A gleaming off-white 1965 Ford Mustang sits outside Tom Balding’s shop in Sheridan, Wyoming. Under the hood, an impressive arrangement of muscle car amendments: special carburetor, custom headers and a gleaming manifold, adorn the engine.
“You buy this car new?” I ask Tom.
“New? Oh heck no. I bought it in 1969 for $100. It was being raced on the track and was trashed. It had never been on the street. I stripped it down and rebuilt it from the frame up.”
It’s a typical Balding project. All his life - he’s now 62 - Balding has taken matters metal: engine parts, boat rigging, and sections of aircraft fuselage, and shaped them to a new precision and level of beauty.
His passion for the last 28 years has not been anything that floats, flies, or rumbles down the street. It’s been horses and what riders use to influence their behavior: bits and spurs.
Some of the world’s top riders use Balding’s products, including Bob Avila, a multiple winner of American Quarter Horse Association World Champion and three-time National Reined Cow Horse Association Futurity Champion.
Bobby Ingersoll, three-time winner of the National Snaffle Bit Association Breeders Championship Futurity, calls Balding’s handiwork, “the Mercedes of bits.”
Balding’s snaffle bits, many made with gleaming bits of stainless steel, have a stark, sleek look. They feature mouthpieces of copper inlaid sweet iron, a cold-rolled carbon steel preferred by horses because the rusting tastes sweet.
His shanks, western-style bits connected together by a metal bar, range from bare-bones pieces of modern art to the more ornate, decorated with silver plate or initialed in bronze. They go by the name of Switchback, Steamboat, and Diamond Cross.
Because Sheridan is one of the polo centers of the West, Balding has a line of gear designed for the chukker and mallet set.
Balding’s work also attracts big names who groove on objects western. A partially completed pair of spurs for Lyle Lovett sits on a workbench.
Raised in Ontario, California, at the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, Balding had open access to a shop belonging to his father, a contract ditch digger and pipe welder. “He pretty much left me alone,” he said. “It’s lucky I didn’t blow myself up. I’d go out there and fool around with the torch, just guessing at the mixture of oxygen and acetylene.”
This pattern of being an autodidact, a self-learner, would stay with Balding. Later, when living in Wyoming, he bought a 2-year-old, barely halter-broke mare and trained her by reading a series of books. “I didn’t know anything about horses except that I’d fallen off one.”
His older brother, an industrial arts teacher, encouraged Balding to get serious about fabrication and welding. At age 15, Balding bought and restored a 1933 Plymouth.
At the same time, Balding took long vacations with his parents camping and crisscrossing the rural West. “It was pretty basic. We would sleep on the ground and eat canned goods,” he said.
His father was an amateur archeologist, his mother a western history buff who sought out and read journals of homesteaders and pioneers. The memories of a particular fossil-hunting trip to Farson, Wyoming, stayed with him. “I really took to the place.”
He wasn’t ready to leave southern California, however. In the 1960s the area was an ambitious metalworker and welder’s dream. Thousands of small shops specializing in custom car parts or aerospace equipment beckoned. Besides, Balding was still in high school.
“I had a paper route and delivered to Hooker Headers (which made performance-enhancing exhaust manifolds). I’d hang out and watch them work. The day I turned 18, I put in an application to work there,” he said. “My brother told me how to gas-weld by giving me instructions over the phone. I went in and took the test. I passed.”
Three years later he was called into the office, given his paycheck, and ordered to stay off the premise or face arrest. Dumbfounded, he could get nothing out of owner Gary Hooker. “I thought I was the perfect employee but I found out that I had apparently been seen having a conversation with a union representative.”
Once he had recovered from the shock of getting fired, “I was 21 and I’d just bought a house,” Balding took a series of welding jobs, sometimes working two at once. At each one, he acquired a new skill. At a company that built backpack frames, the owner gave him a week to learn how to do the heliarc or TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding necessary to bond aluminum. He did it.
That ability opened the door at a small aerospace parts company. “The cool thing about that place was it was also a job shop. They took work off the street. I learned how to deal with a huge variety of metals.”
His growing knowledge of welding and fabricating, combined with the frustration of being an underpaid employee, led Balding to go out on his own. In one weekend, he bought his own welder and worked none-stop to remodel his shop. He started taking orders from his second cousin, Hobie Alter, who was revolutionizing the world of small recreational boats. Balding began fabricating stainless steel mast hounds, guides, and stanchions.
