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Horsehair Bridles: A Unique American Folk Art, by Ned and Jody Martin, Hawk Hill Press, Nicasio, Calif. 2016, $65

Among the lesser-known subjects of Western cultural history is the braiding and hitching of horsehair. Source identification of the various styles and designs of headstalls, bosals, belts, fobs, hatbands and other such items has been a matter of specialized knowledge and plenty of guesswork—until now. In Horsehair Bridles Ned and Jody Martin have done yeomen’s service to both the historic and present-day field of woven horsehair.

Visually, the book is spectacular. Ned Martin’s professional photography is superb, and the pages blaze with vibrant colors. The examples the authors highlight hail from some of the country’s finest collections, and the detail is all a reader could wish. But it is in the scholarship itself—the result of what the Martins call “eureka moments”—that the book makes its greatest contribution to the Western memorabilia niche. They identify a dozen late 19th- and early 20th-century U.S. prisons whose inmates turned out horsehair products. Some styles are more familiar to collectors than others, and although there was inevitable crossover, each institution had its own distinct design and color scheme.

The book is highly readable as well as scholarly. The Martins write, for example, of Yuma Territorial Prison inmate Louis V. Eytinge, who made a flourishing business of selling his and his fellow inmates’ work. The enterprising Eytinge advertised under his own name in various newspapers and marketed a wide range of horsehair items across the West to such established saddleries as Hamley’s, Main & Winchester, Heiser, and F.M. Stern. Dressed in a suit and tie, he would walk from his cell to the prison offices each day, where he conducted business under the warden’s watchful eye.

Eytinge’s story is just one of the many accounts that bring the world of horsehair crafting to life. In their last chapter the Martins introduce the reader to a handful of modern hitchers, including the highly regarded Alfredo Campos, whose intricate work represents the apex of horsehair artistry. All in all the colorful Horsehair Bridles makes a welcome addition to the library of every collector of cowboy artifacts and student of Western material culture.

—Ron Soodalter