Brute strength

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Pink coloration, and sterling silver bit and medallions

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During long winter months in line shacks or lonely times in a territorial prison, frontier men with too much time and too few resources sometimes created what has become an enduring folk-art form: horsehair bridles.

'I saw the first one when I was 7 or 8 years old, and thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen,' says Don Whinery, an Oklahoma rancher who owns one of the largest collections of horsehair bridles in the country. 'Most collectors have five or six,' he says. 'I have more than 100.' The collection is valued at $300,000.

Horsehair for these bridles came from manes and tails, through thinning or combing, or it was taken when the animal died. 'This was an era when many people made use of what they had,' Don explains.

A knowledgeable collector can tell the difference between a bridle fashioned from mane hair and one made from tail hair. The mane hair is softer and more pliable; the tail hair is coarser and prickly.

Don's collection includes bridles, halters, reins and quirts, which are short riding whips. The oldest bridle that has been dated is more than 150 years old, and records show it was made by an American Indian, probably a Kiowa or Comanche. Its Native American origin is easy to discern from the width of the nosepiece, which is wider than cowboys used, and from the bridle's design.

Don also owns three horsehair basals, a halter used for breaking or training that doesn't have a metal bit.

He says he finds his collection pieces in many places. One special bridle and quirt came from across the country. 'A friend of mine called from Wyoming about a bridle found in an old trunk. It was offered in an estate sale, but never used,' Don says. 'It was wrapped, sealed and dated '1885'. The colors are new and bright despite the fact it is 115 years old.'

Such bridles were greatly valued in the 19th century, too. Don related the story of a Montana cowboy, far from home in New York, who was caught stealing and then sentenced to 10 years in jail. His family sent him the horsehair and he crafted a bridle for the warden. It bought six years off his sentence.

Of quirts, Don says the materials used inside varied from leather straps to wood or lead, with the hair braided around those materials.

Many quirts and bridles reflect a varied color palette. In prison, inmates weren't allowed to use commercial dyes because they are caustic, and it was believed such dyes might eat through cell bars. So, plant dyes, from flowers and vegetables, were used to color the horsehair. After beaver hide became scarce, kangaroo leather, imported from Australia, became popular for inner cores because of its pliancy and wearability.

'Many times you can tell the region of the country from which the bridles come,' Don says. 'The Southwest leaned toward the earth tones and Indian designs. The colors were bolder and brighter the farther north you went.' Montana and Wyoming cowboys were partial to Kangaroo hide, and the Mexican influence comes through in California bridles, which feature reds, pinks and yellows.

The bits can be region specific, too. The size of the bit, type of metal and design were as distinctive as the color and braid of the hair.

Don is a member of the associate board of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Part of his collection is housed at the Flying W Museum in Sayre, Okla.; the other part is at the Flying W Guest Ranch near Elk City, Okla.

-  For more information on Don's collection or about collecting horsehair bridles in general, call him at (580) 928-5504.

-  Rhonda Shephard is a freelance writer who focuses on agricultural subjects. She lives in rural Butler, Okla.