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The Rawhide Artist

The Rawhide Artist

Published: September 21, 2016
Author: Andy Rieber
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Bill Black has poured his life into refining a simple piece of horse gear called a hackamore. Although the device is rarely used anymore, it can teach a horse to work cattle with unusual brilliance, and beauty.

By ANDY RIEBER

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

Bill Black learned to make and use rawhide 40 years ago. He has been refining hackamores for horse training ever since. Photo by Thomas Rollins

“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.

In the winter of 1978, Bill Black was just another out-of-work cowboy, slumming around Arizona looking for a job. The only employment he and a buddy could find involved wrangling a roll of barbed wire.“We was too proud of ourselves to build fence,” Black told me. “So we went to a slaughterhouse and we bought us two hides. They were fat and greasy, five bucks apiece.”

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 grant ranchos 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, metal-frame 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.

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

The Hart Mountain Store in Plush, Oregon, sits in the high desert country near the state’s southern border. Photo courtesy of the Hart Mountain Store.

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.

“He was as good as he thought he was,” recalls one of the cowboys who worked on Black’s crew. “You know how some people talk the talk, but can’t walk it? Bill could do everything he said he could.”

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.”

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

The tools of a hackamore braider’s trade, and a few of his results. Photo by Thomas Rollins.

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.

COLD BACKED TRAINING

“Don’t you worry,” Black tells me one day. “I’ll get my money out of you.” Before long I am taking my turn in a dark and dirty chicken coop, just like Black’s other students, straddling a saw-horse that’s draped with the dried hide of a red-haired cow. My job: scrape off the hair.

Black’s shop sits at the foot of a fault block escarpment called Hart Mountain, which shelters a string of small lakes at its base. The valley floor is high desert sagebrush, with ranches scattered out beyond the five or six streets that constitute the town of Plush. When I stop for a visit one recent breezy morning, Black had just finished skinning out a dead cow in a neighboring rancher’s field. The wet hide is stretched to dry on a frame of two-by-fours propped against his chicken coop. Two horses stand in a pen behind the shop, heads close together and eyes half closed. In an adjacent pen, three goats—4-H projects of Black’s 12-year old daughter, Montana—wander around nibbling at weeds.

When I walk into the shop, which Black runs with his wife, Teresa, the dense, oily smell of animal hides and leather, faintly mixed with glue fumes, hits me immediately. SiriusXM radio is chattering in the background, tuned to a station that plays old-time radio shows (Gunsmoke on this particular morning). On the far side of a hand-built worktable that fills more than half the shop, Black perches on a vinyl-covered stool, running a needle threaded with a rawhide strand in and out of a long knot, woven into a tightly packed herring-bone pattern. At 61, Black has a lean frame that mirrors his materials: sinewy and hardened. Five-foot-ten, pale and lanky, with a thinning yellow-blond thatch, he gives me a clipped greeting: “Hey.” Pleasantries aren’t Black’s strong suit. He nods at two finished hackamores on the table. “I’ve got 18 more to go before Reno,” he says, referring to an upcoming tradeshow.

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

Black’s shop sits at the foot of Hart Mountain. Our writer Andy Rieber, who lives nearby in Adel, Oregon, says, “Hart Mountain is almost human. It has moods.” Photo by Thomas Rollins.

As Black and I visit, he continues threading rawhide. Gripping the needle with thick fingers that are scraped and calloused, he pokes his needle under several strands, grabs the point, pulls it through. Poke, grab, pull. Repeat. A one-eyed dog watches his progress from the corner. Scattered around the shop are a fascinating array of improvised tools, gadgets, calipers, and other measuring devices; an anarchy of faded postcards, out-of-date calendars, and cowboy art; and a collection of Montana’s cast-off toys, including an enormous and rather dirty stuffed horse with a sparkly mane and tail. Bridles hang from hand-carved hangers along the wall, many featuring beautiful, hand-engraved silver bits of different styles: spade, half-breed, San Joaquin, Las Cruces. All have been well used, evidence that the man hunched over the dried strips of cowhide is more than a master craftsman. He knows horses.

From dead cow to strings, Black estimates that he spends about 15 hours; from there to a finished hackamore, another 10 hours. “If you really want to know how long it took,” he says, “it took 40 years.”

