Courtesy of the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame
In Trails Plowed Under, Charlie Russell says: “Over in Lewistown there’s a gent livin’ that’s one of the leadin’ citizens…if I’d ever told what I know about him he’d be makin’ hair bridles to-day.”
This quote refers to inmates doing horsehair work at Montana State Prison (MSP) in Deer Lodge. So enamored was he with the work, that his wedding present to his wife, Nancy, was an inmate-made horsehair bridle for her new horse.
Hitching horse tail hair to create beautiful and functional objects, such as bridles, belts, hatbands, and quirts, is a centuries-old art form. Hitched horsehair is a series of knots used to create complex designs. Take 10 black (coarse) or 11 white (finer) horse tail hairs and twist the hairs together into what is called a “pull.” The pulls are knotted over nylon string, which is wound around a dowel giving it shape, thus forming a tube from which the hitcher works. When done hitching, the dowel is taken out of the tube. If a hitcher is making a belt, the tube is pressed flat between metal. If hitching reins, it is done over rope, with the rope staying inside. A quality bridle takes 6 months to a year to make. Hitched horsehair is durable, lasting for generations if taken care of.
Braided horsehair is another classic form of horsehair art. Spanish explorer Cortes brought men to the Americas “well versed in the understanding and teaching of leatherwork and the art of braiding.”
Though still an obscure art form, contemporary hitchers, both inside and outside of prison, are continually expanding patterns and products. Many designs are interchangeable with Native American beadwork.
Many mysteries surround hitched horsehair. Less mysterious is that without thought, a person’s hand reaches out to touch it—amazing art created from the simplicity of horse tail hair. This is the power of hitched horsehair and the wildness of ponies throughout history.