Gullions diversify operation to succeedWritten by Melissa Hemken
Jeffery City – The Gullion family has found their niche in cattle and art to diversify their income in agriculture.
James, his wife Becky, and their children have a cow/calf herd, do day work for local ranchers and operate Nomad Saddlery in Jeffrey City.
Gullion has made saddles, bridles and other leatherwork for 10 years, and in the last couple years has begun to make bits, spurs, conchos and jewelry. He enjoys the art aspect of engraving silverwork and is mastering the technique of flowed silver and copper inlays.
“Saddles are expensive to make,” Gullion said, “and they don’t sell well when people can go buy a factory-made one for $500. I can build a bit that a cowboy can afford on payday. I don’t want to build my income on hoping cowboys can save enough to buy a saddle.”
Gullion was introduced to silver engraving by Gordon Andrus of Cody, and he also learned from Allen Taylor of Riverton and Ernie Marsh of Etna. Gullion works in the bright cut and single point styles and will often combine them on a piece according to a customer’s preference.
“The difference is the scrolls and the style of the cut,” Gullion explained. “I don’t open the cut up twice on the single point like on the bright cut. I designed a cheek piece for my bits that is somewhat unique and fits my style. People have been making bits for as long as humans have been riding horses, so it is hard to come up with something new.”
To build bits and spurs Gullion has found that it is about learning the tricks to metal work.
“I’ve been playing with flowed silver, a cast in-lay. A friend told me how to do it and swore me to secrecy. There are only a few people doing it, and more have tried and are not doing it. I’m hoping to fill a niche in the market with the flowed in-lay,” he said.
For his bits, Gullion mainly makes spades in the traditional Californio-style. To learn about spade styles, he has gone through museums, such as the King Museum in Sheridan, measuring bits.
“If a piece in a museum has not been used much, it’s probably not worth copying,” Gullion said. “I look for stuff that has been worn out, because it has a functional design. Most of my study is so that I’m not just copying what everyone else is doing.”
When it comes to bits, they have certain parameters that fit the horse, but I have to fit people’s expectation of what it is going to look like,” he continued.
“One reason bits are easier than saddles is that I can please the eye of the buyer and fit the horse’s mouth. With saddles I have to fit the buyer — I have to fit their whole body — and the horse’s back,” Gullion explained. “It’s worse than selling clothes.”
The shape of the spoon on Gullion’s spades is uncommon, with the width no more than 1.25 inches.
“Most spoons are wider than this, and I can see they have been chewed on. I build the spoon to lean back a little more than most do,” he said. “The spoon rides on the tongue and as soon as the spoon leaves the tongue the horse has a signal, and before it touches the top of the mouth the curb strap catches it.”
“With spade bits there is more metal in the mouth, but fewer pounds of pressure per square inch on the mouth,” he continued. “I kind of liken it to a high-heeled shoe compared to a boot heel, which one would we rather have step on a toe? One of them could be life threatening!”
Gullion noted that he strives to provide bits that help maintain low stress for the animals.
“The spade is balanced so it does that by signaling the horse through the spoon that they carry on their tongue and not applying a crushing pressure to the mouth as a snaffle does,” he explained.
Gullion has used heated blue steel for bits and by playing with different temperatures can get it bright purple when turning it.
On the bit bars, the copper and steel – two dissimilar metals – generate a little electricity from the acid in a horse’s mouth. This tastes better and causes the horse to salivate and lubricate their mouth instead of drying out.
In between trailing cows and branding, he works on metal techniques and developing his engraving art.
“I did a jewelry set for a friend’s 10th anniversary,” said Gullion, “and he wanted a forget-me-not or a shooting star. My dad was a Natural Resources Conservation Service range conservationist in Idaho, and I always competed in the range days. I’m very familiar with the native plants, and that’s something I don’t see a lot of in silverwork. I like to practice and different themes, like the Celtic shamrock and thistle, are popular.”
Bits for ranchers
Gullion works to keep the structure of his bits high quality but also economical.
The base price on his silver bits is $500, averaging $750 according to the amount of engraving and in-lays.
The Nomad Saddlery business has expanded through word-of-mouth and Facebook, surprising Gullion on the amount of orders.
“It is a little intimidating,” Gullion said. “I tried for 10 years with leather and rawhide, and the interest just wasn’t there. There aren’t a lot of people making bits and engraving because of the cost to set up and purchase tools. I took the profits from making bridles and saddles and bought tools over the years.”
“I made anything that I thought people needed and would buy,” he continued. “The kids are braiding tie ropes and selling them. I’m trying to teach them how to make something useful that people need to buy that they can make money at.”
As Gullion’s work has become known, he has gained enough silverwork orders to begin concentrating more on his Nomad Saddlery business and leave full-time ranch employment.
“We’re going to day work for the neighbors to supplement this and our cows,” Gullion said. “It will also give me exercise outside the shop and keeps the kids on horses.”