Contributing Editors Nate Wald and Sarah Hagel
It’s been eighteen years since a friend gave me my first hair rope, it was a nice little sorrel and white mohair Mecate and at the time, I didn’t have a clue how to use it on my horse so it hung in the tack room as decoration. Years went by before I would begin to understand and appreciate how practical a simple hair rope could be. The natural hair rope mecate is truly one of the most versatile, tactile and beautiful pieces of horse gear ever devised.
Whether it’s used to complete a traditional hackamore or as the rein for a snaffle bit rig, the hair rope mecate plays an important role in the development of the bridle horse. The two most common materials used for hair ropes are mohair which comes from the long soft coat of the Angora goat and horsehair.
Horsehair can be harvested from either the mane or the tail and we’ll be covering more on this important detail later. Natural hair ropes are just that; hair. In my travels, I’ve come across some interesting ones made from most every kind of hair imaginable even human hair.
Different types of hair will create a different feel, texture and weight for each mecate. Pretty much any animal who can grow hair more than six inches long is a candidate for the rope maker’s creativity. A favorite rope in my own collection is made out of Yak hair, this rope has a wonderful dense feel, soft texture and medium weight that is somewhere in between that of mohair and horse mane hair.
The human hair ropes have a uniquely solid, weighty, yet smooth feel and are a rare find. The hair itself comes out of the wig trade, mostly from India. Once a person has held one, the sensation will never be forgotten and they will recognize another one immediately.
Making a Masterpiece
Hair ropes are typically twisted but braided ropes can sometimes be found. Building a traditional natural hair mecate is a laborious process that is often under-respected in the world of western craftsmanship. It takes long years of practice to become a master twister; there are only a handful working in the US.
The hair must first be cleaned and the individual hairs themselves are sorted, graded and arranged by color. A twisting machine, which can range from a specially made, sophisticated device down to a simple power drill is used to maintain an even twist and tension as the rope is built one strand at a time. As the individual hairs are blended into the rope by hand, the finest hair twisters are able to create amazing patterns and striking color gradations.
With the current renaissance in Vaquero bridle horse gear and culture, the natural hair mecate has been elevated to its own art form. The fancier ones by known makers are sought after by collectors; some ropes can be quite expensive. A custom rope can even be made with the hair of a favorite horse.
Finding the Right Rope
When purchasing a hair rope mecate off the shelf in your local tack store, it’s important to feel down the entire length. Twenty-two foot long ropes are the standard but some riders like a longer twenty-four foot rope. Why so long? It takes quite a bit of rope to both tie the traditional knot around the rawhide bosal and then have enough left over for the rein and a lead or “get down” portion.
The essential factor of any hair rope is how even it is. If a mecate is a half inch at one end and three quarters of an inch at the other then you have a problem. The weight of that rope will be inconsistent and therefore the performance will be off as well. This defect comes into play once the rope has been tied to the bosal. One rein will be a different weight than the other and this can create problems for the young horse in training.
Run your hand down the rope and squeeze- feel for any inconsistencies such as kinks, bumps, loops, breaks, thin spots, knots or debris that might have gotten caught up in the hair during the twisting process. A twisted hair rope is actually four smaller ropes or strands twisted into one larger rope. If one of these strands has a serious flaw, it will effect the entire piece of gear.
An example of the smallest diameter rope used is the get down rope used on the finished horse that is straight up in the bridle or Freno. These ropes are only one quarter inch thick and typically nine feet long. They’re tied around the neck of the horse or directly to the delicate Bosalita or “pencil bosal”. The main purpose for this rope is as a lead, for a true Vaquero would never lead his bridle horse by the reins.
If a rope doesn’t feel even in your hands, from one end to the other, put it back and pick another one. Size (diameter) and the overall weight are important. At different stages during the development of the bridle horse different ropes are used. With the traditional hackamore, or Jaquima, the size of the mecate is matched to the size of the bosal.
Use the Correct Size
So a colt that is to be started with a three-quarter inch bosal will need a three-quarter inch mecate. As the young horse progresses in his training, the size of the bosal and its corresponding mecate are changed, gradually moving to smaller, lighter rigs over time.
The finished bridle horse will have gone through several different combinations; different sizes of bosal and mecate, often with different weights, to reach the two-rein and finally the full bridle or Freno. This process often takes several years to complete but it’s important to note that it’s in the hackamore that bridle horses are made.
