Hitching Hands

Originally an art form unique to prison inmates, horsehair hitching has now been embraced by craftsmen on the outside.

Late at night in a 12-by-12-foot cell at the Montana State Prison, 33-year-old inmate Cody Orcutt’s rough hands hitch strands of vibrantly colored horsehair into geometric designs on belts, hatbands, quirts, headstalls and other functional cowboy gear. He spends at least four hours a day hitching on a plywood jig after working eight hours in the prison’s hobby store, where inmates’ handiworks are sold.

Having a job and productive hobby not only occupies Orcutt’s free time, but he says it also has taught him about himself, increased his self-esteem, honed his patience, tapped into his artistic side, and given him a skill and source of income.

Originally an art form unique to prison inmates, horsehair hitching has now been embraced by craftsmen on the outside.
The vibrant colors, ornate designs and crimped tassels on these bridles embody the style made by inmates in the Arizona State Prison in Florence, Arizona. Courtesy of Ned and Jody Martin

“It’s definitely kept me out of trouble,” he says. “The first couple of years [in prison] I was really down on myself and blamed society and my past for being here, but then I took a step back and learned to take responsibility for my life through hitching horsehair. Now I think about my future rather than the past.”

When Orcutt entered the prison system six years ago he was unfamiliar with horsehair hitching until he saw his cellmate doing it and became intrigued. He started out making small items like bracelets and key fobs, but within a few years became proficient at the art and was able to make more-intricate and larger items to sell and give as gifts to his friends and family on the outside. With the money he earns from selling his wares, he invests in more horsehair and saves to rebuild his life once he’s paroled.

Orcutt is one of an estimated 75 hitchers currently at MSP in Deer Lodge, the best known and most prolific source for horsehair wares. There, inmates carry on a Western folk art tradition deeply rooted in the United States prison system and passed down through generations of inmates who mastered the art, but whose identities are often mysteries because their work was unmarked.

Horsehair Heritage

Originally an art form unique to prison inmates, horsehair hitching has now been embraced by craftsmen on the outside.
Ornate domed needle knots were common on bridles made in the Florence, Arizona, penitentiary. Today, Idaho hitcher Gary Stark is one of the only hitchers who incorporates needle knots into his work. Courtesy of Ned and Jody Martin

Horsehair has long been used to make a variety of items, from thread and fishing line to bows and strings for musical instruments, bristles for hairbrushes, and stuffing for furniture and mattresses. The origins of hitched horsehair are not definitive, but through their research around the world for their book Horsehair Bridles: A Unique American Folk Art, Ned and Jody Martin found one of the oldest examples of braided horsehair covering a Roman helmet that dates to the first to fourth century A.D. The earliest existing example of hitched horsehair, however, is a Turkish tugh from the Ottoman Empire, made between the 14th and 17th centuries. This decorative staff with tassels and a hitched diamond pattern was a status symbol for a military leader.

In the book Hitched Horsehair: The Complete Guide for Self Learning, Shoni Maulding writes that hitched horsehair can be traced to the Moors, who conquered Spain in the eighth century. The Spanish brought the craft to the New World, where cowboys, Native Americans, Basque sheepherders, Mexicans and prison inmates helped it evolve.

The Martins also believe mariners might have played a role in the evolution of hitched horsehair through their knot-tying skills.

“Spanish sailors were the first to land in the New World,” says Ned. “Sailors on long voyages often had idle hours when they would practice tying knots and making functional pieces.”

Their functional yet decorative knots, including a cringle knot used to reinforce an eyelet on a sail, became the foundation for macramé and are seen in early Spanish-style headstalls and reins, as well as bridles from Arizona prisons. Some of the sailors might have used their idle time unproductively and ended up in prison, where they taught other inmates the art.

According to the Martins, from the 1870s through the 1930s the hitching of horsehair bridles flourished in a dozen United States territorial and state prisons that had hobby programs. Some of the most noted prison programs were in the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City; Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge; Washington State Prison in Walla Walla; Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary in Rawlins; and Yuma Territorial Prison in Yuma, Arizona (later moved to Florence, Arizona, in 1909).

Prisons had ample supplies of horsehair from farms and prisoners with plenty of time to practice. Plus, the craft required minimal equipment. Early hitchers tied strings to a bed rail and ran them up to a wooden dowel rod around which they’d hitch.