In the winter of 1978, Bill Black was just another out-of-work cowboy, slumming around Arizona looking for a job. He and a buddy, Dean Tobias, had recently left Nevada hoping to pick up some winter cowboying work down south, out of the snow. Come January, however, the only employment they could find involved wrangling a roll of barbed wire.

“We was too proud of ourselves to build fence,” Black told me. “So we went to a slaughterhouse and we bought us two hides. They were fat and greasy, five bucks apiece.” Tobias proceeded to teach Black how “to work rawhide”—the process of taking a wet, smelly hide, stretching it out to dry, de-hairing it, and pairing it down into the thin strings that are used to braid horse gear.

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

Black makes a wide array of bridles, rawhide reins, and other horse gear. His prices start at $500 for a basic hackamore and go all the way up to $50,000 for a set of hitched horsehair reins and matching headstall, complete with silver conchos and ferules. Photo by Thomas Rollins.

Black had been fiddling around with braiding ever since he was a kid growing up on a ranch near Fowler, Colorado. He remembers his father sitting with him and his brother under a tree, teaching them to braid four strands of sisal twine to make pigging strings for tying down cattle. A local saddlemaker, Howard Munsell, got Black started braiding “eight-square” and “seven-flat,” braids for reins and bull ropes. With a little reading in rawhiding books and a lot of trial and error, Black figured out how to tie the basic knots—Turk’s head, pineapple, Spanish ring knot—to make simple horse gear. But until Dean showed him how, Black didn’t know how to make rawhide. To this day, he uses the same technique that Tobias showed him.

After high school, Black left home to work as a full-time cowboy, eventually working his way from Colorado to the Oklahoma Panhandle, and finally, in 1976, ending up on the Spanish Ranch in Tuscarora, Nevada. “The Span” (as The Spanish Ranch was called) had a reputation—then and now—as a place where a young cowboy could test his mettle. Its horses were notorious among Great Basin cowboys for being rank, big boned, and “cold backed” (likely to buck when first mounted in the morning, or anytime they objected to a cowboy’s demands).

The horses taught Black some valuable lessons. “Their horses weren’t bad,” Black says (though other cowboys might disagree). “They just weren’t broke. But they were some of the best horses that I ever rode. You could do anything on ‘em. You could work rodear” (a small group of cattle held in a bunch), “you could brand calves, doctor cattle. But you had to know how to get along. ’Cause if you wanted to go pickin’ at ’em, they’d just buck you off.”

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

Bill’s very first rawhide effort was to make this quirt, which is basically a whip. Crude as it is, Black is still proud of the piece. It shows what can be done if you have the gumption to teach yourself a difficult craft. And it shows how far he has come.Photo by Thomas Rollins.

During his time on The Span, Black began to notice the unusual elements of the vaquero style of horsemanship that are characteristic of the Great Basin region. The buckaroos often used long ropes (over 50 feet), stopping cattle by taking turns, or “dallies” (from dale vuelta, meaning “give a turn”) around their saddle horns. While some cowboys wrap their saddle horns with rubber to make the job easier, the Nevada cowboys wrapped theirs in slick mule hide, so that a rope would tighten and slow a cow gradually. At J.M. Capriola Co., the historic saddlery shop in Elko, some 50 miles south of the ranch, Black got his first glimpse of finely braided rawhide reins and hackamores. This gear doesn’t come cheap, so what Black couldn’t afford, he would figure out how to make. “I braided at night,” he says. “I didn’t need a lot of sleep back in them days.”

Over the next 20 years, Black buckarooed on some of the most famous of the Great Basin outfits—Squaw Valley, the TS, the IL, the Gamble—big ranches that were so traditional they still sent their crews into the desert in the spring with “the wagon” (a chuck wagon) to brand calves and camp in teepees among the sagebrush. Black eventually worked his way up from wandering rank and file buckaroo to cow boss on the expansive MC Ranch, which ran 7,500 head of mother cows in southern Oregon. During his stint as cow boss, Black made a point of working side-by-side with his crew as they calved, branded, roped, doctored, sorted, weaned, and trailed cattle across the high elevation desert—in heat, dust, and freezing wind and snow. “He was as good as he thought he was,” recalls Jim Hiatt, one of the cowboys on Black’s crew. “You know how some people talk the talk, but can’t walk it? Bill could do everything he said he could.”

STRING THEORY

To properly work cattle, a horse must know how to pivot quickly on its back end; leap forward to block a cow; quickly change the lead of its stride; slide to a smooth stop from a dead run; and work calmly at the end of a lariat after a cow is roped.

