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Bit and Spur Maker to the Stars

by Kendra Santos, PRCA Director of Communications | Jun 09, 2014
Gordy Alderson

My most vivid memory of Gordy Alderson from his rodeo days was seeing him settle in for the evening in the cowboy parking lot at a rodeo in Colorado. It was starting to rain, so before retiring for the night into the camper on the back of his truck, he took his garden party inside the old red gooseneck trailer (the one with $10 tires tied to the side with piggin’ strings, because of all the blowouts that come with a broken axle) hooked to the back of that truck, popped the top on a can of beans and—singing to himself all the while—heated them up on a hibachi. Dinner is served. I liked his style then, and the fame and fortune that go with being a bit and spur maker to the stars of the cowboy sport hasn’t changed him half an ounce.

Fast forward to today, when I got my first gander at Gordy’s shop in Tucson, Ariz. I thought my office décor—which features some of my sons’ trophy saddles circling the wagons around the centerpiece pool table, with accents like Ty Murray’s chaps and the shirt Trevor Brazile was wearing in Round 10 at the 2009 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo when he tied Ty’s record for most all-around championships ever, was spectacularly ranchy chic. But my professional digs don’t start Gordy’s. Heck, the entire ceiling of his shop is wallpapered with decades of magazine and newspaper clippings of the Who’s Who in Rodeo being chronicled with his handiwork helping their cause—from their horses’ mouths to the back of their boots.

Gordy, who’s 51 now and lives in Tucson with his wife, Kelly (who’s one and the same as that beautiful blonde national college rodeo champ Kelly Kay), and their three kids, daughters, Whitney and Sarah, and son, Hunter, does not advertise his wares. And don’t bother asking him for a business card. There isn’t one. “Word of mouth has kept me behind for over 20 years,” he laughs. “It would be a waste of money for me to advertise, because it’s to the point where I cringe when the phone rings. It’s almost damage control trying to get everything done that everybody wants and needs. I’ve had Michael Jordan wearing my tennis shoes since day one. The first bits I made were for Roy Cooper, Joe Beaver and Brent Lewis.”

This guy’s too cool to need a professional, polished sales pitch, and that’s probably a good thing. Because if you think his shop looks like Home on the Range just after a tornado blew through town, get online and go to gabitsandspurs.com. Your one action-item option will be to double click on the Gordy Alderson price sheet. Check it out. There, you’ll find small, caveman-quality cell-phone shots of bits and spurs he’s made for a long list of rodeo royals—Trevor Brazile, Jake Barnes, Clay O’Brien Cooper, Roy Cooper, Joe Beaver, Fred Whitfield, Cody Ohl, Shane Hanchey, Brent Lewis, Stran Smith, Monty Lewis, Blair Burk, Steve Duhon, Sid Steiner, Lee Graves, Mickey Gee, K.C. Jones…Need I go on? Like this one-man party, Gordy’s list of cowboy clients never ends. You’ll know who each piece is for because Gordy’s written the guy’s name on a corner of paper and shoved it into the shot with the bit or spurs.

My personal favorite note in Gordy’s cowboy penmanship is the one on Roy’s bit explaining that he made it out of one of Topper’s horseshoes. Like the Super Looper himself, Topper could not be beat in his day. It’s also cool to me that spurs Gordy made for actor Robert Duvall and singer Garth Brooks, and one of several bits he made for “King George” Strait are identified on the website the exact same way—jotted down in the same black ink in Gordy’s handwriting. And Alderson Bits and Spurs aren’t just Made in America. They’re made with Gordy’s own two hands.

“A lot of people and companies have copied my stuff with imports over the years, but it hasn’t hurt my business,” he said. “People don’t want a piece of junk from China, whether it looks like one of mine or not.”

There are 37 mouthpieces shown in one crowded lineup-style shot on the website, but hey, don’t feel fenced in. “Gordy’s never been afraid to try anything,” said Trevor, the winningest cowboy of all time, who owns 13 Alderson Bits and some of his spurs, too. “You can tell him what you’re thinking about, and he never looks at you like you’re crazy. He never let go of a good, handmade product, but he also is a forward thinker. I’ve been on the cover of a lot of magazines using Gordy’s bits (Trevor’s using one of Gordy’s bits in a popular Wrangler ad where he’s riding the palomino horse Rio, who now belongs to Tuf Cooper). Gordy isn’t just a silversmith or an ironsmith. He’s a true bit maker, who knows how a bit feels in a horse’s mouth—not just in your hand. A lot of us have learned a lot from him just talking to him while ordering bits.”

