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.

checkbook

 

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.

big heastall

 

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.

mmm

 

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.

1870’s with a 30’s Twist

I love early western movies—those made in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s. These movies were made close enough to the times they portrayed—the 1860s-1890’s—that the sets, the clothing, the horse gear, have a fighting chance of being fairly accurate. And if they’re not accurate, at least they’re interesting.

This weekend I watched Zane Grey’s To the Last Man, which was filmed in 1933. It wasn’t the most accurate western I’ve ever seen clothing-wise…but it was interesting.

The story was one of young love redeeming feuding families. The Colby and Hayden families have feuded in Kentucky for generations. After the Civil War, Jed Colby (Noah Beery Sr.) goes to prison for murdering a Hayden, and the Hayden family heads to Nevada, leaving Lynn Hayden (Randolph Scott) behind to take care of the homestead. When Jed gets out of prison, he goes to Nevada, to seek revenge against the Haydens. Lynn is hot on his heels, hoping to stop the violence. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Lynn’s in love with Ellen Colby (Esther Ralston) and the two hope to marry.  I loved the final shootout, where people were actually reloading weapons, and the reloading took some time, just like it does in real life. The women are shooting as much as the men.

So, back to the clothing… no matter how bad an old movie might be, I can entertain myself looking at the fashions. Men’s. Women’s. Horse’s.

In this movie Randolph Scott wore buckskin. So did the heroine—and she
showed a fair amount of leg, even though the movie took place after the Civil War, probably in the very late 1860’s or early 1870’s. Was this accurate? Probably not–the leg part anyway. Nor were her 1930’s pencil thin eyebrows and semi-marceled hairdo accurate. But, since I love the 1930s, it was fun to see the 30’s influence on the 1870s fashions.

As you can see in the photo, Shirley Temple is in the film, as is a very young John Carradine.

If you want to catch To the Last Man, it’s available on YouTube.

 

Lucille Mulhall – The First Cowgirl

Lucille Mulhall was an anomaly—a small, feminine, soft-spoken girl who beat cowboys at their own game. After gaining acclaim as a Wild West performer, Lucille became the first woman commonly known as a cowgirl.

Lucille was born in Missouri in 1885. Her family relocated to Oklahoma to homestead during the land rush of 1889. The family started with 160 acres, which they eventually parlayed into the close to 80,000 acres.

As a young girl, Lucille rode the range with the cowhands, learning to rope, ride, and shoot. According to a New York Times article, “By the age of fourteen, she could break a bronco and shoot a coyote at five-hundred yards.”

Lucille’s father started a Wild West show, Mulhall’s Congress of Rough Riders and Ropers, in the early 1900s. Lucille starred in the show while still in her teens and became one of the first women to compete against men in roping and riding events and earned many championships, including three solid gold medals for steer roping in Texas, a cutting horse title and the title of World’s Champion Lady Roper.

When she performed in Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1905, she took the city by storm. A report in a New York newspaper said, “Against these bronzed and war-scarred veterans of the plains, a delicately featured blonde girl appeared. Slight of figure, refined and neat in appearance, attired in a becoming riding habit for hard riding, wearing a picturesque Mexican sombrero and holding in one hand a lariat of the finest cowhide, Lucille Mulhall comes forward to show what an eighteen-year-old girl can do in roping steers. In three minutes and thirty-six seconds, she lassoed and tied three steers. The veteran cowboys did their best to beat it, but their best was several seconds slower than the girl’s record breaking time. The cowboys and plainsmen who were gathered in large numbers to witness the contest broke into tremendous applause when the championship gold medal was awarded to the slight, pale-faced girl.”

As she gained fame, newspapers gave Lucille many names: Ranch Queen, Cowboy Girl, Female Conqueror or Beef and Horn, Lassoer in Lingerie, Dead Shot Girl, Daring Beauty of
the Plains, Queen of the Range. The name that stuck was Cowgirl.

Will Rogers was a member of Mulhall’s Wild West Show and helped Lucille hone her roping skills.  He wrote, “Lucille’s achievement in competition with cowboys was the direct start of what has since come to be known as The Cowgirl. Lucille was the first cowgirl.” Teddy Roosevelt also admired Lucille’s skills. He visited the Mulhall ranch and invited the Mulhall family to his inauguration. Geronimo gave her a beaded vest and Indian bow, which she treasured.

Lucille was a natural horse woman and known for her training abilities.She said, “My system of training consists of three things: patience, perseverance, and gentleness. Gentleness I consider one of the greatest factors in successful training.” Her horse, Governor, knew over forty tricks.

Lucille performed in other Wild West shows and toured Europe, performing for the crowned heads there.  She retired from world travel in 1917, but continued performing into the 1930s.

She was married twice, both marriages lasting only a few years.  Her first marriage produced a son. She died at the age of 55 in a car crash close to her home and was posthumously inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame and the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in the 1970s.