After chatting with Black for a while one morning, while he’s braiding rawhide, he finally takes a break. He covers the rawhide with a piece of clear plastic to keep it moist, turns to one of his work benches, and fishes around until he finds a six-inch section of broomstick handle. As I silently watch, Black wraps one end in white athletic tape, eventually building up a smooth, round wad about the size of a ping-pong ball. Then he cuts a long length of kangaroo-hide lacing (Black also braids with kangaroo because it’s easier for a beginner to handle than stiff rawhide, and it doesn’t need to stay moist). He threads the lacing through the eye of a heavy-gauge needle, holds the stick out in front of me, and starts tying a knot around the tape ball. My rawhiding education has begun.

Most of us think of knots as the result of tying two ends of a string or rope together in one form or another. In a hackamore, however, the common knot is elevated to unusual complexity. The knots on a hackamore are essentially accumulated weaves, and unlike most familiar knots, these start at one end of the string. (Interestingly, it is a theorem of knot theory, which is a branch of mathematical topology, that any knot formed with the ends can also be tied starting from only one end, and vice versa.)

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

There is nothing easy about turning a raw cowhide into workable rawhide. Drying the hide is just the beginning. Photo byThomas Rollins.

The first knot Black teaches is the “pineapple” knot, which forms the all-important “heel knot”—the woven ball at the base of the hackamore, which hangs under a horse’s jaw. After making a loop, Black starts weaving the strand of kangaroo lacing around the wad of tape until it covers the ball.

As Black’s fingers fly, I struggle to figure out the knot’s logic. “When you get to a pair,” Black says, pointing out two strands laying side-by-side, “you always split them.” His needle quickly dives under two, then up between the parallel strands. As basic as the process seems, it is easy to make mistakes, which with rawhide are not so easy to fix. “No matter what you do,” Black warns me, “always split them pairs.”

“Horses that I start in metal are much more amped than the ones I start in rawhide,” says Garrick Pasini, a young trainer. Those trained in a hackamore, he says, “melt back into the rider.”

When I leave, Black won’t take any money for his time or materials. He just sends me home with the sawed off broomstick and ‘roo string to practice. “Keep tying it, take it apart, and tie it again,” he says. Over the following days, as I sat watching television with my stick in one hand, I kept weaving up and down, round and round. Under one. Over one. Under two. Split them pairs.

Black didn’t charge for his tutelage, at least not in the usual way. A week or two into my schooling though, when I plead with Black to pay for his time and materials, he says, “Don’t you worry. I’ll be sending you to the chicken coop. I’ll get my money out of you.” Before long I am taking my turn in the dark and dirty coop, just like Black’s other students, straddling a contraption that looked like a saw-horse made with logs. Draped underneath me is the dried hide of a red-haired cow. My job: scrape off the hair.

Some rawhiders soak hides in a lime or lye solution to loosen the hair, but Dean Tobias didn’t put hides through this caustic process and neither does Black. He insists on scraping off the hair naturally, with a basic, hand-held draw knife. (Hides with black hair are the one exception; for these Black resorts to a sanding disk or electric wire wheel, in order to better preserve the hides’ distinctive grain.) My first hide takes me maybe three hours. As I scrape at the hair, working against the grain over and over, it’s difficult to ignore the tall pile of dry hides, stiff as cardboard, stacked along the wall. Apparently there is no shortage of opportunity to return the favor of Black’s generosity.

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

In most cases, the cow’s hair must be painstakenly removed by hand. The only exceptions are hides from cows with black hair. These require power tools, which can better preserve the distinctive grain on black hides. Photo by Thomas Rollins.

After the hide is de-haired, Black soaks it overnight, then cuts it in a spiral, which forms one continuously curling strip about three quarters of an inch wide and 400 feet long. He then turns this strip into multiple strings, gradually narrowing and beveling each strand by repeatedly drawing it through a sequence of knife-edged devices. (Even when moist, rawhide is not the easiest material to work with. If you’re not wearing gloves when it slips through your hands, its harsh edges can leave nasty cuts; if you lose control while thinning it, those hard-earned strings can get sliced into pieces.) Eventually, each string is winnowed down to just a few millimeters wide and perhaps a millimeter thick—yielding, in effect, a pile of cowhide linguini.

