A Day in the Life: Nettles Stirrups

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Photos by Libby Rogers

Three words describe this homegrown business from start to finish—necessity, ingenuity, and excellence. The story of Nettles Stirrups begins with the following event involving a grandson, Christmastime, and a gift.

Meet Gala Nettles, avid writer, author of 17 books, and grandmother, who was determined that her first grandson receive an heirloom-quality rocking horse for Christmas. Now meet Ronnie Nettles, Hall of Fame Cutting Horse Trainer, and grandfather to Duce Harper. Not finding a suitable rocking horse, Ronnie built one the week prior to Christmas, and laminated the wood for the right-sized little stirrups. Liking what he made, he decided to build a pair for himself and sacrificed a wheelbarrow, using the oak handles for the laminates. This was the first pair of regular-sized laminated stirrups. These stirrups gave the most comfortable and pain-free fit he had ever experienced in all his years of riding. That was 30 years ago, and this first pair of stirrups sit proudly on the shelf in his office today, scuffed and worn from long hours of rugged use!

Friends began asking for stirrups and, as Gala said, “My kitchen became a manufacturing plant.” Realizing that there was a true need for quality and comfortable stirrups, Ronnie, Gala, and their son Robby Richardson began what has now become a highly productive business with a worldwide reach. Nettles Stirrups are, indeed, known for their quality and comfort, with many features evolving through the constant search for ways to improve their products. With Ronnie having been in the saddle for 30 years, he brings his knowledge and wisdom to the process so that many types of issues have been addressed and problems solved for riders of all ages. “It’s the little details that matter,” he knowingly comments. “I used to wrap my legs in vet tape to reduce pain and cover raw places caused from stirrup pressure while in the saddle. All of our stirrup styles and sizes have been created to meet a need and are designed to provide the most comfortable fit possible for every rider.”

Nettles Stirrups are handmade using laminate strips which give the stirrup great strength and durability. This is the feature that has always made Nettles Stirrups unique. Prior to this time, stirrups were fashioned from one piece of wood and would easily crack during the manufacturing process. Not so with the laminate design, which is strong and lasting. “The advantage to our customers is that the stirrups last a long time. And the disadvantage to us,” Ronny says with a wry grin, “is that they last a long time!“ Gala adds, “We have made friends with so many customers who love and have confidence in our product. That says it all.”

Each day begins at 8 a.m. in the Madisonville facility with the selection of a log from the large pile in the back of the shop. When they began the business in 1986, the Nettles purchased pre-cut laminates, but found supplying the wood component in this way to be very expensive. They subsequently purchased a band saw at the cost of $10,000, quite pricey at that time, and cut their own laminates. As business grew, the need for a larger supply of wood and more productive equipment became apparent. This led to the purchase of a sawmill and the harvesting of their own trees. This they did for several years, until just recently when they began securing wood through loggers. They consume several truckloads of logs each year.

As morning production begins, saws begin to buzz as an employee cuts wood for the day. A log is first cut into laminate strips, then the pieces are run through a machine which shaves and sands them. Next, they are graded, placed in a cooker, then bent into shape and placed in “keeper” forms until dry. When dry, the assembled pieces are placed in forms for gluing, the responsibility of Brian Millikan.

The gluing machine, along with many of the machines and other pieces of equipment are ingenious creations in and of themselves. With the advent of laminated stirrups came the need for machinery which could accomplish the needed tasks from start to finish. Many of these machines had to be designed and built for these purposes, there being no source for their purchase. Ronnie spent many hours thinking through how these tasks could be accomplished, then designed the equipment, and with the help of his good friend, Clayton Dorn, built these machines. Gala laughs when commenting about times when Ronnie is deep in thought, and she always asks him, “What are you building?” “He is always creating something new or solving a problem. He never stops! In fact, the very facility which houses our store and manufacturing facility was his indoor training arena for several years. He cut the 120-foot structure into three pieces, moved it to the new location, and dropped the pieces perfectly into place. He always finds a way to accomplish his plan!”

