Story by Sarah Naron
MADISONVILLE – For the typical business, the road leading up to the grand opening of their doors is one paved with sweat, tireless hours of groundwork, advertising, and the like.
For Nettles Country in Madisonville, however, it all started with a man on a horse and no intention of ballooning into the successful entity it is today.
“Businesses come along, and they have a business plan, they have their mission statement, they have their money behind them,” said Gala Nettles, a co-owner of the establishment. “We didn’t even know those words, much less how to do it.”
Gala explained that her husband, Ronnie – a champion cutting horse rider – was searching for a better quality of stirrups for his personal use.
“He’s trained horses all his life and knew that stirrups should be more than just a place to put your foot; they’re supposed to help you ride,” she explained. “He wrapped his legs with vet wrap, which we use on horses, because they would get so sore and raw from riding from daylight to dark.”
Ronnie remained unable to find a satisfactory stirrup, Gala said.
“I wanted a rocking horse for Christmas that year – not just any rocking horse, an heirloom rocking horse,” she recalled. “And every one I found, he didn’t like.”
On December 16, Gala and Ronnie embarked on a trip to see the final rocking horse that she had selected – a product which was met with the latter’s disapproval.
“I just happened to whip a picture out of my purse that I had and told him he had nine days to build it,” Gala laughed. “Christmas Eve night, after we got home from church, he finished it.”
In addition to constructing the rocking horse itself, Ronnie crafted an accompanying saddle and stirrups.
“I looked for some little stirrups, and I couldn’t find any,” he shared. “So, I just got the idea to laminate some wood together and make a pair of stirrups. I made a little pair of Oxbows, because we all rode Oxbows then.”
“I didn’t have any oak, but I had a brand-new wheelbarrow handle I had bought, so I cut that up and made two pairs of stirrups,” he said.
Even after the creation of those first stirrups, Gala said, the idea of starting a business never cross their minds.
“We weren’t that smart,” she said. “But one person after another decided they liked them, and it just grew. We were fortunate enough that a couple of the better cutters like them and had them. We had a business before we knew we had a business.”
Ronnie recalled that the first transaction involving Nettles stirrups took place in a parking lot in Abilene.
“I had made some for ladies; I went to the stock show that year and took some stirrups over to the lady booth, and they wanted me to build them some,” he explained. “So, I built several pair and took them to that show in Abilene.”
After failing to succeed in selling the stirrups, Ronnie elected to keep one pair for himself and divest another as a gift.
“I walked out of the building and met Buster Welch in the parking lot, and he bought the first pair,” Ronnie divulged. “I put the other pair in the truck with Gala, and she was talking to a friend of hers, who bought the other pair.”
According to Ronnie, the stirrups produced in Nettles Country – the collective name for the businesses – “revolutionized the stirrups industry.
“When we built the stirrups accidentally, there wasn’t a good wood stirrup on the market,” he said. “The only wood stirrup they had was what they called a wood stirrup metal bound.”
Ronnie explained that this product consisted of a single piece of wood roughly 3/8 inch thick which was bent and cloaked in metal.
“The reason they did that was because the stirrups were real weak; they would crack in the corners when they would bend them,” he shared. “So, they put that metal around them to kind of stabilize them and keep them from coming apart.”
In contrast, Nettles stirrups are made through lamination.
“With lamination, you’re only bending thin pieces of wood,” Ronnie said. “It doesn’t crack the wood or stress it real bad, and then, when you laminate it together, it makes it a lot stronger. That also gave us the opportunity to use a thicker piece of wood, which would be stronger.”
As with many successful products, Nettles stirrups have seen their fair share of attempted imitations.
“We didn’t know to patent the stirrups; we didn’t even know about patents,” Gala said. “So, out come the copycats. China can make things a whole lot cheaper than us.”
“Not better, but cheaper,” Ronnie added.
“The first time I learned about them, Ronnie was gone to a show, and I got a call,” Gala remembered. “This guy said, ‘I have been sold a pair of stirrups I was told was a Nettles. I just got up against the fence, and they broke all to pieces.’”
Obviously dissatisfied with the faulty product, the caller expressed his desire to obtain a pair of authentic stirrups.
“He was at a show not too far away, and he was coming through on his way home,” Gala shared. “It was a Saturday, and we closed at three o’ clock. I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll stay here and wait on your if you will let me have those stirrups.’”
Rather than seeing the situation as a setback, Gala took the imitation stirrups – which she described as “just disintegrated” – and used them to benefit the business while on an annual trip to demonstrate and sell the products at a market in Denver.
“I went and bought several of these knockoff stirrups,” she said. “You can take a Nettles stirrup in its wooden form without a pin in it and try to pull it apart, and you can’t do it. So, I took the pins out of the others.”
