Stirrups keep couple riding high

STAVELY, Alta. — Custom-made, high-quality stirrups for western saddles kept Keith and Sheila Wilson riding the range.

For the Wilsons, the only way to raise more money from their 320-acre operation was to expand. They could enlarge the 100-sow hog barn, raise more than the present 150 head of yearlings, or have Keith work off the farm. The choices didn’t appeal to them.

While the couple thought about their future, Keith was asked by a local saddle maker, John Visser, to make a set of high-quality stirrups. Keith’s metal working skills and love of horses were well known in the community. He uses both to design and build the stirrups.

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Initially, he built only a few sets each month, but word of mouth soon drove the Wilsons’ stirrup business to expand from when it began, about five years ago.

This year Keith hopes to build more than 250 pair, selling for about $100, primarily to custom saddle makers from as far away as Australia and Texas.

“There is a renewed love of horses and riding out there and the market is expanding,” said Sheila. Keith also builds stirrups on individual order. Clients request large foot sizes, overshoe stirrups, and different widths and grips for various riding activities.

“These are not show stirrups, these are working stirrups. The people who are ordering ours are working ranchers and cowboys,” said Keith.

However, there are several pairs supporting Hollywood celebrities. Alberta rancher and country music star Ian Tyson and his wife each ride with the custom-made stirrups.

The elements that set Keith’s stirrups apart from others are quality and purpose.

The outer design is created by a brass or nickel-plated, copper-nickel alloy called monel. It’s a soft, lightweight metal.

The custom-formed oak frames are bent and steamed from green wood. Most commercial stirrups are made of wood or plastic, bent into a U-shape and covered with leather for strength.

Didn’t meet standards

The couple said they have burned plenty of oak that didn’t meet their tough quality demands.

“They are lightweight and strong. We have only ever had one break. It took a horse falling on it just right to do that,” said Keith.

Initially working from a shed with “more holes than a cheese grater,” Keith moved the business into a modest three-by-four metre shop and the garage of their new home.

“We have been able to keep our costs down by letting the stirrups sell themselves,” he said.

Sheila, when not working part-time at the local auction market, handles orders, bills and shipping. The stirrups provide a good income without the extra costs of expanding the farm.

It has put money in their pockets and given them some “breathing room” for the first time since they began farming.

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