Learning the business: Tom Balding moves from welder to makerWritten by Rebecca Colnar Mott
“I grew up in California, and back in the late 1970s I had a welding business, mainly welding specialty parts for both the aerospace and sailboat industries,” Tom explains. “Where I lived, when I looked out my window, I could see a horse in a pen. One day, I looked at that horse and decided I wanted to ride him. I met the owner, who gave me permission. I think I was on that horse less than five minutes when he bucked me off, but I was hooked on horses. As a kid, we used to come to Wyoming and camp. I loved it out here. I decided to move to Ucross in 1980 and work on ranches, moving cattle, stacking hay and building fence – all of those ranch chores.”
Tom was still using his welding skills while he was ranching, primarily welding on trailers.
The first bit
“One day a lady knocked on my door and she had a broken bit; she knew I did welding, and could I fix it. That night I looked around at what scrap sailboat parts I had, and actually made my first bit. When I got this idea of making bits, I called my brother and said I had this great idea, and that making bits would be ‘real easy.’ I really was wrong on that,” he laughs.
He started asking for input from local ranchers about what qualities they liked in a good bit.
“So I then started making bits, but wasn’t sure how to go about selling them. I decided to set up a table at a horse show in Gillette and suddenly there were people lined up at my table wanting what I had to sell,” he remembers.
The entrepreneur moved his business from Ucross to an area outside of Sheridan.
“I found an old mobile home that I dragged in as my workshop. I liked the fact there were several separate rooms to use, which made it a lot more comfortable than a big open space,” he says.
Tom says first he concentrated on producing spurs.
“They’re mechanical and it’s easy to understand their function. Learning to make a good bit was a longer learning process. I started with the basic ranch design, which was primarily influenced by cavalry bits. Those bits were designed to work on many different horses, not just one horse. Even today, ranchers want a bit that’s simple, strong and functional, and can be used on several different horses,” he says.
Today, the workshop/store is located on Riverside Drive in Sheridan, where Tom has been for 12 years. It’s a new building designed with the multiple small-room philosophy in mind, and there is a separate room for each step of the bit-making process. Balding employs six people, and all of the bit and spur making is done on-site. They produce their own mouthpieces, rollers, shanks and anything else they might need.
All of the employees vote on bit design.
“I’ll work on an idea, and we’ll vote on it. Once one of my designs is accepted, we’ll do all the tooling needed for it. Then we will be able to make that bit forever,” explains Tom.
It’s impressive as one wanders around the shop to see the unique machinery.
“I got that on eBay, that at an auction,” Tom says, pointing to each piece of equipment. There is one narrow room with ceiling-high shelves holding small yellow bins containing every part imaginable for a bit. There is an area for making bit rollers, a station for engraving, and so on. He even has a photo booth set up to take perfect pictures of his products.
Tom admits the bits could be made for less money if he “jobbed them out” (such as using a different company to make different bit parts), but he wants to keep the jobs and money in Sheridan. Plus, this way he can guarantee their high quality.
Tom’s hard work and creativity over the past 30 years has paid off. He’s been featured in many publications, and his bits are popular with many disciplines, including reining, reined cow horse and cutting. He’s even started a line of bits for polo players. His spurs and bits also ship to the European market, including France, Germany and Italy, and he’s getting requests from Australia and the Netherlands.
Tom’s most recent coup is a feature in the series How It’s Made filmed by The Discovery Channel. The segment on spurs will air on the Science Channel in the U.S. on June 21 at 9 p.m.