Business boomed. “I went from making $4.75 per hour to $30 to $40 per hour. I paid for my new welder in a week,” he said.
Yet as the years passed, so did a growing sense of dissatisfaction. “I didn’t want to spend my life saving my money to buy a big house on the hill. Well, I realized that I was already living in a pretty nice house on a hill.”
On a whim, Balding asked a neighbor who kept a rarely ridden horse in a corral if he could take his mount for a spin. The neighbor obliged; Balding promptly got bucked off. Yet the interaction with the horse somehow crystallized his need for immediate change. Balding went on a search for a new life. He drove to Nevada, then through Utah, and into Wyoming. He found Cody too touristy, but when he came down the east side of the Bighorn Mountains and saw Buffalo; “I felt I was already home.”
Balding knew that if he didn’t immediately buy a house he might falter on his commitment to leave California. It was boom time 1980s, however, and houses, if you could find one for sale, were expensive. Balding found a house in a subdivision called Apache Village outside Clearmont.
If Balding wanted change, he got it. His then-wife (who he called a “real trooper”) did not share his enthusiasm for Wyoming and returned to California after two years, taking their daughter with her. He welded only occasionally, preferring to take odd jobs: carpentry, door-to-door salesman and bucking bales. He bought another piece of land; he taught himself how to wire and plumb a residence, and, most importantly, ride a horse.
Then, in 1984, a woman came to his door and asked him if he could repair her broken riding bit. It was an epiphany for Balding. “It only took me a few minutes to weld the bit, but I knew right then what I was going to do for the rest of my life: make custom bits.”
This necessitated going to the library to find out just how those bits were made. Balding also poured over back issues of Western Horseman, locating companies already in bit production. He began forging prototypes of bits, then spurs, in his garage. He made his own tools for shaping and bending then began trying to sell his wares. Business was slow; eventually Balding ran out of money. He fell behind on payments for his piece of land and, with deep reluctance, put it up for sale. A buyer appeared.
The day he was supposed to sign the final real estate papers, however, he annoyed the broker and the bank by driving to a horse show in Gillette, hoping, on the off chance, that he would sell enough bits and spurs to make a payment on his land. “I packed up my Rancho with everything I had in stock. I had about $30 to my name. I was either going to sleep in my car or drive back that night. At the horse show, I set up a table and people started lining up. I had nothing to record sales. I had to shut down for a little bit so I could drive into Gillette and buy a receipt book.”
Balding made enough money to make his land payment. He told his story to the would-be new owners of his land, who had a legal right to buy. They let him out of the contract.
He set up a shop in an old trailer and began serious production of bits and spurs. “This particular trailer was built for use in Florida. It had no insulation and 1.5 inch walls. It was pretty cold in the winter time.”
Neither was it an ideal environment for working with welding tools and flammable gasses. “I tried twice to burn that son-of-a-bitch down.”
He still had to work other jobs to make ends meet. Then, in 1998, reining champion Bob Avila started using Balding’s bits. Word got around the western horse circuit that Balding’s bits were the best that money could buy. He hired employees, bought a lot in the southern section of Sheridan and constructed a shop, this one without wheels. He replicated the design of his old trailer, though: a narrow building with a long corridor with small rooms off to each side.
Balding’s team uses each room to complete a step in production: bending, bronzing, bluing, engraving, or adding silver plate. Simple bits and spurs take 25 steps, complicated ones “at least a seventy-five,” step process, he said.
With one exception - the spur shank - Balding makes all the parts for the products in his shop. Balding has just three craftsmen, only one of whom had much formal experience with metal before they started working for him. He said had to “go through about 100 hires and fires” before he got the crew he wanted. “It takes a special spark to do what we do here. I’m incredibly proud of these guys,” said Balding.
He added he would “be totally lost” without the three women who make up his office staff, overseeing orders and customer relations. His firm sells more than 3,500 bits and 500 pairs of spurs per year. Demand is now so strong it takes between four and six weeks for customers to get their orders.
It’s about to get even busier. On Thursday, June 21st, the Science Channel’s “How It’s Made,” featured a segment on Balding. With 130 million people in 200 countries watching the show, “I expect the phone is going to start ringing off the hook,” said Balding.
— Samuel Western of Sheridan is a university lecturer, poet and U.S. regional correspondent for The Economist. Author: Pushed Off the Mountain Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its Soul (2003) and A Random Census of Souls (2009).
If you enjoyed this article and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.