When dry, rawhide strings can be stored indefinitely (they’re kept in little bundles, deliciously called tamales.) Once it’s time to braid, Black makes the rawhide pliable by re-wetting it, a process called “tempering” or “casing.” To keep the strings moist, he stores them in a humidifier, made out of a plastic trashcan. As he works, Black slicks the strings with a special soap that he makes with Ivory bars, olive oil, and glycerin. From dead cow to strings, Black estimates he spends about 15 hours; from there to a finished hackamore, another 10 hours. “If you really want to know how long it took,” Black says, “it took 40 years. A hackamore is actually the easiest rawhide item to make, and the most complicated to understand.”

THE SECRET TO THE SPADE

“You talk about the art of the hackamore—it’s about to become a lost art,” says Bobby Ingersoll, an accomplished hackamore trainer in Reno, Nevada. (Among his other honors, Ingersoll is a three-time winner of the National Reined Cow Horse Association “Snaffle Bit Futurity,” and in 1975 became of the first and only winner of the association’s Triple Crown.) The art that Ingersoll is talking about goes well beyond the painstaking rawhide work that goes into making a hackamore. It’s also about knowing how to use this device for the slow, multi-step system for training a horse according to the Californio vaquero tradition.

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

A collection of rawhide cores, which one horse trainer calls “the heart of the hackamore.” Black’s cores come primarily in two forms–flat and sewn, for extra stiffness; and twisted, for more flex. If taken care of (and not eaten by mice), rawhide can last indefinitely. Photo by Andy Rieber

The vaquero approach was developed between the late-18th and mid-19th centuries, when California was sparsely populated but covered in vast land grants from the Spanish crown that supported many thousands of cattle. Traveling from Spain by way of Mexico, the early vaqueros brought California the techniques of Spanish horsemanship, which they adapted to working and roping cattle on the rolling, unfenced ranges. Even the word “hackamore” is originally Spanish, deriving from jaquima, meaning headstall or halter. The term itself makes its point: Hackamores are designed to guide a horse without the aid of a metal bit, which has become the dominant tool in today’s horse training corrals.

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

Once a hide has been cut and split into thin strands, the next step is to braid around the core. If you make a mistake, you create an uneven surface, which could rub on a horse’s face. Black’s standards therefore remain high. “I am not afraid of that trash can,” he says. Photo by Thomas Rollins

Many people are familiar with the fancy moves and extraordinary agility of dressage horses, or the famous Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Hackamores are designed to produce similar qualities of lightness, balance, and mobility. While the dressage tradition grew out of the system for training cavalry mounts, the vaqueros aimed at teaching their horses moves required for working cattle.

If you’ve ever gotten a chance to watch a Californio-style cow horse work, the expertise—and the sophisticated, almost invisible communication between horse and rider—is obvious. To stay ahead of a cow that’s determined to run back to its herd, a horse must be able to pivot quickly on its back end; leap forward to block a cow; quickly change the lead of its stride; slide to a smooth stop from a dead run; work calmly at the end of a lariat when a cow is roped, sensing when it’s time to pull the rope tight; and exhibit light, fluid action. Each of these challenges requires a slightly different signal that is best taught gently, and slowly. That’s where a hackamore comes in.

When traditionally trained for stock work, a young horse is ridden with a hackamore for up to two years before it even sees a bit. This gives a horse’s mouth time to mature and grow all of its adult teeth before having to cope with a bar of metal. As the horse grows accustomed to a rider, it simultaneously learns to respond to the variety of pressures that a hackamore exerts around its nose and jaw. By literally “following its nose,” the horse learns the basics of turning, stopping, backing, and even proper posture.

The benefit of using the hackamore for early training is that following its simple pulls is intuitive, and less stressful than the cues from a bit, which puts pressure on a horse’s lips, tongue, and “bar” (that toothless stretch of gumline behind a horse’s front teeth). These areas of the mouth are extremely sensitive, and horses started with a bit will sometimes develop resistance by stiffening their necks or tossing their heads. “Horses that I start in metal are much more amped than the ones I start in rawhide,” says Garrick Pasini, a young trainer who has studied with Ingersoll. Those trained in a hackamore, he says, “melt back into the rider.”