Trevor’s wife, Shada, is the niece of another Alderson friend and fan in 2008 World Champion Tie-Down Roper Stran Smith. “I have no less than 250-300 bits hanging in my tack room, and of the 30 I use on a regular basis, 25 of them are Gordy Alderson Bits,” Stran said. “Gordy thinks outside the box, and that’s how significant he is with my business—he made 90 percent of the bits I use consistently. He understands what we, as professional ropers and horsemen, are looking for from our horses. He’s a great roper himself, so he gets it. Guys who’ve literally ridden thousands of horses use Gordy’s bits. He’s taken the top one percent of the top one percent in the history of rodeo and used those guys’ knowledge to make bits that work for what we do. Gordy’s more than just a bit maker. He knows who’s heavy-handed and who’s light-handed, so he can design a bit that specifically works for a certain guy on a certain horse.”

On this day, Gordy made a bit for reigning World Champion Tie-Down Roper Shane Hanchey to use on Boss, the horse he just bought from Blair Burk, that Blair rode at the 2007 and ’09 NFRs. “I asked Blair what bit to use on him, and he said, ‘Get Gordy to make you this one, only with your own initials on it.’ So that’s what I did. Tuf (Cooper) took me to Gordy’s shop the first time when we were in Tucson my rookie year (2009). It’s obvious the first time you walk in the door that he’s not in it for the glitz and glamour. The coolest thing about Gordy is his personality. He hangs out with himself in that little shack and builds bits and spurs. And he’s happy about that.”

The best people at everything in life are the ones who love it the most. “I’m like the infamous Napoleon Dynamite when they ask him, ‘What are you going to do today? And he says, ‘Whatever I want,’ ” smiles Gordy, who last year borrowed a guy’s horse and without a single practice run won a rodeo at 50. Just wanted to see if he still had it.

Gordy rodeoed pretty hard in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and came close to making the Finals more than once. He shod horses to make ends meet on the road, and turned off his truck and parked it in Tucson, “when my wife’s biological clock started to tick.” In 1990, he was working for a guy who made window guards, gates and screen doors. It was in that shop that Gordy started experimenting with bits and spurs on the side.

“I made 10 bits and took them with me to Denver,” he remembers. “And I sold them all. So I took 10 more to Fort Worth and sold them all. Then I quit working for that guy, built a little shop in a horse stall at my house and started making bits. I give credit to Tom Balding, not in the design of my bits, but for showing me how to make things efficiently. He’s a fabricating genius.

“I learned the most from the guys I was building the bits and spurs for. Those guys wanted stuff custom-made that they couldn’t get anywhere else—stuff that worked. Guys like Brent Lewis, Dee Pickett, Fred Whitfield, Joe Beaver, Clay O’Brien Cooper—all the big shots in the ’90s took a chance on me and my work. I give my cowboy customers the most credit.”

From that other guy’s shop, Gordy “moved up” to his own 20’ by 20’, 50-year-old garage. Perhaps it was a lateral move. “There are spider webs in this shop that are 10 years old,” he confessed without caring.

Gordy drives a ’96 Dodge with 300,000 miles on it. I have found the male me, and you guessed it: “It’s paid for.”

Gordy’s had chances to expand his already booming business and make a lot more money, but he’s taken a pass. “I’ve had plenty of opportunities to mass-produce my stuff out of the country, but a friend once told me, ‘Keep it small, or your business will run you.’ If I want to close this baby up and go to Montana for a month in the summer, I just leave. I make less money, but I’m totally in control. And that’s the way I want to keep it. I can make enough money and be happy running my own show. I get to walk to work, and if I want to sleep in or shut down and go rope, I just do it.”

One key reason he’s a bit and spur maker to the stars is because he speaks their language. He listens to the needs of each guy’s goals and sometimes problems with each horse, and helps solve the situation. “You don’t need to have the exact right bit, but you can’t have the wrong one,” Gordy says.

There are nights Gordy watches the NFR on TV and the winners in all three timed events have his bits in their horses’ mouths. He’s even made bits for bulldoggers who don’t even own a horse.

Gordy Alderson has decided to be happy. He thanks God every day for all he’s got instead of cussing Him for what he doesn’t have. His house burned down a year ago June 1 while he was soaking up some sun under a cowboy hat on a beach in Maui. “In the grand scheme of things, that’s minor,” he said. “People get cancer every day. If money can fix it, it ain’t a problem.”

