In the first or second year of our business, around 1979 or ’80, at a jewelry show, I met a couple of guys who were dressed in cowboy shirts, and they were selling some cowboy-style accoutrements: bolo ties, boot tips, collar tips, things like that. I asked them about the stuff, and they told me they do these trail rides with a group called the “Kosmic Kowboys.” The next thing I knew, I was on one of the rides. We went to a place called Kykuit, which is up on the Rockefeller Estate in the Adirondacks. You pack in all your grain, your feed, and your food. I didn’t have a horse at the time, so I borrowed one. That was the beginning of it.
With two exceptions, we’ve gone once a year—sometimes twice—since then. I’ve never missed a ride. Throughout the last 15 years or so, we’ve been riding out West, in Arizona, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming. Next year, we’re going to ride in the Tetons. It’s pretty much the same group of guys, about 12 to 15 of us. We ride easy and drink a bit of tequila along the way. We stay loose. In the last 10 years, we’ve been staying indoors at cabins, occasionally with a night or two out. When we first rode, we only stayed outdoors.
During the ride in ’97, outside of King City, California, this guy Earl said, “I know who you are—you’re a jeweler. You oughtta set up some little depots out here and sell some jewelry to the hikers.” I thought he had to be kidding. He said, “Seriously, I want your bracelet. How can I get one?” In time, I decided what I would do is create an award that goes to the best-dressed on the ride. I said, “Earl, if you want a bracelet, you’ve really got to clean up.” I made the award a bracelet, and I’ve given out around 14 of them to date. The guys have really started dressing up, many of them wearing things like leather gloves with fringe. Once, I thought a guy was the worst-dressed—he came as a train engineer, wearing Oshkosh striped overalls—but he was definitely the most original.
After the award started, I became the creative director of the Kosmic Kowboys. I’ve done scarves, hats, jackets (one was with a rendition of Porky Pig in chaps; the title text was “Squeal Like a Pig”). The Salmon River ride in Idaho, in 2007, was one of my favorite designs. I did a composite for it of a salmon and a saddle—basically, the idea of saddling a salmon.
I now own three horses. One of them, commonly known as Cluck (his real name is Chicken Enchilada, which is kind of embarrassing, for him and for everyone else), is world-class; I compete in dressage with him. The other two horses, Nifty and Jessie, I’m training to be trail horses, because they don’t really know what a stream is. They haven’t been around a lot of things that pop up, like pheasants and dogs and people running on trails. Getting them to understand that moving water is not something that’s going to hurt them will take a bit of time.
The best thing about horses is that you’re around these big animals that are incredibly sweet. They’re like perfect beings. They smell fear. They sense and hear your heartbeat. They know a lot more than you think they do. It’s always nice to be welcomed by them, because [your affection] is not [always] requited. They make a choice whether they want to join up with you or not. You just have to lower your whole body temperature and get into a good state of mind. What that does is take all the worry of an incredibly busy life out of your body.
A lot of riding is about just letting go and trusting the horse. Some precipices on these trails are maybe three feet across—straight down is death. You just hope that no one kicks, or that a bee doesn’t sting the horse. I have a slight case of vertigo. Once, on a sketchy part of a trail, someone asked, “Does anyone have vertigo?” I said I did, and got off and walked. “Hold the tail,” I was told. “Why don’t I lead him?” I asked. He responded, “Because you have vertigo. The horse will lead you.” That made me feel better.
The author is the founder of his namesake jewelry company, which is a partner of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Golden Kingdoms” exhibition (on view through May 28).