Aaron Winchell's notes on Making Rawhide:
I do want people to have a better understanding of rawhide, especially as it relates to the methods and traditions of CA vaquero horsemanship. Ours is a cattle based culture.
I'm aware of how many braiders are using lime and lye. What I have learned about rawhide has come from some old time California braiders. These were guys who braided for the horsemanship, not the art. One can appreciate the decorative work of the Argentine braiders, but what they do has no relation to CA horsemanship.
Much of what I know has come from Ernie Morris. He's 84 now. Ernie learned from his California vaquero grandfather, Jess Wilkinson, who passed away many years ago at 86. If you ever get to feel a Jess Wilkinson hackamore, you'll understand where I'm coming from. You can read more about Ernie in the July, 2012 edition of Western Horseman magazine.
Yes, vinegar will neutralize lime; one is an acid the other a caustic. However, that is not the problem with the process.
Marinating a hide in a caustic solution causes irreversible damage to the hide. This is no secret. The information is easily available. Read Robert Woolery's book on braiding. It contains excerpts from a letter written in 1954 by Ernie Ladouceur to Bill Dorrance. This tells you all you need to know as far as the basic principles of CA style rawhide. Both Bill and Ernie Ladouceur were good braiders themselves, as well as great experimenters. In the same book, a method very similar to Ortega's is described. By the way, Ortega didn't lime his hides, either.
A little internet research will open your eyes as to just what the lime does to the hide. A tannery chemist can also fill you in. They have been trying to get away from using lime for many years due to the dangerous chemical reactions that take place while neutralizing hides in the tannery.
When I talk about lime, it is hydrated lime. This is the stuff that is also popular with mass murderers like Stalin and Hitler. It is used in mass graves for the same purpose as slipping the hair off a hide; to control the growth of bacteria.
The lime (or lye) has nothing to do with the hair slipping. At a certain point of putrefaction (AKA rotting) the hair will slip. Without the caustic, the bacteria would run out of control and the hide would completely break down.
Lye is also commonly used for this purpose. Most who elect to use it use Draino, (yes, the stuff you use to unclog a drain). It is a concentrated base (caustic) that will dissolve hair, etc. The real damage caused in this method is something else besides putrefaction. I won't give it away, but the information is out there.
As far as soap, many of the old soaps were lye based. For braiding, I prefer a really mild soap. It is used for moisture control and as a lubricant. Ivory leaves very little residue. As soon as I have finished braiding a piece, I immediately wash as much of the soap out as possible. Leaving the soap in will affect the feel of the rawhide because it is slightly hydroscopic so the rawhide will never dry all the way.
While I'm on this topic, all dyes (natural or man made chemical) are either caustic or acidic and will have the same effect on the rawhide. Even Ortega did not like what the dyes did to the rawhide, but he was braiding for the “art.” He gave up on “using gear” to focus on high end art work.
I try to make the heel knot as small as possible, but still strong enough to hold up to some of the extreme "shaping" methods some think are necessary. With Central Coast Ranch Rawhide, these forceful methods are not truly needed. If the heel knot is too heavy, it will tend to bounce sending unwanted signals to the horse (and also back to the rider).
The real issue as far as “feel” is concerned is the nose button length and shape. Also, the way the flexible bars of the bosal come out of the heel knot. Release is directly related to the length of the nose button, nothing else (unless the heel knot is abnormally heavy). Shaping to conform to the face without pinching or leaving gaps helps with comfort, communication and reduced rubbing. Properly made, smooth and tightly braided strings for the bars also aid in reducing friction. The rider’s hands also contribute to any friction or lack thereof. Excessive “bumping” will frustrate both horse and rider defeating the purpose.
Read those books keeping in mind Bruce Grant was a newspaper reporter. He developed an interest in braiding as a hobby. As an old-fashioned reporter, he reported everything, right wrong or in between.
As far as CA style using gear goes, Woolery is much better, mostly due to the help of Bill Dorrance.
Aaron Winchell's notes on Heritage Hackamores:
Bosals with leather buttons over a rawhide body are part of a long tradition in this part of California. The earliest maker I know of who probably introduced this version of the hackamore was Frank Mayfield (also a saddlemaker, he made bits and spurs as well as mecates). He was a huge influence on Wes Wimmer who is best known for his bits and spurs, but who also braided as well as made mecates.
The other big name also influenced by Mayfield was Jess Wilkinson (also his brother, Ab). Jess was Ernie Morris's grandfather. Quite a bit of what I do comes from Ernie. Two other braiders known for the leather/rawhide combo are Ernie Ladoucer and Chuck Irwin (Chuck still braids a little, but now in his 80‘s he mostly makes really good using bits).
A little history there, but the important part is function. I think we are still trying to rediscover what the old timers knew. Used to make both rawhide as well as leather buttons and people bought what they liked. But, we started to notice folks riding multiple horses with one bosal did best with the leather nose button. That was an “ah hah!” moment.
Talking to Ernie Morris has confirmed my thinking that the leather buttons are more versatile simply because they are easier to re-shape by hand moving from horse to horse. It can be hard to drag information out of Ernie. He was raised with the idea of secrecy about the methods of horsemanship and taught to "keep it in the family." He will, however, smile a little and confirm when I am on the right track. I am really grateful to Ernie and other “viejos” for their help.
Unfortunately, the idea of secrecy has caused the tradition of the bridle horse to almost disappear. We are trying to keep it alive. This is why those bosals you bought and threw away are the ones that are easy to find. Too many braiders have copied others over and over again never realizing what they are making won't work. Even now when remaining old timers have started to talk a little, some makers refuse to listen. I guess this is because they don't want to admit they've been doing it wrong for years.
Have questions or need information?