After the pieces of laminate have been glued, the stirrup is then cut into the appropriate width and length, sanded, buffed, and drilled for the placement of the pin. These tasks are in the deft hands of finishers Ryan Langolf and Robby Richardson, depending on the type of stirrup. The Premier line goes to the paint room where Robby applies the stain or lacquer, then to Marty Fraley who fits it with a pin, or the Leveler if ordered by the customer. Stirrups finally move to the lacing booth, where Wayne Gray adds treads and lacings. Secretary Lastell Fraley handles invoicing and shipping.

Nettles Stirrups come in three styles, each with its own target market. “The Blank,” a 4-layer, raw wood product, is sold wholesale to saddle makers who cover it with either rawhide or leather to match the saddle it will append. “The Duke” is comprised of 5 layers of laminate, then stained, finished with a nice pin and tread, and is saddle-ready. It serves as the middle-product line and is aptly named for the beloved actor John Wayne, the epitome of the tough, no-nonsense cowboy of the American West. “The Premier,” appropriately named, as it serves as the top of the line product, is structured using 6 layers of laminate for additional strength and is given a dressier look. Both “The Duke” and “The Premier” are sold to saddle companies, in tack stores and other retail locations, and at Nettles Country as well. Stirrup sizes include Youth, Petite, Regular, Oversized, and Overshoe.

The Leveler, as mentioned above, is another ingenious creation by Ronnie that has solved a problem wrestled with since the 1800s. Its purpose is to allow the stirrup to adjust itself to the rider’s foot placement rather than forcing it into an uncomfortable position usually resulting, over a period of time, in foot, ankle, leg, and hip pain. The comfort that this invention has provided to riders is attested to again and again. Jamie Iversen-Steen speaks for many when she comments,

“I just wanted to let you know that I used the Nettles stirrups with the leveler all last summer running barrels, and I love them! I had a lot of knee/ankle pain, and since I have ridden with those stirrups, the pain is almost gone! I recommend the leveler to everyone I run across. Thanks for making such a great product and allowing me to do what I love without pain again! I have ridden with your stirrups for quite a while and have loved them, but the leveler has taken it to the next level even!”

This comment from Christine Cossens also praises the Leveler, “I love mine. No more searching for the right spot in the stirrups. The right spot is any place your foot is, no stress on your knees.”

As both Ronnie and Gala have said, solving problems and meeting needs have always been motivating factors for the existence of this company.

At 5 pm, after a full day of work, the employees head home, proud of the fact that several new shipments of high quality Nettles Stirrups are ready for work! Ronnie and Gala continue to work late into the evening, answering emails, working on new orders, and dreaming up innovative solutions that will result in more happy Nettles Stirrups customers!

Before we close the book on a Day in the Life of Nettles Stirrups, we have a few finishing details to take care of. These involve the Marines, a President, and one very grateful customer. The Nettles were pleased when they could supply a pair of stirrups as part of a specially designed saddle, a gift from the United States Marines to a young Marine, now a paraplegic. The Marine emblem was etched into the stirrups. And, a former Commander-in-Chief, George W. Bush, is the proud owner of a pair. Only the best will do!

And lastly, one very fortunate and grateful customer approached Gala as she manned their booth at a show in Jackson, Mississippi. He was on crutches, had an arm in a cast, an injured shoulder and facial lacerations. He looked to have “lost the fight” but, indeed, had won it! His horse fell on him after slipping on a rock. Fortunately, the week prior to the accident, he had decided to put the Nettles Stirrups on his saddle, which he had purchased some time earlier. They most likely saved his life! When the horse fell on him, the weight of it broke the stirrup, allowing his foot to be freed before his horse tore down the road on a two-mile run. Had he been in his aluminum stirrups, his foot probably would have been trapped in the crushed metal and the end of the story not so good. His “thank you” to Gala certainly expressed his appreciation for the necessity, ingenuity, and excellence that are Nettles Stirrups!

Contact information is available on their website at www.nettles-stirrups.com, or visit the store at 1087 Nettles Lane, Madisonville, TX 77864.

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