Ranch Hand Rodeo

Hey everyone! Happy Wednesday!

IMG_1001 A few weeks ago, I set up my small vending booth at the 27th annual Winnemucca Ranch Hand Rodeo and enjoyed a rodeo weekend. It’s my fourteenth year of vending there and I love, love, love attending. For one thing, I get to see my neighbors, many of whom I only see a few times a year. Several of them are on ranch hand teams, so I also get to see them compete, which is a lot of fun. Also I get to seefamily kids grow up, from being babes in arms to competing in stick horse races, then sheep riding, then…well, I haven’t been there long enough to see any of the kids reach the age where they compete on an actual ranch hand team, but I’m sure it’s coming.

Ranch hand, or rancher, rodeos are competitions betwRanch Hand 1 007een teams of cowboys and cowgirls representing different ranches. The events are those that a working cowboy might encounter in the course of their day. There are a few traditional rodeo events—bronc riding, team roping and steer stopping—along with ranch events—branding (with paint), ranch doctoring, cow mugging, steer loading. The wild horse races and wild cow milking may not be everyday ranch occurrences, but they add some spice to the competition.

Ranch Hand CalcuttaThe rodeo starts off with a Calcutta, where people bid on the teams. The money goes into a pot proceeds are used as prize money, with a portion going to the person buying the winning team(s). Yes, you can buy your own cowboys.

 

Steer loading is one of my favorite events. There are times on a ranch when a steer on the range needs to be loaded into a trailer to be brought back to the ranch.

Cow mugging is along the same lines. Sometimes a steer or cow needs to be caught and cared for due to an injury or some other circumstance and is in an area where it can’t be run through a chute. It may take three or four people to take a grown cow down after it’s been roped.

This video does a great job of showing just what happens at a Ranch Rodeo.

There are sanctioned ranch hand rodeos and qualifying teams compete for a national title in early November. The Winnemucca event lasts for four days. In addition to the two-day rodeo, there are children’s events, cow dog trials and a stock horse competition, followed by a ranch horse sale.

If you ever get a chance to attend a ranch hand rodeo, I highly recommend it. It’s a great family experience.

And…my first  American Romance is out this month!

Watt The Bull Rider Meets His MatchTESTING THE LIMITS 

Rodeo star Grady Owen has a new challenge. No-nonsense Alexa Benjamin is tougher than any bull he’s ever faced…but she sure is a whole lot prettier! Not that Grady has time for much between caring for his twin nieces, rebuilding his family’s farm and training. Trouble is, the more he tangles with Lex, the more he wants to win her heart. 

Lex is drawn to Grady…in spite of herself. But ever since her bullfighter father died in the ring, she’s determined to never need anyone again. She’s afraid, and Grady is all about facing fear head-on. Taking a chance on this bull rider is unthinkable…but so is the idea of letting him walk away!

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The Copper Queen

Women weren’t supposed to prospect for precious metals in the 1800s. They were considered too delicate to travel across wilderness and deserts, collecting ore samples and chasing veins while carrying everything they needed to survive in a backpack. Ferminia Sarras did it anyway.

A small, compact woman, she identified herself as Spanish—not Mexican—and appeared on the Esmeralda, Nevada tax records as Ferminia Sarras, Spanish lady, in 1881. Eventually she would become known as Ferminia Sarras, the Copper Queen.

There’s no clear record as to why Ferminia, who was born in Nicaragua in 1840, came to the United States with her three young daughters in 1876. One theory is that she came

Esmeralda, Nevada

to join up with her husband in the Nevada mining camps. She placed two of her daughters in a Virginia City orphanage, quite possibly for their safety, before embarking on her journey to the camps with her oldest daughter, who married a miner a few years later.

Ferminia started prospecting in 1883, wearing pants and tramping the hills alone. She prospected in several Nevada mining districts, including the Candelaria, Silver Peak and Santa Fe Districts and recorded numerous copper claims.

candelaria
Candaleria, Nevada

After the Comstock Lode petered out, Nevada went into a depression, however the discovery of gold in the central part of the state revitalized the mining economy and Ferminia’s copper claims increased in value. Her first sale came in 1901, with several more to follow, and eventually she made a fortune on her copper claims, thus earning the name the Copper Queen. She kept the gold coins from the sales in her chicken coop, which she considered safer than a bank.

gold fields
Goldfields, Nevada

 

Ferminia married at least five times to men younger than herself. One husband died in a gunfight protecting her claims and according to a newspaper account, all of her husbands died violent deaths. Historians theorize that she may have married younger men to help protect her claims, however one of the last men she was involved with robbed her and used the money to flee to South America.

Ferminia died in 1915. The town of Mina, Nevada, which currently boasts a population of 155,  was named in her honor.

For further information on Ferminia Sarras and other women who dared to prospect in the American West, check out A Mine of Her Own by Sally Zanjani. Much of the information I have on Ferminia came from that resource.