BY ROD HONIG
Welcome to our new column on vaquero lore. In the future we’ll examine the impressive and functional gear and trappings of the vaquero and buckaroo, but first, a history lesson. The word “vaquero” conjures all sorts of images in one’s mind. But who were these skilled ropers and handlers of livestock?
By the 1760’s the trail of Spanish Missions on the El Camino Real was being established. That era heralded the booming livestock industry in California. With the establishment of trade based on hides and tallow to be shipped out of California the need arose for round-ups and the large scale tending to herds. The men tasked with this were the vaqueros. Originally, native Indians and the Spanish were of this class but with intermarriage came not only the Anglo influence but also from them, a new desire to learn the ways of the vaquero. The word vaquero was mutated to the English pronunciation of buckaroo, which many consider to be one and the same.
In later years, these cowboys were noted for riding saddles reminiscent of what we call the 3B or Visalia-style stock saddle. This contradicts the belief that the Wade saddle was part of their gear. (The Wade was popularized, although not created, by Ray Hunt at a much later date). Their ropes, fashioned of braided rawhide, were called La Reata, which the Anglos bastardized to the English word, lariat. The vaqueros were adept at swinging a big loop to rope cattle and dallying for leverage on their saddle horns. Even the word dally comes from the Spanish, dar la vuelta, which loosely translates to taking a turn. Horses were ridden using a braided rawhide bosal to establish communication through signal, coupled with a hand-twisted horsehair rein and lead called a mecate, now often called a McCarty.
The training progression was to next take the horse into two-rein, meaning using a thinner under-bridle bosal and a spade bit or half-breed, which resembles a spade without a spoon on the mouthpiece staple. This was a transition stage. The final stage was referred to as straight up in bridle in which the horse was ridden solely in a bridle bit with a set of braided rawhide romal reins. As the bits had mouthpieces that were of great height the key, from the hackamore stage to the straight-up stage, was to use headgear predominantly as signal devices, not for leverage unlike many bits in other systems. The snaffle became an addition to the program for many in later years to speed up the progress of the training, but originally the method was all about time — time to develop finesse and exactness in both rider and horse.
Their gear was handmade by the very men that rode and roped daily. So, it needed to be fashioned of readily available material – rawhide, leather and simple iron for the bits. Today’s master gear makers take many of their cues from the older masters – Ortega, Mardueno, Visalia, Tapia and others. The cheeks pieces on today’s bits still remain very close to the original designs in the form of Santa Barbra, Santa Susanna and Las Cruces, along with other designs
So the next time you see a rider with a flat hat, big loop and rawhide and silver adorning their gear, realize you are not seeing a new trend but homage to an old tradition brought forward to present day.