The owners of Heritage Brand LLC, the Bend-based maker of customized horse tack, next month are off to their biggest event of the year, the Cowboy Christmas trade show in Las Vegas.
It’s a showcase for all things related to rodeos and, especially for Jim and Jessica Crouch, cowgirls and barrel racers, too. Their business started as a hobby but, thanks in part to trade shows and social media, has developed a worldwide following.
The husband-and-wife team, rodeo veterans themselves, recalled the first time they showed their creations, at the 2004 Las Vegas show. Their version of breast collars and headstalls, or bridles, evoked stares and comments.
“Bling was for teeth and rings,” Jim Crouch said. “It wasn’t for putting on your horse.”
Jessica Crouch, who still doodles new designs in a sketchbook, used crystals from Austrian supplier Swarovski AG to embellish hand-tooled leather for her own creations. Her fashion sense evolved from there to colored hides, buck stitches, fringe and more. Their clientele grew as their products gained notice, they said.
Cutting a trail through the fashion industry, even in the world of horse fashion, isn’t easy. But the Crouches endured, and today they like to say they set the pace.
“We’re in the forefront of designing products for this industry, far in the forefront,” said Jim Crouch. “Most companies are six months to a year behind, and then they kind of look and see what we do, then emulate it.”
The concept behind Heritage Brand began with the personal touch Jessica Crouch, a barrel racer, added to her own horse tack. The couple started the business in 2002, around the time they moved from Vancouver, Washington, to Bend. Jim Crouch’s family owned construction companies, but the stress of that business prompted him to turn with his wife, a former elementary school teacher, to the world of horse fashion.
“If somebody doesn’t like their $300 headstall, you can just give them their money back,” Jessica Crouch said. “If they don’t like their $1 million house you built them, a custom home, it’s a little more tricky.”
Heritage Brand creations start with leather from Hermann Oak Leather Co. of St. Louis. Each item goes through 120 to 125 individual steps and four or five employees’ hands, each adding a special touch, before it’s finished, the Crouches said. Each piece is worked by hand, including hand carving and tooling by Jim’s father, Jim Crouch Sr. From horse tack, the company expanded to bracelets and dog collars. The five-year plan includes one day making their own line of saddles, the Crouches said.
Heritage Brand horse tack sets sell from $400 to $1,200. Their customers live anywhere from Brazil to Germany, with most of their goods going to Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and other places in the South and West. Barrel racers are still their biggest customers.
“It’s just like dressing up,” Jessica Crouch said. “It serves a purpose; there is a functionality to it, but it really is just pretty. It’s like having a nice purse or a fancy pair of heels or something. The girls buy it because it’s fun, flashy.”
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Q: How did Heritage Brand fare during the Great Recession?
A: Jessica Crouch: Interestingly enough, our business grew at its most rapid rate between 2009 and 2014, roughly. A lot of it has to do with the fact that our market is down south and overseas. Although the economy wasn’t doing well in the U.S., the oil industry was booming, and there are a lot of our customers in that industry.
Q: You attribute a large part of the company growth to being able to put your image out there on social media.
A: Jessica Crouch: I would absolutely say that. As soon as Facebook became common, (the business) just exponentially exploded. Suddenly people knew about us.