During the 19th and 20th centuries, prisoners made and sold an unusual variety of items. Their handiwork included carved, hammered, braided, painted and whittled objects. Spurs, reatas, belts, bits and bridles were among the many types of exquisite merchandise created and sold by prisoners.
Some of the most striking prisoner-made pieces feature colorful hitched horsehair designs. The craft of horsehair hitching involves tying dyed strands of hair into a continuous series of tiny knots. One item may consist of tens of thousands of individually hand-tied knots, making this a very time-consuming craft. For example, a complete bridle could take more than a year to make.
Most American horsehair hitching was done in Western prisons where inmates had ample time to learn and practice the craft. Hitching probably originated in Mexico by the early vaqueros who, in turn, taught it to their Anglo counterparts. Hitched horsehair gear was primarily decorative and not used as everyday working gear. The condition of surviving examples suggests that many items were never intended for use.
Remarkable examples of prisoner-made items from this time can be found in the “Western Gear Made in Prisons” section of the A.P. Hays Spirit of the West Collection, which features approximately 1,250 rare artifacts. Items include two collectible hitched horsehair bridles, hatbands, belts, brushes and quirts (small horse whips); and nickel-inlayed spurs and bits. They were made by inmates at Montana State Prison, Wyoming State Prison (Rawlins), Canon City Prison in Colorado, Walla Walla Washington Prison and Florence Territorial Prison in Arizona.
Today, horsehair hitching continues to be a way for prisoners at the Montana State Prison to pass the time and earn an income. The April 2016 issue of Cowboys & Indians magazine highlighted this unique tradition in its article “Hitched Horsehair Bridles have a History Behind Bars,” which can be read here.
This posting was written by collector Abe Hays, whose “Spirit of the West Collection” is an ongoing exhibition at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.
PHOTOS: Horsehair belts and quirts, located in the “Prisoners as Artisans” display case, can be found in the A.P. Hays Spirit of the West Collection.