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Smoke Signals Monthly eMagazine

Luis Ortega Master Reatearo

by B. Byron Price

From California Vaquero Traditions, Luis B. Ortega Master Rawhide Artisan

Published by “ Dos Lindas” Publishing
Linda Kohn (High Noon Western Americana)
Linda Paich (Museum of the Cowboy) 

Ed Borein knew another artist when he saw one, even if the artist’s medium was rawhide and not paint or bronze. As a former cowboy himself, the easel painter also recognized fine braiding when he saw it, even if the braider carried his work in a barley sack. Borein knew, too that Luis Ortega had a special gift for his ancient art, although his skills were not yet fully developed.

Ortega Braided BridleThis year was 1932 and Ortega was recuperating from a broken arm received while working as a vaquero in southern California. Ed Borein offered to sell Ortega’s braiding to let him perfect his craft at the painter’s Santa Barbara, California studio. Ortega agreed and stayed for almost four year’s during which time Borein continued to act as his mentor, dispensing praise and criticism in equal measure and instilling in his young protégé the attitude of an artist in the pursuit of excellence.

A fifth generation Californian, Luis Ortega traced his ancestry to the state’s first Spanish settlers. At lease one Ortega had accompanied Father Junipero Serra’s initial expedition to the Pacific Coast in 1769 and later become the Commandant of the Presidio at Santa Barbara. His mother’s people the Peralta’s were prominent early settlers in New Mexico and Arizona.

Born the son of a buckaroo boss in 1897, Ortega spent his childhood on the vast La Espada Ranch, whose cowherds ranged the California coast near Lompoc. As a boy he eagerly absorbed the sighs and sounds of the romantic vaquero life around him. At play Ortega and his schoolmates often imitated their horseback heroes and fashioned toy ropes and whips from scrap leather obtained from the local saddle and harness shop. Ortega never forgot the feel of his first real rawhide reata. Although too small to heave the “raggy” and lifeless snare very far, he carried it with pride on his saddle, despite the good-natured kidding of some of the vaqueros. 

Ortega began to braid rawhide before he was ten, at times under supervision of an elderly Tulare Indian, who cooked for area haying crews and roundups each spring and fall. The old man, who learned the craft from Spanish missionaries at Santa Ynez, not only taught Ortega the rudiments of braiding but also the urban profession. But school never held much appeal for a boy who thought more about applying brands to cowhide than pen to paper. While still in his early teens, Ortega quit school to embark on an education of a different sort - with a cow outfit, where he learned to train horses and work cattle the California way. For more than a decade Ortega perfected his skills as a vaquero on ranches from Arizona to Oregon. He enjoyed the foot-loose lifestyle and carefully avoided the positions of greater responsibility that were occasionally offered him.

During winters and days off he continued to braid strong and reliable horse gear, some of the which he sold to fellow vaqueros to supplement meager wages of $20 to $25 a month. Ortega’s growing knowledge of horse anatomy and train methods informed his skills as a rawhider, as did an aesthetic bent that separated his work from utilitarian products of most of his contemporaries.

Ortega Braided ReataOrtega’s chance encounter with Ed Borein in 1932, however changed his life and career forever. He became a full-time rawhide braider and was still working at Borein’s when he met his future wife Rose Smith, in Oregon in 1934. They married after a four-year courtship. Like Borein, Rose Ortega offered her husband stability and encouragement and in later years, helped him with his rawhide work when his hands and eyesight began to weaken. A former high school teacher, Rose also polished the articles on the horse tack and training that Luis began to write for Western Horseman magazine beginning in 1941. In the late 1940’s Ortega also wrote California Hackamore and California Stock Horse, influential books that increased the demand for his work as did frequent exhibits at horse shows and at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.

By this time Ortega produced a full range of rawhide tack including reins, reatas, quirts, bosals, hackamores, hobbles, bridles and headstalls from patterns of his own design. The constant braiding of hackamores and other heavy work gear, however, eventually took its toll on the artists hands and caused him to retire from commercial braiding in mid-1960’s. Nevertheless, he continued to produce fine work for the collector’s market, often toiling in single minded concentration for hours and even days to produce a single masterpiece.

Luis Ortega KnotBecause hides varied considerably in thickness durability and color, the rawhide artist was particularly exacting in their selection. He chose only the finest available and rejected eight out of every ten as unsuitable for his needs.

Ortega preferred spring-rendered hides of uniform color but picked different types for different purposes-the thick, tough hide of mature steers fir heavy reatas and hackamores, thinner cowhide and calfskins for lightweight reins and fancy show gear. For his finest creations the artist favored the hides of Guernsey cattle and the dark brown hues of the Santa Gertrudis breed. The elaborate buttons on his hackamores and quirts often were fashioned of lustrous new-born calf.

Exposure of Mexican and South American styles of braiding lead Ortega to develop more intricate patterns and to use dyed strings to add accents of color to some f his fancier work. In terms of design and execution, nothing in the artist’s repertoire excelled his twenty-four strand, Santa Ynez style reins with multiple buttons and engraved silver trim. Ortega once described the plaiting of two-dozen paper thin rawhide strings at a time as “ hard on the eyes and the disposition”.   The pattern was complex and the pace excruciatingly slow, only three inches and hour. Yet the finished product never failed to yield the artist and his patron’s intense pleasure.

Ortega took equal delight in producing handsome figure-eight hobbles or lively 70-foot reatas that sometimes combined both four and eight strand plaiting. Besides full scale tack, he occasionally produced miniature gear for collectors and added decorative bits and poppers to horsehair ropes made by others. Although his work became increasingly stylized, he never ceased experimenting with new designs.

During his long and distinguished career, Luis Ortega received many honors and awards, but none greater than a 1986 National Endowment of the Arts. In his time his work found its way into may public and private collections and museum exhibits. The rawhide artist donated his personal collection, consisting of 24 pieces of his best work, to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City.

Writers ran out of superlatives to describe Luis Ortega’s work long before his death on April 6, 1995 at the age of ninety-seven. He remains the finest rawhide craftsman ever produced I North America and the standard by which present and future American reataeros will be judged.

Ortega’s work brought him great personal satisfaction in life and he would be please at the homage paid him today. Although he turned down the opportunity to become a banker and perhaps wealthier in the process, he never regretted his career choice.

“There are a lot of bankers,” he once observed with satisfaction “but how many rawhide artists?”

Article provide with permission by High Noon LA, Inc. • (310) 202-9010


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