Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Hitched Horsehair Bridles Have a History Behind Bars

The flowing mane and tail of the horse have been used for many purposes, both utilitarian and aesthetic, ever since humans paired up with equines. The strong, waterproof, dye-able strands of hair became a component in the creation of ropes, girths, and war bridles for horses. Horsehair was also used for fishing line, stuffing for mattresses and furniture, and decorative additions to clothing. It is still used on bows to draw notes from stringed instruments. Yet the hitching of horsehair in the construction of bridles is a unique American folk art. In no other culture has horsehair been used in quite this manner. In making bridles, the long hairs of the horse’s tail were the most useful, and when dyed brilliant colors, they could be braided or hitched into beautiful pieces: belts, hatbands, watch fobs, canes, quirts, and bridles with reins...We now know that many of the hitched horsehair bridles extant today were created by the inmates of the West’s territorial and state penitentiaries. Since it was believed that inmates who were busy and productive had fewer problems and caused less trouble, some wardens promoted hobby programs. The prison warden usually determined the types of activities available for inmates, depending on security levels and what raw materials and tools could be used. The craft of hitching horsehair into colorful bridles flourished in the prisons of 12 western states from about 1885 through the 1920s. (One wonders if the term “doing a hitch” was related to this inmate activity.) Horses were always kept on the prison farms, so most of the required materials were inexpensive and readily available. Hitched and braided horsehair pieces were created by hand without the benefit of any special tools and could be made in the confines of a small cell. The inmates had the time to devote to this folk art, which required focus and attention to detail for long periods. By producing pieces that would sell “on the outside” for a good price, inmates could earn money for tobacco or to save for their release. One hundred years ago, these bridles would sell for $20 to $50 each. The prisoner might get two-thirds of that, while the remainder would go to the prison for supplies. Besides the monetary return, inmates gained a sense of pride in producing useful, artistically satisfying objects valued by others...more

HT:  Marvin Frisbey

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