The type of hair used or not used plays a role. A mohair mecate, for example, will weigh more than the same size mecate made from horse mane hair. Although the mecate is a centuries old, traditional piece of Vaquero gear, these days not all mecates are made from animal hair.
Braided nylon parachute cord is popular, as are the colorful polymer and Dacron polyester ropes used in mountaineering and yachting.These ropes are inexpensive, weather proof and durable. The yacht rope comes in lots of bright colors and the parachute cord can be braided into attractive patterns.
Synthetic materials are easy to come by and there’s nothing wrong with using them. It’s common for professional trainers to ride with cotton or polyester in place of traditional hair ropes as they’re often using the mecate with a snaffle bit rig working several different horses every day.
Following the Tradition
For the purist, true aficionado or the enthusiast looking to have the most authentic Vaquero style experience with their young horse, nothing beats a fine quality handmade hair rope that is color matched to the coat of the horse you’re riding.
Whether used with a snaffle bit rig or the bosal, the feel of the natural hair on the horse’s neck, the weight, as well as the body of the rope itself is difficult to duplicate with synthetics. Each hair rope will be unique so once you have your hands on a rope that feels great, you won’t want to ride with anything else.
The type of hair used will change the feel, weight and character of the rope. Mohair has a very soft feel to the touch and is a popular material. It’s sometimes dyed with bright colors and the extra-fine texture allows for sharp patterns and distinct color changes.
A rider won’t need gloves to handle a mohair mecate on a long ride. Although the body of a twisted mohair mecate tends to be more firm, when mohair is braided, the body of the rope becomes just as soft as the hair itself. When wet, a twisted mohair mecate can feel more like riding with reins made of bailing wire.
Horsehair is the most common material used when twisting hair ropes for mecates. Today, the overwhelming preference is for mane hair because of a popular perception that mane hair is “better” than tail hair. The truth is, they’re simply different and each has a purpose in the folklore of the old Vaqueros.
Mane hair is more pleasant to work with and feels nicer in your hands. Its more refined texture allows the master twister to be highly creative with patterns and colors. The hair from the tail of the horse is more corse and twisting it properly is more difficult. Because it’s not as pleasing to the eye or in the hands, the demand for tail hair is low so there aren’t many being made.
History in Every Detail
The two different textures found in mane and tail hair however, provide more variety of feel which in turn create more opportunities in the hands of the skilled horseman. In the old days of the original Vaqueros, horsehair was a common material that was free for the taking.
Rawhide from the herds of cattle the Vaqueros tended was braided into bosals, bridles, reins, romels, quirts and riatas. These two humble materials; hair and hide form the foundation of the California Vaquero bridle horse tradition.
All horses are individuals and cowboys certainly are too, so the gear the Vaqueros developed became equally individualized with endless subtle combinations reflecting regional tastes, designs and riding styles. This is why the training techniques of the Vaquero are so effective as they can be adjusted and modified to fit virtually any situation.
In the old days for example, a Vaquero may have chosen to start a colt out with a mecate made from tail hair because he knew a particular colt he was working would respond better to the more prickly feel of tail hair. Likewise, a horse he was proud of, one much farther along in its training, may have earned a softer fancier mane hair mecate.
A well made, well balanced, mane hair mecate that’s been heavily used with the prickly outer hairs naturally worn away from many long days of riding is one of the nicest ropes a person could use, however, few cowboys would ever be convinced to part with it. A unique feature of tail hair is the fact that the “prickles” are permanent and will never ware away completely.
Historically, there has been an air of secrecy surrounding the bridle horse. Over generations, the old Vaqueros refined their techniques often holding their personal discoveries and improvements closely. Traditionally, the Vaquero with the greatest skill and experience held the highest position and status on the rancho.
This level of respect was earned through long days of hard work over many years so the information locked inside the master Vaquero’s head was his livelihood; he would not give it up easily. Today’s trainers, clinicians and cowboys are sometimes equally cagey about sharing certain techniques; especially with beginners.
This is not due to any elitism on their part, as they’re just as pleased as anyone to see so much interest in preserving and carrying on Vaquero heritage. They’re simply being careful. They don’t want to pass on information that could be misinterpreted in a way that could get people and horses injured or worse.
Clinician Mike Bridges, for example, is well known as one of the world’s leading authorities on training the traditional Vaquero bridle horse. It’s for this reason that he is not a fan of the “one off” clinic. He prefers to work with dedicated groups of students willing to complete a multi year program he likes to call “the project”.
