The Rawhide Artist: Hackamores and more
A fascinating article by Andy Rieber in Craftsmanship.
“A small quiet drinking town with a cattle problem.”
So says the sign over the Hart Mountain Store, in Plush, Oregon, which serves as the grocery, gas station, restaurant, and tavern in this remote town of 107 people near the state’s southern border. On this particular fall afternoon local cowboys—or “buckaroos” as they are often called in this high desert corner of the American West—are gathered around a circular table inside waiting on their hamburgers as they thaw out from a morning rounding up cattle among the greasewood, rabbit brush, and sage.
The word “buckaroo”—an anglicization of vaquero, Spanish for “cowboy”—refers to the style of cowboying that, over two centuries, trickled north into eastern Oregon, northern Nevada, and southern Idaho from the old Spanish land grantranchos of California. The vaquero tradition’s Spanish aesthetic can still be found in this region: flat-brimmed, Amish-looking hats; silver bits with swirling, hand engraved flowers and scroll work; and painstakingly braided horse gear fashioned from what the Spanish called cuero crudo, or rawhide.
Two analog gas pumps hum quietly outside the steel-roofed store, which is draped in sagging year-round Christmas lights. Just next door, on the street’s corner, sits a faded mint green and pink house—its quirky, 1950s color scheme has seen better days—with a low-slung cinderblock shop facing it in the side yard. There’s no sign or storefront, but if you’re searching for superlative specimens of traditional cowboy rawhiding, you are likely to find your way here. It’s the shop of Bill Black, widely understood by buckaroos, horse trainers, and collectors of western folk art to be one of the great rawhiders of his time.
Over the years, Black has received orders from across the United States and Canada, and he has sent his work as far afield as Switzerland, Germany, and Australia. In 2000, he was named the Academy of Western Artists Hitcher and Braider of the Year, and examples of his rawhiding, and the equipment that accompanies it, have been displayed in the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon.
The word “rawhide” suggests a rough-hewn, unfinished product, and in one sense, it is. Unlike leather, which is tanned with some form of chemicals (even with natural tanning processes) to be soft and pliable, rawhide is just what it sounds like: dried, untreated animal skin. Used since prehistoric times, the material is an extremely durable alternative to leather, plant fibers, or woven hair for binding and lashing; it’s also proved useful for making shields and drum heads, containers, shoe soles, and any other item requiring components that are easily cut and shaped when wet but hard as horn when dry. Rawhide has one other distinctive feature: it contracts significantly as it dries. For this reason, rawhide became the original shrink-wrap—to this day a rawhide covering is still considered the best protection for the wooden tree of a traditional western saddle.
While Black’s work involves a primitive material, his creations assume patterns of extraordinary geometrical complexity. The multicolored weaves that he incorporates into traditional horse gear are suggestive of Hopi Indian baskets or the warp and weft of African textiles. Much like each of these folk crafts, rawhide horse gear has a vital use, embodying what Black likes to call “workable art.”
That art is at its most refined in a deceptively simple piece of horse gear called a hackamore, which is essentially a braided, loop-shaped noseband. When combined with a small headstall and a special set of reins, a hackamore functions much like a bridle without a bit—guiding a horse by applying pressure to the areas around its nose and jaw, rather than relying on a piece of steel in its mouth. For the original vaqueros, the hackamore was an indispensable tool for training their horses. And while it’s been largely forgotten today, its modern adherents argue that in the hands of a master rider, the hackamore can train horses to a level of performance that remains unequaled. A hackamore should also be a beautiful object. But the secret to one that really works, like resonance in the wood of a Stradivarius violin, lies beneath the surface, right at its core. . . .
Read the whole thing. And there are photos at the link.