By Linda Kohn & Joseph Sherwood
High Noon Western Americana
Los Angeles, CA
When collectors think of “Folk-art” images if Amish quilts, duck decoys and Navajo rugs come to mind. However, one of the finest and rarest of the American textiles, the HORSEHAIR BRIDLE, is often overlooked.
The intricately woven and exquisitely designed textiles are, only recently, being discovered and appreciated as the classic and rare artifacts they are.
The art of using horsehair was developed by the Moors and brought to North American through the Spaniards, Mexicans and Indians. Ironically, it was in the dismal surroundings of our territorial prison system where weaving horsehair (know as “hitching”) developed into the advanced art for of the beautiful bridles coveted by today’s collectors.
These bridles, which often took 1-2 years to complete, have roots in the history of the Wild West. Cowboys on ranches on the range, facing long winter months with little to do, took pride in learning to make their own equipment. Many of the early prisons had stables and working ranches where inmates, precluded from leather carving because of the sharp tools involved, learned to hitch and braid dyed horsehair into bridles, brushes, ropes, buttons, etc. The finished products were sold, traded or given to the prison guards and wardens for special favors.
The earliest bridles were primarily the natural horsehair colors of black, brown and white. However by the 1890’s commercial and vegetable dyes were made accessible to the inmates as well as glass rosettes and cheap iron bits.
How strange that such beautiful art pieces came from such bleak surroundings and dark individuals. Tom Horn, one of the more notorious inmates, discusses “hitching” in his memoirs and one of his bridles is currently on display at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles.
Like many crafts of our ancestors, horsehair hitching is still being done in limited amounts today. From Montana State prison comes belts and bolo ties and key rings. However, the grand headstall and reins of yesteryear are too complex and intricate to justify a multi-year commitment on the part of the few remaining masters of the art.
Though the art of hitching horsehair was at its apex during the taming of the West, little is known about the individual cowboy artists who created these masterpieces. Maybe the iitinerant nature of the makers or the desire for anonymity on the part of the prisoners has resulted in a legacy of legend and lore rather than dates and details.
What is evident to historians and collectors alike is the beauty and rarity of these unique and ornamental textiles and their place along side other classic forms of American and Western folk art.
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