BILLINGS - When the light catches a prized bit made by Todd Hansen, its silverwork flashes a bold salute to bling.
But the Billings-area bit and spur maker pays more careful attention to balance and proportion than looks.
"The function has to work right first. All the glitz and glamour in the world won't help. It has to function right," said Hansen, whose workshop is in his home south of Molt.
Hansen works in the style of the vaqueros or buckaroos, a style that arose in California during 1700s from Spanish and Moorish influences.
To him, the flamboyant vaquero tradition means far more than intricate silverwork. It involves taking pride in the ability of a well-made bit to influence the relationship between the horse and rider.
Proponents of the vaquero tradition say it emphasizes finesse and a slower, less-stressful way to train horses. In a well-schooled horse, slight movements of the rider's hands can transmit those cues through the bit.
To find his passion, Hansen set off on an unlikely path.
Hansen never got on a horse until he was in high school. He grew up in Billings, where his dad was a bartender and truck driver and his mother worked as a clothing store clerk.
From his first unsettling experience on horseback, Hansen knew he wanted to learn more.
In his teens, he worked for a couple of places that raised and trained horses for the show ring or roping. He met his wife, Tina, at a team roping in 1984, when she was 17 and he was 19.
When they were married in 1986, Hansen went to work at the sugar beet factory in Billings, where his wife, a lab supervisor, is the fifth generation in her family to work at the factory.
For 17 years, Hansen made bits and spurs as a hobby, while he worked on the mechanical crew at the sugar beet factory. The hobby helped him create the tack the couple couldn't afford to buy.
He got advice from seasoned craftsmen, but never had formal training. His experience in welding came from high school shop class and from the beet factory.
From the start, he gravitated toward "the flashier gear" of the vaquero style, rather than Midwest- or Texas-style gear, which is usually less intricate and relies on silver overlay rather than inlay.
By 2004, when he left the sugar beet factory, Hansen already had a reputation for quality workmanship. But he was uncertain whether his craft could support a family.
"My wife believed more in me than I did myself," he said.
In November, Hansen won the bit-and-spur-maker-of-the-year award from the Academy of Western Artists, an award voted on by his peers.
Last year, at a gallery exhibit in the Western Folklife Center during the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., he won best bridle bit.
Hansen has quit taking orders for his work until he catches up on his waiting list. He doesn't advertise, but he travels to a couple of shows a year, where he sells inlaid silver bracelets, saddle silver and other pieces while he displays a couple of bits.
Ned Martin of Nicasio, Calif., and his wife, Jody, have written and published three coffee table books on bits and spurs. The third book, which deals with contemporary bit and spur makers, includes a segment on Hansen.
In a phone interview, Martin described Hansen's work as "absolutely superb."
"His style of engraving is very fine, very intricate and precise," Martin said.
Richard Caldwell of Alturas, Calif., a clinician and staunch advocate of the vaquero tradition, owns one bit made by Hansen and is having another made.
"There's a lot more to it than getting two pieces of metal and welding them together," said Caldwell, who has known Hansen for about 15 years.
"Todd's real meticulous, he really understands balance. He makes sure everything's in line and in balance," Caldwell said.
He has known Hansen to throw a mouthpiece in the trash if the symmetry is off by a fraction of an inch.
He also appreciates Hansen's willingness to experiment.
Hansen is making Caldwell a Las Cruces-style bit, but with a loose jaw rather than the traditional solid jaw.
"On the cheek pieces, it will have two guys roping a bear," Caldwell said.
The silver inlay pays homage to early day buckaroos, who roped bears for sport.
Clinicians like Caldwell try to dispel what they consider misconceptions about vaquero gear, especially the idea that a spade bit is cruel. Properly used, the spade bit is a signal bit, not a leverage or pressure bit, Caldwell said.
A slight movement of the rider's hand gives a well-trained horse the signal to pay attention and collect itself to respond to a command.
Caldwell compares it to the difference between driving a Volkswagen without power steering and a Mercedes-Benz.
"With the Mercedes, you barely move your hand an inch, and the signal's there," he said.
When Hansen makes bits and spurs, he usually starts from a flat sheet of steel. He begins with the bit's mouthpiece, then does the cheeks, or side pieces.
"When I go to balance those cheeks, I've got to have my mouthpiece down, so I can get a feel of how it's going to hang and move," he said.
Then he removes the steel from where the silver inlay will go.
"I put that silver in there so it's nice and flat and it's airtight."
He usually sketches decorative designs on paper then transfers them to metal. He saves the rein chains, the most repetitious part, for last.
His wife sometimes describes her husband's style of silverwork as "bling-y."
"We come up with the wow factor," Hansen said. "Whether they go, ‘Wow, I really love it,' or ‘Wow, I really hate it,' one way or another you got a wow out of them."