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

Despite Black’s renown, he remains an enthusiastic teacher, willing to mentor anyone who shows serious interest in this disappearing tradition. Our writer, Andy Rieber, has built three hackamores with Black. Photo by Thomas Rollins

Once a horse has mastered the skills needed for working cattle, the trainer adds an unusual kind of bridle—one outfitted with a “spade bit,” so named because of the spoon-shaped piece of metal that protrudes from the center of the bit. The piece looks uncomfortable, and if used improperly it is. When introduced carefully, however, a spade bit not only becomes comfortable, it also finishes and refines everything the horse has learned.

For the next year or two, the horse wears a light hackamore (called a two-rein bosal), and, over it, a bridle with a spade bit. During this phase, the rider manages two sets of reins, but initially guides the horse only through the bosal. Meanwhile, the horse gets used to carrying the spade in its mouth. Eventually, the spade becomes comfortable, by which time the horse has solidified its ability to carry itself in a whole new way. Its head points downward, its neck arches, and its weight is on its hind end. The net result is a new level of balance and mobility—perfect for working cattle.

Throughout the transition, hackamore trainers gradually transfer all their commands to the bridle. In the end, the bosal is completely abandoned. Now the rider has an even more refined tool for control—and a free hand, for roping or anything else. (While fully controlling a hackamore requires both hands on the reins, a bridle should be managed with only one hand.)

This process can take about five years—more than twice the time needed to train a horse with only a metal bit. But a stock horse that’s been trained this way is the one that cowboys describe as being “straight up in the bridle”—in other words, light on its feet, highly responsive, exquisitely trained. According to Californio lore, a bridle horse should require such a light touch that if the reins were tied to the bit with only a few strands of horse hair, the hair would never break.

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

In the end, if you work at it, you get a tool that is both functional and gorgeous. These colorful samples are just a few of more than 3,000 hackamores that Black has made. Photo by Thomas Rollins

FIRM CORE, SOFT HANDS

Hackamores can certainly be found at many western stores and trade shows, but they are not all created equal. “There are a lot of ’em out there that a horse has no use for,” Ingersoll says. “They’re not made right. They’re not balanced right.”

In a truly superior hackamore, there is an elusive quality that trainers call “life” or “feel.” This refers to the springy responsiveness that a hackamore gets from a properly made core, which Ingersoll considers “the heart of the hackamore.”

You canpay $5,000 for a top-of-the-line set of Bill Black romal reins, which are made in the Santa Ynez style. These reins are braided with dozens of ultra-fine rawhide strings, and studded with tiny knots to give the reins more weight. They are so finely made that they’re only meant to be used on a horse that is “straight up in the bridle.”

Many of today’s off-the-shelf hackamores, which can be found for as little as $100, contain cores made of inorganic materials, like metal cable, or soft materials like braided rope or even string. Master trainers and riders have a variety of disparaging terms for hackamores of these varieties: “raggy,” “lifeless,” or just plain “dead.” When a hackamore is too soft, it lacks what trainers call “authority,” and the horse can quickly learn to ignore its commands.

To maximize the opportunities for communication between horse and rider, Black braids his rawhide strings around a rawhide core, which he offers in two types. One comprises two to four flat strips that are sewn together lengthwise, thereby offering enough stiffness to send the horse a very firm signal. The other, which is made of one, two, or three pieces twisted together like a dog’s chew toy, offers slightly more flex. Which to use? It depends on your training style, and the personality of your horse.

As rawhide strings are braided around these cores, Black adds a variety of features that can influence the signals the horse receives. On some hackamores, the long, woven “nose knot” is swelled, while others are outfitted with a set of “nerve buttons”—small, marble-shaped protrusions that sit on either side of a horse’s nose, an area where the nerves are especially sensitive.

The elements of “authority” in Black’s hackamores may sound harsh, but in fact they are the opposite. When a firm, springy hackamore is attached to lively reins, a rider can almost feel the horse’s face, and send it subtle signals with the faintest squeeze of the fingers. Without that structure, says Carol Hamel, a horse trainer in Canada, riders end up yanking on the reins too much. “A stiffer hackamore with soft hands speaks to the horse better than a soft hackamore with hard hands,” says Hamel.

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

From left to right: Garrick Pasini, Bill Black, Bobby Ingersoll. As one of the few remaining masters of training horses with a hackamore, Ingersoll has been working with Black for decades. “Every time I’ve got an idea, I take it to him, and we we work it out,” Ingersoll says. In his view, Black now makes one of the best hackamore on the market. Photo by Garrick Pasini

While Black does make hackamores in different sizes, the final custom fit is done by each rider, primarily in the way they wrap the hackamore’s reins above the heel knot, which hangs under the horse’s jaw. (Hackamore reins are essentially a long rope, called a mecate, typically made of twisted horsehair. The more wraps in the mecate, the snugger the hackamore gets.) Without a proper fit to begin with, however, there is only so much a mecate can do. As Ingersoll put it, a poorly shaped hackamore “moves too much. It gives the horse a false signal.”