When her first customer approached the booth, Gala offered to prove the strength of a Nettles stirrup.
“He takes the Nettles and pulls and pulls and can’t do it,” she recalled.
Gala then presented the copycat stirrup and instructed the customer to attempt to break it as he had done the first.
“He pulled and broke it,” she said. “That kind of word goes quickly. So, the knockoffs really kind of helped us.”
Among the reasons the copycat stirrups failed, Ronnie explained, was the fact that acceptable materials were not available to the producers.
“They don’t have hardwood in China, so the wood that they used was pine and softwood,” he said. “They just weren’t a very good product, on top of that. They didn’t incorporate the things into the stirrup that we did. They were just building something that they saw; they didn’t really know what they were building, probably.”
In addition to Gala’s test utilizing the imitation stirrup, Ronnie has put the product to the test in his own way.
“I jacked my one-ton Dually up and put a piece of ¾ inch ply board under the front wheel and set the truck down on that stirrup to see if it would hold up,” he explained. “The weight of the truck busted the ¾ inch ply board and didn’t phase the stirrup. So, that’s how strong they are. Not that you can’t break them, but it’s really hard to do.”
Some of the business’s customers, he said, have been riding with the same pair of stirrups for as long as 25 years.
“I guess we don’t do things the American way,” he said. “We try to build a product that lasts forever. Nowadays, you buy something, use it for a while, throw it away, and buy another one. We don’t work that way.”
The stirrups produced by Nettles, Ronnie said, are available in a variety of forms.
“We’re all built different; we all ride different,” he pointed out. “We try to build a product that will perform well for a person under certain conditions. So, we’ve come up with a lot of styles over the years that work pretty well.”
In addition to keeping a close eye on the value of the products it produces, the business has also taken measures to ensure that the supply can stay in tune with the demand.
“Over the years, we’ve tried to increase production with machinery as much as we can,” Ronnie said. “If we were just totally using labor, it would be so cost-prohibitive that we couldn’t sell the stirrups for enough to make a profit. Also, speed enters into it; we have to be able to mass-produce.”
Much of the machinery utilized, Ronnie added, is custom-made.
“With this business, you can’t just go down somewhere and buy the machinery you need to build these things, because it’s such a different product,” he explained. “So, we’ve built a lot of our own machinery.”
In addition to the stirrups business, the couple also owns and operates a store specializing in unique home décor. The building which houses both entities, Ronnie revealed, is a converted covered arena.
“We actually started out in a garage shop,” he said of the stirrup operation. “Of course, we outgrew that pretty quick. I just moved out to the covered arena. The building is 120 feet long. There was a room that was 80 feet wide, and then, you had 12-foot stralls and 12-foot alleyways on both sides of that. So, we just started taking panels out of the stalls and building the stirrups in the stalls.”
At the time, Ronnie added, the couple was in the process of selling the building, but the transaction fell through since the prospective buyer was unable to gather the funds.
“My nephew worked for us at that time, and he had worked for a trailer house company for years and moved a lot of double-wides and stuff,” Ronnie said. “When he came to work one night, I said, ‘Mark, do you think we could move this building out on the road?’”
Upon learning that such a move was a possibility, Ronnie had a foundation poured and the 80×120 arena moved to its present-day location. The front portion of the building houses the store, while the back is used for the production of stirrups.
Although Gala had desired the store, she said, the end result greatly exceeded her expectations. At the time at which the arena was relocated, she was out of town tending to a sick relative.
“I never will forget the day I came home and walked out there,” she laughed. “My idea of the store was not their idea of the store. I was thinking 20 feet. It was quite a shock, but it’s been great.”
The goal of the store, Gala said, is to provide consumers with unique products to bring a special touch to their homes.
“If you can get it anywhere else, what am I doing here?” she asked.
In the beginning, Gala shared, the store’s inventory had a Western motif and has since changed directions.
“Although there’s always going to be a Western emphasis – because that’s who we are – it has shifted to more things that would fit any household.”
The desire to stand out from other stores of its kind, however, has remained steadfast.
“I don’t want to be out here in competition with other stores,” Gala said. “That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to try to have the unusual. Naturally, we’re like everybody else – we go to market, and you’re going to find some pillows that somebody else has and things like that. But a lot of it is unique and different.”
Gala attributed the success of both the stirrup business and the store to Ronnie.
“Quite honestly, all of this had ridden on the coattail of his championships,” she explained. “Ronnie’s a Hall of Fame cutting horse trainer. He’s won Futurity, which is the Super Bowl of the cutting horse industry. He’s done real well for himself and made a good name for himself.”