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Quirts & Riatas
Collectible Craftsmanship in Tools of the Cowboy Trade

By Linda Kohn Sherwood
High Noon Western Americana
Los Angeles, CA

Cowboys & Indians Magazine, September 2007

clickable storyNext to the horse and the hat, much of what creates the romantic aura of the cowboy is the rest of his gear. The poetic nature of the horseman’s trappings has long inspired stanza and verse, drawing and painting. Great Western artists like Russell, Remington, Borein, and Beeler saw both gritty realism and idealized romanticism in the saddle and spur, boot and bit. Observe more closely, and other smaller pieces come into focus. There are saddle blankets and saddlebags. Tied to a saddle, a coiled riata. Held in a horseman’s hand, a raised quirt.

These tools of the cowboy trade are both practical prized possessions as well as collectible handcrafts that have an artistry all their own. Riata and quirt—their purpose is part of their poetry. The riata, or reata, is the Spanish lasso or lariat—a beautiful sounding word for a long noosed rope used to catch animals. The quirt is a forked type of stock whip with two or more falls at the end—as sassy sounding as the snap it makes when applied to get some giddyup.

Cowboys themselves often made their riatas and quirts. In the long, quiet hours out on the range, large hides sat drying in the sun. The men carefully cut the hide into tiny strips, then fashioned them into the tools they needed by braiding the hide strips tightly—and artistically. The artists among them twisted and braided and began creating beautiful pieces, most of which did not survive the rigors of work, weather, and time. They were used—and used up. Some of the cowboys began making quirts and riatas to covet, and to hang on walls as reminders of days out on the range.

clickable story 2Besides cowhide, horses provided another, more limited source of materials. Early prisons often had stables and working ranches where inmates, precluded from leather carving because of the sharp tools, learned to hitch and braid dyed (mane) horsehair into bridles, riatas, and quirts. The earliest pieces were primarily natural horsehair colors of black, brown, and white; by the 1890s commercial and vegetable dyes were made accessible to the inmates. The finished products were sold, traded, or given to prison guards and wardens for special favors.

Today only a handful of living artists keep the braiding craft alive. Some braiders have achieved celebrity status due to the intricacy of their braiding or the ornamentation and embellishments they add to standard cowboy fare. Luis B. Ortega (1897-1995), who transitioned from cowboy to artist, perfected his craft on the range and brought his art of rawhide braiding to ranchers all over California and the West. Alfredo Campos (b. 1935), or Federal, Washington, is self-taught and one of the foremost living ‘horsehair hitchers’—so celebrated that he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Lifetime Honor National Heritage Fellowship in 1999.

You can get on the seven-year waitlist for one of Campos’ pieces or you can start searching out quality quirts and riatas now in fine Western stores and at shows and auctions. Compared with larger collectible pieces, quirts and riatas remain relatively inexpensive. Contemporary pieces made in Mexico sell in the $100-$500 range, while pieces from today’s artists fetch $500-$2000. Others from the masters can bring $10,000 or more. Whatever your price range, whatever your display space, quirts and riatas add the romance of the cowboy to your collection of Americana.

Article copywrited by Cowboys & Indians Magazine. Used with permission. • (310) 202-9010

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