Wyoming-based artist Ernie Marsh sees bridle bits and spurs as both artistic and utilitarian.
Ernie Marsh’s fascination with bridle bits began as a youth working cattle and rodeoing with his family. He studied ranchers’ bit collections and noticed whenever cowhands’ horses carried silver spade bits. Marsh saved money he earned cutting timber and working as a cowboy and was finally able to attend master bit and spur maker Elmer Miller’s school in Nampa, Idaho, in 1990. At that time, it was uncommon to see bridle bits and spurs as Marsh did: as both artistic and utilitarian. Today, Marsh’s functional art, created in his studio in Lovell, Wyoming, has been recognized by a traditional arts fellowship from the United States Artists. He continues to participate in the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association as a founding member.
“Early on, I went to a firearms engraving school. I practiced the high-relief scroll engraving on spurs. Bringing the English scrolls — where negative spaces create the design — and the more flowing, bolder American scrolls to bits and spurs gave my work a different style of ornamentation. I’d lie in bed at night and dream about a design that I hoped someone would order.
“In the last 15 years, I’ve moved away from custom-order work to create original pieces that I offer for sale. This allows me creative freedom, and if a couple more days of work would improve a piece, there is no concern about a predetermined budget. I honestly enjoy the processes of the handwork — the sawing, filing, finishing, and engraving — as much as finishing the pieces.”
“In 1998, my wife, Teresa, and I bought a production bit business. With that, there are molds that cast the engraving and shape of cheek and mouthpieces. Teresa manages our production bits. I create my handmade bits from scratch using mild steel — sheet for the cheeks and bar for the mouthpieces. Then, I add silver and hand-engrave them.
“There are a whole lot of bridle bit variations and variations in the horses and people that use them. The balance of a bit is critical but also fairly standard across horses. Bits don’t do any fancy tricks. They relay signals that you give the horse to which he’s trained to respond. My bits are built for a horse to wear all day long without soreness or irritation and serve as a way for the rider to transmit signals.”
Furthering The Craft
“All bit- and spur-making techniques are really old. They were new to me when I first learned them though, because I didn’t know anybody who did them. Thirty years ago, craftsmen weren’t willing to teach. Over the years I’ve mentored 15 or so folks. Most continue to make bridle bits or work with silver. When they figure out a technique, it’s fun to share in their excitement. Now, I’m setting up overnight accommodations on my place to host 10-day workshops for beginner bit makers to come and learn how to create a simple bit from start to finish.”
For more on Marsh, visit his website.
Photography: (All images) courtesy Ernie Marsh
From our July 2021 issue