To achieve these qualities, Black is plenty willing to forsake beauty for function. While some hackamores are braided very finely, like those from Argentina, Black purposely creates rawhide strings that are slightly coarser—so the horse can really feel them. “I don’t chase the art world,” Black says. “I make them for a horse.” Pasini fully understands. “There are prettier bosals than Bill’s,” he says. “But his are the ones that work. When I finally picked up a Bill Black hackamore, it was obvious to me. I didn’t have to be sold. He puts the shape of the muzzle of a horse in every bosal he makes.” Sometimes, it seems, form does follow function. Black’s hackamores are avidly sought by art collectors as well.

Not surprisingly, Black’s work does not come cheap. His hackamores start at $500 and can go as high as $1,000. You can also pay another $5,000 if you want to throw in a set of top-of-the-line romal reins, made in the Santa Ynez style. These reins are braided with dozens of ultra-fine rawhide strings, and studded with tiny knots to give the reins more weight. They are so finely made that they’re only meant to be used on a horse that is straight up in the bridle.

THE ART OF GIVING IT AWAY

One spring afternoon, a light breeze blowing through the open door of Black’s shop, I finally complete my first hackamore. It’s such a simple-looking thing, but I had poured maybe 50 hours of painstaking effort into its construction. I turn it around and around in my hands, admiring the tight weave, the perfect tear-drop shape, my initials (“A.R.”) proudly stamped on the bottom of the heel knot. There’s some irony in that—my name hardly seems to belong on something that is so entirely a product of Black’s hard-won experience, and generous mentorship. The tight feel of the braid in my fingers reminds me how much I agonized over this project. I wanted perfection in every strand of its carefully woven knots. That of course led to another of Black’s favorite lessons. “I know what trial and error is,” he always told me, “and I’m not afraid of that trashcan.”

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

Hackamore reins are nothing but a rope (although a very special rope, preferably made of twisted horsehair). They connect to the hackamore simply by being tied under a horse’s chin. If your horse has a slender face, more wraps at the base will provide a closer fit. Photo by Katie Pasini

The current waiting list for a Bill Black piece is approximately eight months. The pieces that collectors wait for include elaborate headstalls, reins, and belts that Black fashions out of “hitched” horsehair—yet another cowboy craft that Black taught himself. (This art form involves twisting strands of differently colored horsehair that is hitched, or knotted together, to form detailed patterns.) An intricately hitched Bill Black headstall and reins, complete with silver ferules and other ornamentation, can fetch $50,000 dollars.

For the rawhiding that has made his name, however, Black maintains that his work still resembles Dean Tobias’s, and that he still works hides the way Dean showed him in Arizona back in 1978. “You should never take it away from the guy that taught you,” says Black. Nor, as suggested by Black’s readiness to mentor me and many others, should you refuse to give it away to the next guy who asks.Perhaps the most noteworthy example of Black’s mentorship is his wife, Teresa, who has become an accomplished rawhider and horsehair hitcher in her own right.

Before I leave Black’s shop, he ties a card onto my hackamore—noting, as he does with each of his own pieces, its various specifications: 5/8ths inch diameter body, 12 strand braid, 32-strand nose knot, 7-inch nose, 2-ply sewn rawhide core, to name just some of the information he considers crucial. For his own work, he also numbers each hackamore. At this point, he estimates he has made more than 3,000 of them. The card also includes Black’s brand: a Diamond Half-Diamond Slash.

Then he’s done for the day. He has a school board meeting to go to, so he shuts off the radio, snaps off the fluorescent shop light, and settles his black, flat-brimmed O’Farrell hat on his head. He strides out the door and heads for Plush Elementary around the corner, his wiry frame loping down the sidewalk.

Andy Rieber is a writer, photographer, and public lands consultant living in Adel, Oregon. Her writing has appeared the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and American Cowboy, among others.

Thomas Rollins is a freelance photographer based in Columbia, Illinois.

Bill Black’s work can be found on his facebook page.

© 2017 Andy Rieber, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: September 21, 2016

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