Details That Pay Dividends
Ultimately, the foundation of the bridle horse was not built on fancy gear but on patience, attention to detail and a willingness to take the time that is necessary. Engraved fine silver and hand tooled leather are wonderful things and it’s fun to look good for your friends, but your horse actually doesn’t know the difference. It’s the functionality of the gear that really counts.
The weight of a hair rope, the animal the hair came from, the technique used in its construction, the diameter, the texture, the body or firmness, all of these factors come into play when using a natural hair mecate with both the traditional hackamore and the snaffle rig.
A veteran trainer will often have a large collection of bosals and mecates in several size ranges, weights and made from a variety of materials. For a first time purchaser, it’s tempting to choose a rope simply based on color and pattern and although the colors may match your horse’s coat perfectly, the weight, texture, size and body of the rope may not be a good match at all.
For the experienced rider, a favorite rope that is well worn and feels good in your hands may be a reliable choice for the horse that is farther along but perhaps not as good a choice for a colt just starting out. If a new rope feels too prickly in your hands wear gloves.
Care and Handling
When it comes to caring for natural hair ropes, here are some basic suggestions: Don’t use detergents to wash hair ropes as this will strip the hair of its natural oils. Never use saddle oil, leather creams or wax on a hair rope. Absolutely avoid silicone hair polish! This makes the rope slippery and is hard to rinse out of the hair. If a rope gets sweated up simply rinse well with clean water and hang away from direct sunlight to dry.
It’s recommended that a natural hair rope mecate should be freshly tied and untied with each use. At the end of each ride, the bosal and its mecate should hang separately. By carefully coiling a good hair rope and hanging it up after each use the owner is insuring that they will enjoy this mecate for many years to come.
When first learning to tie the mecate it can be a little unnerving to untie the rig and find that you’re not able to retie it again correctly. This leads a lot of folks to leave a rig tied permanently so they won’t have to worry about remembering how to retie it. The problem with this practice is that kinks and bends will form in the hair rope that are difficult if not impossible to get out later.
Another problem that arises when leaving the rig tied is that you’re unable to make adjustments should the need arise. In order to shorten or lengthen the rein, for example, the whole rig should be retied. This becomes awkward when old kinks are hanging in your reins!
There are some helpful instructional videos on YouTube that show clear and simple techniques for properly tying the mecate to the bosal. Bridle horse clinician and trainer Richard Caldwell has a particularly good one on his website.
With regular practice, you’ll be tying mecates in your sleep. When folks first learn to tie their own rig, however, the tendency is to wrap the mecate around the bosal too tightly.This creates extra wear at the knot end of the hair rope. It also stresses the rawhide bosal and causes breakage inside the hair rope over time. The mecate should be snug but there’s no need to have it real tight.
There are different styles and techniques for tying the mecate to the bosal depending on how far along the horse is. The size of the horse’s muzzle in relation to the length of the bosal will determine how many wraps to make as well as to adjust how high or low you want the bosal to sit on the horse’s face. Most want to tie the rig so the rein will be near the top of the wraps close to the horse’s chin but this too is a matter of preference.
The tradition of the vaquero was born out of a free and wide open country. Just like the land itself, the discipline of the bridle horse is dynamic and constantly evolving. Modern improvements in horse breeding and training have left past practices of physical domination over the horse thankfully obsolete.
Blending the Past with the Present
In the old days it was common practice to “sore” a horse by tying his head back in the traditional hackamore and leaving him that way for several hours to make him more “sensitive”. This does not produce an authentic feel this produces a resentful animal that’s in pain.
Improved techniques of training through true feel allow modern horseman to take full advantage of the subtleties and nuances built into traditional bridle horse gear. Collecting quality handmade gear is not only an enjoyable activity and an expression of our own individual personalities, it can be a pathway to better horsemanship.
By learning how to use traditional bridle horse gear correctly, studying the history behind it and caring for it properly, we can take full advantage of the generations of horsemanship wisdom living inside each piece.
There is always room for adjustment and refinement. Talk to any of the top bridle horse trainers working today and you’ll find that they all have their own preferences when it comes to their gear and how they like to use it. There is no one set path that must be followed.
If there is one enduring principle of the bridle horse tradition however, it’s time and patience. Taking the time and allowing your horse to learn through patient consistent work. There are no short cuts or quick fixes- making a true Vaquero bridle horse takes years but the rewards are great.