Originally an art form unique to prison inmates, horsehair hitching has now been embraced by craftsmen on the outside.
The earliest horsehair belts were braided strands of natural-colored hair. As inmates in Western state and territorial prisons learned to hitch, the patterns and borders became more complex and incorporated vibrant colors of hair. Courtesy of Ned and Jody Martin

Inmates such as Orcutt learned from other inmates willing to share their knowledge. The inmates’ families and friends marketed the horsehair pieces, and sometimes they were raffled in saloons. Some prisons, like the one in Yuma, held bazaars to sell the convicts’ crafts. Today, prisons have hobby stores that gather and market the wares to the public. Tourists from around the world visit the stores and think nothing of spending $500 on a hitched horsehair belt, $15 for key fob, or even more than $5,000 for a bridle set — all pieces of Western heritage they can take home and use.

Inmates also accept custom orders. For example, Orcutt recently sold one of his horsehair bridles to a barrel racer who commissioned him to make a matching quirt. Orcutt and other inmates receive up to 75 percent of the sales of their goods, with a percentage of that going toward paying restitution, child support and other financial obligations. The remainder goes toward covering the store’s operating expenses.

“I didn’t have much when I came [to prison],” says Orcutt. “I didn’t like asking my sisters for money, so I invested $300 of my state income tax [refund] into horsehair and started making key fobs and bracelets. Now I have more than $1,000 in savings from hitching horsehair.”

To qualify to be in a hobby program, MSP inmates must apply for a permit, buy the necessary supplies and have clean conduct records. Orcutt holds permits to do both leather and horsehair work, but says he’s much better at working with horsehair than leather. Other hobbies available to inmates include beading, fine art and papier-mâché.

Tail hair is bundled into “hanks” with consistent color and length. The white hair is dyed into brilliant colors. Photo by Jennifer Denison

At times in the past, the stigma of prison-made gear forced retailers to become creative in advertising. In early 20th century saddlery catalogs such as those from G.S. Garcia, Hamley & Company, Keyston Bros. and Main & Winchester, horsehair gear was sometimes listed as made by Native Americans or Mexicans to avoid association with prisons, even though the companies contracted prisoners to make items.

There were also periods of decline in the number of hitchers because few passed on their skills or even acknowledged they did it.

“There was a time [prior to the 1980s] when there was a void of hitchers,” says Douglas Krause, who started hitching in 1982 while building his saddlemaking career. “Most of the people who knew how to hitch were in prison and there was that stigma. When they got out they didn’t show anyone their work or pass along their knowledge because they didn’t want anyone to know they’d been in prison. It just didn’t get passed on.”

Modern Makers

The early 1980s saw a resurgence of interest in hitching as well as teaching the craft. Krause saw his first piece of hitched horsehair at the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave in Golden, Colorado.

“It was a headstall that belonged to Buffalo Bill, and I thought it was so cool that I started trying to find out about hitching,” he recalls.

He was apprenticing in a Colorado saddle shop with another emerging craftsman, Casey Backus, and the pair started learning all they could about hitching.

“We were both basically self-taught,” says Krause, who continues to hitch functional gear, as well as twist mecates. “Our styles are different from each other and that of the prisons, but we spent a lot of time working together and feeding off of each other.”

Originally an art form unique to prison inmates, horsehair hitching has now been embraced by craftsmen on the outside.
Contemporary hitchers combine bright colors and creative designs beyond the common diamond pattern in their work. Well-known hitcher Shoni Maulding of Montana made this hummingbird belt. Courtesy of Ned and Jody Martin

Along with Krause and Backus, several other craftsmen were trying to keep the tradition alive, including Alfredo Campos, one of the most revered hitchers of all time and a leader in the art’s revival. A self-taught hitcher who was raised on a ranch near Tucson, Arizona, Campos received recognition for his work through a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, he has retired from hitching and lives in Washington, but his refined work continues to inspire new generations of hitchers.

Gary Stark, a horse trainer and hitcher from Caldwell, Idaho, also didn’t let the art’s prison stigma deter him. In the 1980s, he was managing a ranch and training horses in Montana. A friend managed the prison ranch in Deer Lodge and showed Stark some of the horsehair work coming out of the prison. Stark was fascinated and wanted to learn the art because few craftsmen were doing it. His friend introduced him to an inmate named Phil Harris, who had hitched since the 1950s and had learned from some of the old prison hitchers at Deer Lodge.

“I had three weeks to learn before Phil was paroled [and moved on],” says Stark. “Hitching is basically pretty simple, but there’s a lot of repetition and practice involved to get good at it.”

Stark’s work is known for its quality and complex designs and patterns, and he’s one of few hitchers who does needle knots — large, sometimes domed, hitched rosettes. One of his masterpieces is a horsehair reata he made 20 years ago that measures 34 feet, 9 inches and has an intricately woven pattern the entire length.

Stark, Krause and other hitchers teach workshops around the United States. Last January, the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada, hosted a hitching workshop with longtime hitcher Toni Schutte during the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Both Stark and Krause have held similar workshops during the event. Krause will hold a hitching workshop February 9−11, 2018, at Cottonwood Creek Equestrian Center in Cottonwood, California. Through books and DVDs, workshops and social media groups dedicated to hitching, interest in the art has spiked, and there are more opportunities to learn and share knowledge than ever.

