Out West

Roping with Ed Borein

Borein roping

Edward Borein distinguished himself as an artist, writer, historian, and vaquero roper.

Beloved vaquero artist Edward Borein (1872–1945) liked nothing more than to rope with his friends. Probably more than any other artist of the vaquero culture, Borein’s roping art is on one hand—the most accurate, and on the other—the most celebratory. Every roper who has ever built a loop relates to the glorious moments of the catches Borein illustrated over the years.

During the 1920s, Borein wrote a regular culture column for the San Francisco Call newspaper, a paper that has published continuously since 1865. (Today it is the San Francisco Examiner.) His many articles were mostly whimsical in nature but he wrote them to satisfy the continuing demand for cowboy stories—true or not.

Borein at his shop in Santa Barbara, circa 1930. Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

His knowledge of the California vaquero was wide and deep and he could tell the entire story of the vaquero’s evolution in very few words:

When the first Spanish pioneers of Mexico, unloaded their
horses and cattle at Vera Cruz, and trailed them off in to the
surrounding country; they rode the old high-forked Moorish
saddle and carried a garocha, or long pole, such as was by
the Picadores today in the bull ring. These served very well, to
handle the gentle cattle they had brought. But as the stock
increased and spread over the great-unknown land, they
became as wild as deer and as the other animals of the montes
—or jungles of thorny brush, which covers great stretches of Mexico.

And so, the Spaniard found that his rig was worthless in the new
land. The cattle he was raising had little or no respect for a man
with a six-foot pole. New means had to be employed to capture and
handle them. Some daring fellow made a loop on the end of a rope
and threw it over a bullock’s horns – and caught him! This seemed to
be the only practical method, and straight away, those first cowboys
began practicing with their rope.

As the country became settled, new ranges had to be found. To the
south, were the tropics. This was no cow country, so, it’s to the north.
The restless ones started, slowly driving their little bunches of ranch
horses, where they could find water. At most of these water holes lived
Indians, some had been subdued with the Cross, and others with the
lance, thought these hardy old pioneers were not too particular which.

A pen-and-ink drawing by Edward Borein.
Etching by Edward Borein courtesy of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

Year, by year, they drifted north, always holding to the water courses for
in this dry land, water was the first necessity. Until Santa Fe was reached,
the cattle business lived in fear for a hundred years or more as the
Comanche Indians had no use for a Cross and were pretty good with the
lance themselves. So the Spaniards built a fort and stopped. California
had been discovered and reports came back to Mexico of no bad Indians
and plenty of grass and water. So herds were started and the first big
trails were broken through to the Golden State. The Missions and ranchos
were established, and in a few years, Boston had ships there buying hides,
horns and tallow. They next hired to work out to the east but San Antonio
was about as far as they could get when the Comanches and other Indians
said no again. So another fort was made and again, they stopped.

Of course long before Santa Fe or California was reached the Spaniards
had been compelled by necessity to change his saddle again. He still kept
the high cantle board but changed the shape of the forks so that he could
make his rope fast when catching horses and cattle. The (saddle) tree he
also made heavier and of the strongest wood. He covered it with rawhide
put on wet, which when dry, held things together as no bolts could ever do.
The stirrups were cut out of solid blocks of hardwood. The cinches were
made of twisted horsehair with the rest of the saddle covered in home-
tanned leather.

Being compelled to make all their own saddles and clothes, these old time
cowboys naturally made exactly what was necessary for their use in the
particular country in which they worked. This accounts for the many
different riding costumes in the Spanish countries today. Some have lasted
even to today.

From his perspective, “today” meant 1928 or so, and even he continued wearing historic-style clothing as did many artists of the era celebrating the culture they depicted. But Borein’s true passion was roping, and roping in the vaquero style. Of the artists of this era and that means Russell, Will James, Joe De Yong, Maynard Dixon, Clyde Forstythe among other—it was Borein who could truly depict the many roping shots and situations the vaquero could get himself into—whether in a minimal line drawing, a watercolor or an etching. Here’s a sampling of some of Borein’s pen & ink drawings and etchings—that tell the story with just a few lines.

Vaqueros sit on a wall in Mexico, pre 1900. Photo by Edward Borein, courtesy of William Reynolds.

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