Braiding in the Bill Dorrance tradition, Montana horseman and artisan Randy Rieman discusses the beauty and functionality of rawhide gear, and tells you what to look for in quality craftsmanship. With tunes from Benny Goodman, Don Edwards and the Quebe Sisters Band set on rotation in the CD player and a cup of tea in hand, Randy Rieman takes to the modest garage of his Dillon, Montana, ranch.
Here, before the day’s hectic schedule unfolds, he steals a few early hours to work on an in-progress reata.
The workbench vice secures the beginnings of a four-strand reata as Rieman slips on his rawhiding gloves, casts bundles of rawhide string behind him, and starts the push-pull process of braiding.
“It’s plain hard work,” he admits. “It’s hard on your hands and tediously long in the amount of time it takes.”
Rieman will have 40 hours invested in this 70-foot reata by the time it’s ready to swing. After more than 30 years on the using end of such gear, Rieman thinks it’s time well spent.
His part-time craft provides a certain amount of supplemental income, but Rieman contends it is the opportunity to preserve an art form, one he learned from legendary horseman Bill Dorrance, that motivates him.
Follow along as this veteran braider shares an insider’s view of the rawhide world, including his early influences, thoughts about the rawhide renaissance and tips for identifying quality gear.
SEASONED COWBOYS Buck Buckingham and Kurt Halvorson introduced Rieman to the ranching and cowboy culture when he arrived in Montana as a green 21-year-old kid. It was Buckingham, a transplanted Californian, who gave Rieman his first exposure to rawhide tack.
“Buck’s gear was a little different from the typical Montana rancher, who had a grazer bit, split reins and a low association saddle,” he explains. “His trappings had style—silver Garcia bits, rawhide braided bosals, reins and romals.”
Rieman’s first piece of purchased rawhide gear furthered his learning process. Looking back, he says, it was the gear’s poor quality that made it memorable.
“That big, old, heavy rawhide hackamore was so stiff you could pound nails with it,” he recalls. “It was paired with a mecate I feel certain was made with tail hair off a burro. It was just awful, but I didn’t know any better. I was just trying to emulate what I saw.”
As Rieman rode and worked alongside veteran horsemen and braiders Billy Askew, Joe Wolter and Bryan Neubert, his hands-on knowledge of what made quality rawhide gear grew. Gone was his first hackamore, replaced with a few pieces of quality gear.
A mid-1980s conversation with Dorrance set Rieman on the path to braiding his own gear. Dorrance liked to share stories about horses, roping, life and braiding, remembers Rieman. One day, when the subject of reatas came up, the young cowboy mentioned how finances were the only thing keeping him from owning a reata.
“He told me to get a hide and he’d help me get started,” Rieman recalls. “We’d just make one.”
Working with the hide off the neighbor’s downed bull, Dorrance showed his eager student how to cut and size string, and how to evaluate which pieces should be included in the final product. The hide and string preparation wasn’t what intimidated him, admits Rieman.
“I was pretty convinced that braiding would be really difficult because the patterns looked so intricate,” he explains. “At that point I had braided nothing, not even three strands of wire.”
Once Dorrance imparted his simplified approach to the process, Reiman went home to continue the project. Several days later, when Dorrance asked Rieman how the project was going, he was surprised to learn it was finished. He was even more surprised to learn the reata’s final length: 110 feet.
“Bill laughed,” he recalls. “He thought I would have stopped when I got to 65 feet or so. But, he just said ‘Go to braiding.’ So I braided the whole length of string.”
Over the years, Dorrance and Rieman continued their rawhide talks and projects, and even partnered on an instructional video, Four Strands of Rawhide, on the making of a four-strand reata.
“I wanted to do the whole thing as kind of a documentary on Bill,” explains Rieman. “But he didn’t see any value in that. He thought that if we were going to go to all that trouble, we should teach people how to do something. So we did.”
WESTERN cultural associations and events, the cross-pollination of cowboy practices, and the ever-growing clinic scene are just some of the factors Rieman attributes to the renewed interest in custom gear, including rawhide.
When the Western Folklife Center held its first poetry gathering in Elko 25 years ago, he explains, it gave people outside ranching life an open invitation to explore the literature, music and traditional cowboy crafts of the American West.
“For the first time, people had a chance to see Western works of art—saddles, silver, rawhide—from notable artisans,” he says. “They recognized it as a viable art form worthy of collection.”
Meanwhile, as the audience for quality gear grew, so, too, did the pool of craftsmen making it. While only a handful of braiders existed before, now there are more than ever. The mobility of today’s cowboy, adds Rieman, has also influenced the rawhide movement.
“Cowboys travel more,” he explains. “They aren’t stuck on using only what the guys in their region use. You’ll see everything from Texas cowpunchers wearing chinks, to Montana hands tying hard and fast. Twenty years ago, that wasn’t the case.”
The clinic scene has also fueled the fire. While educating the masses to approaches in horsemanship, clinicians have made the public more gear-aware. As a result, quality custom gear, such as rawhide bosals and reins, is finding a new audience.
In addition to its superior feel, natural beauty and strength, rawhide gear’s appeal for Rieman has always been its melding of form to function.
“I have a blue-collar mentality about my work,” he says. “If I have something here, I’m going to use it, and it should be able to take the use. If I had a reata I couldn’t use, I’d be just as well off to have a painting of a reata.”
Because he uses custom tack almost exclusively, Rieman feels a special connection to each maker.
“All of my gear is made by people I really like,” he says. “I like who they are, what they do and their artistic ability. It makes the gear all the more special.”
Jennifer Zehnder is a Western Horseman associate editor. To learn more about the video Four Strands of Rawhide, call Randy Rieman at (406) 925-2467. Send comments on this story to [email protected].