Romal Reins: Everyday, useable artwork
February 26, 2013
They can be leather, nylon, rawhide or cotton; split, knotted, or connected. They are a tool you hold in your hand to give direction and guidance. They are often broken, sweat-covered, and forgotten; but for many, they are more than that. The reins on your horse can be a thing of beauty.
Traditional bridle horses originated from the historical California Vaquero whose form of artwork was equestrian training. They spent years training and perfecting the working reined cow horse by starting the horse in a hackamore and working their way up to the finished bridle horse that was ridden in a spade bit. Because of their grace, skill, athleticism and maneuverability, the finished bridle horse demanded attention from cowboys and artists alike and has been written about and studied for years. Traditional horse trainer Ed Connell writes in his book, Vaquero Style Horsemanship, "With all these top men, there was one who had them bested … There were no more brackets for him to climb to, he was at the top in the making of the California reined horse. When he finished a horse it would be a physical impossibility for the horse to work any better." Traditional tack for the finished bridle horse was not only practical, but also beautiful and typically included a decorative headstall and silver spade bit with rein chains attached to rawhide-braided reins with romal (extended rawhide-braided quirt), otherwise known as romal reins.
Rawhide reins were chosen by Vaqueros for the heavy and rigid, yet flexible, properties. Rather than a single strand, thin rawhide strips are cut and then braided to make a stronger rein. Romal reins are braided into a closed (circular) rein with romal attached in the middle. In an interview by Ron Bonge in the May 2012 issue of Western Horseman, horse trainer Benny Guitron tells, "When the Mexicans came to California, the romal reins became popular. They didn't ride with bullwhips, so when they were moving cattle around and the cow didn't want to move, they just smacked the cow with the end of [the romal]." Bridle horses are ridden in romal reins to feel cues on the neck and deliver minute adjustments to the bit in the horse's mouth, allowing a sensitive horse to react quickly with little effort from the rider. Bonge writes, "Buttons are used to add weight to the rein. When you gave a signal [like] pick up and release, the rein had the weight so the horse could feel it." However, according to C.J. Hadley in her book Trappings of the Great Basin Buckaroo, "Buttons hold the reins away from the horse's neck so sweat won't travel up the reins to the rider's hands," but over time they have started to serve as more of a decorative addition. Now, decorative buttons and intricate rawhide braiding has begun to catch the eye of collectors around the world.
The Custom Cowboy Shop in Cody, WY, carries a variety of items to please every enthusiast of the Western lifestyle; however, catering to the rider of traditional bridle horses is one of their top priorities and they fill their store with rawhide braiding from the traditional western artist Vince Donley. The store generally keeps 8 plait (braid) or 12 plait traditional romal reins braided by Donley in stock, but from time to time will order more fancy interweaved or fine-strand reins, according to manager Julie Butler, and ships these items worldwide. Butler said that traditional bridle horse tack like romal reins are growing in popularity for not only users, but also collectors. Butler said that the public's appreciation for rawhide braiding found in romal reins is increasing. "It is absolutely growing! It's nice that people are appreciating the artistry that goes into these pieces and they are being recognized for not only their function and use but also for their artwork. These are beautiful pieces that can be used or hung on the wall to look at."
The fine art of rawhide braiding that goes into a set of romal reins touches more than just the art collector, historian or horse trainer. This fine artwork also inspires future generations. Over a decade ago, college student and rodeo cowboy Whit Olson toured the Black Hills Stock Show trade show and found himself dreaming of a set of Vince Donley rawhide-braided romal reins. However, the price tag on the reins was out of reach for his college student budget, so Olson decided that day to learn how to make his own. After years of reading, studying, and practicing, Olson was awarded the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association (TCAA) scholarship in 2008 and apprenticed under TCAA rawhide braider Nate Wald of Lodgegrass, MT. Today, Olson works from his home in southeastern South Dakota, crafting a variety of rawhide braided pieces including romal reins similar to the pair he wished for years ago. He makes approximately seven romal reins per year and says that he is still learning, but, at the same time, is helping others learn as well.
"Rawhide braiding is very difficult. It's not like braiding leather. If it [rawhide] doesn't want to be braided, it won't be. It's very temperamental and needs just the right amount of moisture. It takes a lot of practice and patience," Olson said and then added, "There aren't too many of us that do this." He commented that he was incredibly honored to be a part of the TCAA and to be able to pass on the art of rawhide braiding, "Which is the whole point behind the TCAA," said Olson, "Too many people want it right now and want it cheap and seem to have lost touch with what it means to be a craftsman." But when asked about the growing popularity of his craft, he agreed and said, "It seems people are starting to go back to thinking that maybe there is a lot to be benefited from doing things the traditional way. Romal reins are growing in popularity because they are the last step in many years of training a bridle horse. There is a lot of pride in riding a bridle horse because you can't rush these things – and that's what rawhide is."
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Let them be a tool or a masterpiece. Let them lie along the neck of a fine-tuned horse or hang from a wall. Either way, the romal rein will continue to be a thing of beauty.