The Art of Hitching Horse Hair

Jeannie Watt 2Hey everyone and happy Wednesday. Today I’m going to toot my own horn and discuss a western craft I love.

I’m a hitcher. Not the kind that marries people, but rather the kind that makes custom cowboy gear out of twisted and woven horsehair.

Hitching is an ancient art and I don’t think anyone has truly nailed down where  or how long ago it started. It has been kept alive, however, in the Montana Penal system, where inmates have been creating hitched horsehair belts and headstalls (bridles) for well over a hundred years. If you visit Deer Lodge, you cabelt detailn see some beautiful hitching in the prison gift store, along with other crafts created by the inmates.

I learned to hitch in 1993, at a time when so few people were hitching, that most knew each other by name or reputation. The art re-surged during the 90s and I was lucky to have been riding that wave. I’ve shown my pieces in western art and museum shows and have been invited twice to show at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko.

So how do yhairou hitch? First you get some decent tail hair. Tail hair is different from mane hair—it’s courser and longer. Mane hair is used for the tassels and also can be twisted into ropes called mecates.

I cheat and buy violin bow hair. It’s alretied hairady cleaned and of equal length. I get it in black, brown and white. The white I dye on the stove, using plain old Rit dye, to create the not-so-natural colors.

To make a string, you count out 9 hairs if you’re using black or brown, because the hair shafts in these colors are thicker, 10 if you’re using white. You flip half of the hair around, because one end of a strand is naturally thicker than the other and this gives you a uniform thickness, and knot it. Then you split the hairs over your hand and twist. Unlike human hair, horsehair doesn’t unravel. As long as twistingit has a knot in both ends, it stays put.

After you have enough strings, you can start hitching. To do this, you fasten two long rolls of twine (I use mattress tufting twine) to a dowel, attach to the twine however many horsehair strings you need to cover the dowel, and then start weaving the horsehair over the twine in half-hitch knots—thus the term hitching. It’s essentially weaving in the round, since you turn the dowel and continue to weave around and around it, until you reach the desired length. Once you are done

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All designs are woven in using different colored horsehair strings.

—a zillion weeks after you start sometimes, you pull the work off the do

wel. It comes off as a tube of horsehair and string, which is then dampened and pressed flat in a big steel press. After that you attach leather and…viola…work of usable art. And hitched horsehair is durable. People are still using horsehair gear made in the 1940s or earlier.

It takes a while to complete a project. When hitching a 1 ½ inch belt, I can finish ¾ to 1 inch in an hour, depending on the complexity of the design I’m weaving—and I’m fast.

Here are some of my finished pieces–

These are belts that I designed and made for my family. My belt is the grey and blue one on the end.

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This is a checkbook cover with a hitched insert of a brand.

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This is my master work—an old-style headstall. I’m still working on the reins. This took 240 hours to complete and I displayed it at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The strings for this work were very delicate–only 5 black hairs, and I worked it over a single twine.

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And this is the Michael Martin Murphy headstall—yes, he bought it, while it was on display at Cowboy Poetry and he was performing there! I was so stoked when I found out.

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And that’s my craft. I’ve so enjoyed sharing with you today, and if you’re ever at a western event, keep your eyes peeled for people or horses wearing hitched horsehair. They’re out there.

Jeannie Watt
Jeannie Watt lives off the grid in an historic cattle ranching area and loves all things western. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors, riding her horses and buying hay. Lots and lots of hay.

14 Comments

  1. OH.MY.GOSH. It is so beautiful! Thank you for sharing.

    Blessings,
    Cindy W.

  2. I had no idea this even existed. And what you have created is absolutely beautiful. You are very talented. It sure looks like a lot of hard work too. I am definitely going to want something that is hitched now.

    1. I found out what hitching was when I signed up for a how-to class at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. I thought I was going to learn to braid. Found out different. I loved it so much I signed up for an apprenticeship, which is just about the only way to learn this craft. There are so very many ways to mess up. J

  3. What a wonderful craft, Jeannie! Beautiful. So much love goes into a project like that. Love, and a lot of skilled craftsmanship. And it’s so truly western. I love it. Thanks so much for sharing it with us!

  4. Oh wow, those are beautiful and what a talent!! That is amazing craftsmanship!

  5. Nice work. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks for sharing your interesting craft. Your work is so lovely.

  7. Just Beautiful! Thanks for explaining so clearly how all what you do with this obviously very intricate craft. Wonderful. I love it.

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your craft. You are one talented lady!

  9. My phone isn’t allowing me to do individual replies anymore, and I don’t know why, so I’m going to say thank you to everyone who commented. It’s been lovely spending the day with you!

  10. Thank you, Jeannie, for sharing hitching with us. I think I have seen this type of work before, but just assumed it was regular weaving. As with any craft that you have become expert at, the hours you put in are never really compensated when you sell the item. You do lovely work. Your master work ole-style headstall is gorgeous. I don’t think I would ever be able to part with something that lovely that I had made. We were at the Montana State Prison Museum in Deer Lodge three years ago. I don’t remember seeing any of this type of work. Of course my time in the gift shop was a bit short because I couldn’t drag my husband and grandson out of the car museum.
    In the future, I will certainly be keeping an eye out for hitching pieces.

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