Brute strength

| April 2002

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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.