He sings at weddings, funerals and Cowboy Church. He’s especially smitten with old Merle Haggard songs, and has been known to make up his own version of lyrics in honor of his cowboy friends. One of the best ones is about our friend Joe B.

“I think I have one of Gordy’s first 10 bits and first spurs,” said the eight-time champ of the world. “He went to school in Huntsville (where Beaver lives), so I got to know him then. I bet I’ve bought 60 of his bits through the years. He makes good ones. He listens to you and makes them how you want them. And he’s not afraid to change things up. Gordy’s not stuck in tradition.”

Fellow eight-time World Titlist Fred Whitfield has been on the Gordy Alderson bandwagon for many moons, too. “I’ve still got a bit Gordy made my rookie year (1990),” he said. “He’s made my bits since he started making bits. I have a few other bits, too, but I only use Gordy’s spurs. I got a new pair of spurs from him the other day. He has to turn work away. His craftsmanship is unmatched, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t ride a good horse with a $35 store-bought bit. Every horse needs a bit that works for him, and I have all kinds of different ones. Gordy makes one of the most balanced bits there is. If you have a problem with a horse, Gordy can build you a bit to fix it. He puts a lot of quality into his work, and it shows. You get results from Gordy Alderson Bits and Spurs, there’s no doubt about it.”

These aren’t paid endorsements, folks. These guys are Gordy’s friends, and as hard as they laugh at the character he is, they’re seriously grateful on the business side. “Gordy’s a great bit and spur maker,” six-time World Champion Cowboy Cody Ohl says matter of factly. “I’ve won everything I’ve won with an Alderson Bit and Alderson Spurs. He’s also a pretty good prankster.”

As is two-time World Champion Team Roper Patrick Smith. But like the rest of the champs, he’s all business in the arena with his family’s present and future at stake. “I like a classy, cowboy-looking bit,” Patrick said. “Not a lot of bling, just enough to look good. I like Gordy’s stuff because it works. And it’s tough, too.”

You’ll find Gordy’s spurs on the back of reigning World Champion Header Clay Tryan’s boots. “Gordy’s a cowboy,” Clay said. “He knows how it’s supposed to work and look. Everybody uses his stuff, because he’s the best.”

It’s unanimous, whether you’re talking to a future Hall of Famer like Clay or a seven-time World Champion Header and Hall of Fame living legend like Jake Barnes. “Gordy made me a pair of spurs early on in my career, and I’m still wearing them today,” Jake said, looking down at his boot in the stirrup. “These spurs are on my boots 24-7. They fit my boots perfectly, and I just really like them. Everyone has a different idea of what they want, and Gordy builds exactly what you want to spec. Most bits and spurs today are mass-produced, so they’re pretty generic. Gordy makes all of his stuff by hand. They aren’t knockoffs made in China. There’s some love put into every piece. He’s a cowboy, he loves cowboys and they love him. Everything he makes is custom-made with his own two hands.”

Don’t let me leave you with the impression that Gordy’s the only game in town when it comes to bits and spurs. He wouldn’t want it that way, and we’re both into telling it like it is. A lot of us have bits Paul Petska’s made in our tack rooms, too, for example. If you don’t know Paul, he’s an NFR header who’s also Monty Joe’s brother and Cory’s dad.

“I have a lot of Gordy’s bits and spurs, and I’ve used them a bunch over the years,” said ProRodeo Hall of Fame team roper Clay O’Brien Cooper, who heeled for Jake in all seven of their gold-buckle seasons. “I’ve also used four or five Petska Bits a lot the last 15 years or so. It comes down to the feel in your hands, and what bits fit that.”

Clay rode his iconic buckskin horse Ike at an incredible 13 NFRs, every one of them using one of Gordy’s bits. Gordy even made one out of Ike’s horseshoes, just like he did for Topper. The late and very great Ike ran his last steer with one of Gordy’s bits in his mouth. “Gordy’s made a lot of cool bits and spurs for me over the years,” Clay continued. “I like his craftsmanship and his good-guy personality. He’s a real success story. Gordy does a great job in his work, and has made what the great ropers of the last 25 years dreamed up. If you and your horse have a problem, you can just give Gordy a call and he’s got a solution. That’s been happening forever and ever, and it’s why he has a reputation with the elite cowboys as a go-to guy. Part of the whole equation is that everybody loves and appreciates Gordy. He’s fun and he’s upbeat. And he’s always working on something, whether it’s his roping or his craft. I bet it’s fun to wake up and be Gordy Alderson.”

Courtesy of PRCA