Rawhide Braiding: The Art of the Gauchos

Argentine braiding traditions, an increasing influence north of the equator, were fueled by a need to survive on the South American frontier, where a strand of rawhide was all that separated a gaucho from certain death.

It's hard to beat the utilitarian perfection of rawhide leather. It's the horseman's duct tape. Use it to fix saddles, mend fence or wrap around your foot to hold on a floppy boot sole. In a crunch, tie a strand in a loop to substitute for an engagement ring. It's no surprise, then, that the versatile Argentine gaucho would make use of this do-it-all material in the trenzas tradition of rawhide braiding.

Home on the Pampa

A strand of rawhide was all that separated a gaucho from certain death on the Argentine frontier. Whether used for securing a rope around a horse or constructing tools for hunting food, the trenza tradition was born of the need to be self-sufficient on an unforgiving continent. It makes sense then that the Spanish immigrants who filled the gaucho's sparse ranks took great care in braiding horse saddlery. In a pair of reins, a gaucho literally held his own life in his hands.

The tribes of Mapuche Indians that inhabited the pampa prairies were the inventors of what's become the signature gaucho trenza, the boleadoras. This piece of equipment is composed of three ropes with weights fastened to the ends and held together at the center like a pinwheel. Holding the boleadoras by one weighted end, a horseman swung them overhead like a lazo to cast at the feet of his prey, tripping it to the ground.

Wild herds of cattle and horses were a relatively recent apparition on the pampa, and the Mapuches hadn't yet mastered making leather from their hides. Gauchos improved on the boleadoras'rudimentary design by using braided trenzas in place of the crude rope the Mapuches made from the tendons and ligaments of wild animals, such as the estrus and guanaco, cousins of the ostrich and llama. Gauchos did heed the Mapuche advice to use the tough, plate-like leather from an armadillo for making the pouches that hold the boleadoras'rock weights.

The bozal and lazo ("bosal"and "reata"in North American terminology) are further examples of how gaucho saddlery adapted to the utilitarian needs of life on the Argentine Pampa. The bozal and lazo are constructed from rawhide braids of up to 32 strands, and often incorporate decorative motifs of silver rings, medallions and stitched embroideries. A clever feature is a rawhide button-and-loop used as buckle-and-clasp fastener. This invention allows reins, lead ropes, lazos and bozales to be attached without tying a knot in the rope, which would weaken the braid and cause it to break.

Because no other piece of gaucho saddlery receives as much day-to-day abuse, the lazo's design evolved to allow for the inevitability of breakage. Lazos are constructed with an innovative yapa braided onto the catch end of each rope, similar in design and function to the tapered leader of a fly-fishing line. A lazo will almost certainly break in this expendable four-foot section of rope and can be easily repaired by braiding a new yapa instead of an entire new rope. In addition, the yapa is made of a bulkier braid that makes it stronger and heavier than the rest of the rope, and more durable, facilitating lazo throws over greater distances.

Daniel Posse, a craftsman who's practiced trenza leatherwork for 26 years, explains that today's trenzador (braider) is more artisan than gaucho. Nonetheless, leatherworkers heed the wisdom of Argentina's trenza tradition in the way a lazo is cared for to ensure it a long life.

"A lazo is dragged through mud, water and even soaked with blood during daily use. Washing it with soap and water isn't enough,"Posse says. "A gaucho will rub the brain matter from a butchered animal into the rawhide, and then store the rope wrapped inside the animal's stomach. This keeps the rope humid and helps preserve the rawhide from deteriorating."

Posse learned the art of gaucho trenzas in the provincial countryside of Buenos Aires. In 2002 he moved to Junin de Los

Andes, a small town in the Andes Mountain foothills, and opened his workshop, El Rodeo. There he draws inspiration from the everyday gauchos who ride down his street, as well as from the volumes of gaucho literature that fill his bookshelves.

"I reconstructed this bozal from a description I found in a historical text,"Posse says, pointing out one of his creations. "The piece incorporates authentic silver rings I found in an antique store, still in their original wrapping paper."The final product is a museum-quality re-creation of a 19th century gaucho bozal.

A bozal and bridle set that hangs over Posse's fireplace is exemplary of how, in capable hands, trenza leatherwork can become an art form. The leather appears tanned, when really the light-brown color of the rawhide comes from an Aberdeen Angus-Hereford cowhide Posse handpicked for the job. The reins have intricate embroidery running down the center, and a miniature pair of hobbles that attach the bridle to the bozal. Such details have earned Posse's leatherwork a place in private collections like that of former South African president Nelson Mandela.

For the rest of this story, see the April issue of Western Horseman.