“People are at least wanting to learn it,” says Stark, who produced two hitching videos. “But it takes a special person to [learn it] themselves and put what they learn into practice. I want to see it carried on because it’s part of our Western heritage.”

Timeless Trade

This is an example of an early bridle made in the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, Montana, the most prolific horsehair prison program of past and present. Courtesy of Ned and Jody Martin

Through the years, not much has changed in the materials and processes involved in horsehair hitching. Tail hair is preferred over mane hair because the strands are longer, stronger and easier to manage. Horsehair today is typically purchased from suppliers such as Hitching Post Supply in Snohomish, Washington, and the hair comes cleaned and cut into uniform lengths, usually 26 to 28 inches. The hair is bundled into “hanks” of similar natural color that are held together with string. Hitchers dye white hair into an array of colors to add boldness and interest to their patterns.

Many hitchers draw their patterns ahead of time, but Krause prefers to create them as he hitches.

“I like to hitch by the seat of my pants,” he says. “I have a general conception of what I want a piece to look like, but as I go along I might change my mind. Drafting it ruins the spontaneity and creativity for me.”

The hitcher twists six to 10 strands into a “pull” and knots the ends. The more intricate the hitching, the fewer strands used in the pull. Stark estimates that there are about 200 pulls in a hatband.

Basically, hitching involves tying the pulls in a series of half-hitches around a “warp string,” a cotton or nylong string that is spiraled around a metal or wooden rod. Rods come in different sizes based on the width of the item being made.

“With my hitching style, if I’m doing a 11⁄4-inch belt, I hitch on a 5⁄8-inch diameter rod,” says Krause. “I use a 3⁄4-inch rod for a piece that’s 13⁄8 inches wide.”

Equipment now includes loom-like stands and jigs that help hitchers work more efficiently, maintain steady tension on the strands, and be able to leave a piece and come back to it later.

After the hitching is complete, the item is shaped like a hollow tube when it comes off the rod. It’s then dampened, put into a press to flatten it and left to dry. Krause gently brushes the hitches with a soft mushroom brush while it’s damp to remove oils. Then he rolls it with a marble roller on the rod to crimp the hitches. He lets it dry on the roller before dampening it again and putting it on the press. His technique gives his work a unique, glasslike patina and life and body like a reata or horsehair rope.

Originally an art form unique to prison inmates, horsehair hitching has now been embraced by craftsmen on the outside.
Douglas Krause combines horsehair and leather into functional gear. This 5⁄8-inch hackamore has hitched horsehair pieces with a kangaroo nose button and heel knot. Krause also twisted the horsehair mecate. Photo by Jennifer Denison

Hitching is a time-consuming craft. Stark and Krause estimate it can take 1 to 2 hours to hitch an inch, which means there could be as much as 80 hours in a belt. Bridles take even longer.

“Hitching was limited to inmates for a long time because it would take at least six months to make a bridle,” says Ned. “There are 30,000 to 40,000 knots in a hitched bridle; consequently, it takes a long time to make one. It’s said a good hitcher in prison could make two bridles a year.”

While the Martins note several active hitchers, they say there are very few who have the time and are willing to make the ornate bridles like the prisoners made during hitching’s heyday.

All for the Art

Back at Deer Lodge, site of the most active of the prison horsehair hobby programs today, the horsehair bridle tradition continues. Orcutt is working on an heirloom-quality bridle that resembles Deer Lodge prison designs from the 1920s and ’30s.

“It will have a black and sorrel starburst pattern, jet-black reins and connectors, several crown and diamond knots, and shooflies that are 2 to 3 inches long,” he says. “On the inside I want to hitch Montana State Prison, my last name and AO [identification] number, and the year. I have a replica of a U.S. Cavalry bit from the Civil War era to put on it.”

Most of his work is marked in a way most people wouldn’t notice.

“I do three cross stitches on the back of my work,” he points out. “You can’t see it unless you know to look for it.”

While he would like to sell the bridle, which will take up to a year to make, Orcutt says he’d also be fine giving it to his nephews as an heirloom.

“The heritage of horsehair hitching in this prison and the art involved inspired me to make this bridle,” he says. “When you do it for the art, you don’t worry about if it sells; you just enjoy the process from start to finish.

“I’d like to continue passing down this tradition to others willing to learn and go through the process, even when I’m out of prison. When I first learned about it, I thought it was crazy, but slowly yet surely I learned [more] about it, and now I see the value of its history and making things with my own hands.”

This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Western Horseman.

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