categories of items to judge,” says Troy. “We look for stitching and sewing that is tight and consistent, carving that is laid out well. The design has to flow, and the stamping tools have to have been used correctly. We assess the overall finish and color and consider the measure of difficulty.”
Joe Hub Baker, with Fort Worth’s Stockyards Championship Rodeo, talks about Troy in the recent short film The Saddle Makers of Azle, Texas. “Because he’s an old cowboy from Center, Texas, who roped back in the 1970s,” says Joe Hub, “Troy understands that the most important thing about a saddle is how it fits the horse.” If it doesn’t fit the horse, nothing else matters.
At the end of the film, the interviewer asks Troy how long he plans to make saddles. “You know what? Saddle makers don’t retire,” he answers, chuckling. “They just die. They just die saddle makers.”
This year’s Cowboy Crossings exhibition opens to the public on October 7th. The Cowboy Artists of America portion of the show will run through November 26th. Also opening on October 7th, the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association part of the exhibit will continue through January 7th, 2018. For more information visit: https://nationalcowboymuseum.org/attend-an-event/cowboy-crossings/ and http://tcowboyarts.org/ .