Not yet considered an established collecting category, buyers are pushing up values for fine and historical tack
Human beings began domesticating horses more than 6,000 years ago, and it’s safe to say the evolution of tack – bridles, saddles and so on – began shortly thereafter. Over the millennia, horses have served us on farms and battlefields, competed for us on racetracks and entertained us at the movies. And throughout the course of all this, horses have won the love of people the world over. Ancient European warriors were known to be buried with their horses. Roy Rogers famously had his stuffed.
It’s no surprise, then, that bridles have become a popular collectible, especially among Western Americana enthusiasts.
While the market has fluctuated in recent years, collector and expert Joseph Sherwood of High Noon Auctions says things have improved recently. “The market’s on the rebound now,” he says, “especially for horsehair bridles because there really are only a finite number of them available to collect.”
In general, collectors tend to seek out three specific types of Western bridles for their collections.
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Leather: Fancy and Embellished
According to Sherwood, the most sought-after early leather bridles hail from California. “They’re collectible because they’re so decorative,” he says, “They have that early Mexican and vaquero influence.” And when it comes to leather bridles, it’s all about the flash. “The fancier, the better,” Sherwood says. “And all-original condition holds a premium.”
Many of these bridles aren’t marked, but sometimes the maker puts his stamp on any silver adornments, such as conchos or nose plates. Occasionally, a maker will actually sign a bridle, as was the case with a rare Alfred J. Schell bridle, made circa 1920, with matching bit that sold in 2008 for $14,000. This bridle commanded a premium because it’s possibly the only known extant signed version and because Schell also is a famous bit maker – and bits are collectible in their own right.
On a smaller scale, literally, an early 20th century braided rawhide miniature bridle by Richard Goff sold for just over $3,000 in 2009. Collectors desire these bridles partly because anyone who’s tried it knows how hard it is to braid rawhide. In fact, it’s so difficult that sometimes the makers braided bridles from kangaroo hide instead.
“Where they got the kangaroo, I don’t know,” said Ned Martin, author of the Bridles of the Americas book series, considered the “bible” of bridle collecting. “But especially among the prison makers, we sometimes see bridles made of kangaroo hide, either by itself or in combination with cowhide.”
Which brings us to our next category, horsehair bridles. You may be forgiven for thinking all horsehair bridles were made by Native Americans. Even museums sometimes get this wrong. In truth, most surviving horsehair bridles boast a fascinating history that dates to cowboy prison inmates of the period 1890-1925.
“We’ve identified five western penitentiaries where cowboys made horsehair bridles,” said Martin, who’s currently researching a book on the subject. The cowboys would trade these bridles with guards or send them with a price attached to an affluent local rancher in hopes of obtaining money for tobacco or chewing gum.
Two main types of horsehair bridles predominate: braided and hitched. The more complicated method, hitching, involves tying the horsehair using thousands of half-hitch knots. This method allows for more intricate designs and patterns.
“Some of the prisoners would introduce the American flag motif in their bridles,” Martin says. “And some have wording across the brow piece, such as ‘Good Luck.’
There’s even one example of a hitched bridle that says ‘Let ’er buck.’ ”
Horsehair bridles command top dollar, due to their scarcity. Condition directly influences value, with pristine, unfaded examples fetching more money.
“The most desirable horsehair bridle is one that’s been stuck away in a drawer for 100 years,” Sherwood says, half-joking. “Because the prisoners only had access to synthetic dyes, these bridles fade when exposed to sun or fluorescent light.”
One extremely fine example that sold at auction in 2008 was a circa 1920 Deer Lodge prison polychrome hitched bridle with a Cañon City bit. It realized $13,000 because it was in near-original condition.
At the other end of the spectrum, a more-average condition horsehair bridle with some fading, probably made around 1920 at a Wyoming penitentiary, sold for just over $3,000 in 2012.
Also in 2012, a circa 1890 Walla Walla penitentiary horsehair bridle in fine condition made almost $10,000.
Perhaps no genre of popular culture captures the American imagination like the Old West. From the inception of cinema, the cowboy has reigned supreme on movie screens, and that association can send the value of a bridle into the stratosphere.
“Tack that was actually used by a celebrity cowboy can go for 10 times its normal value,” Sherwood said. “The trick is making sure it was actually used by the celebrity. A lot of them were given items that only passed through their hands.”
A good example of how true celebrity association impacts value is Roy Rogers’ saddle. “This was a fairly basic Bohlin silver saddle that, by itself, probably would have gone for $35,000,” Sherwood said. “But Roy Rogers was so well-photographed seated in the saddle, on Trigger, that the saddle ultimately sold for over $300,000.”
As another example, a typical mid-20th-century leather bridle that might fetch a few hundred or couple thousand dollars could sell for upward of $10,000 if it boasted Gene Autry’s Flying A brand. And the famous Autry bridle with six-shooter bit might realize even more than that, if properly authenticated.
Even earlier screen cowboys still hold allure for collectors. Sherwood reports selling, in 2012, a bridle that belonged to Monty Montana. Under normal conditions, the bridle may have sold for around $1,500. But the MM-engraved conchos and the celebrity association drove the price to $4,000.
Bridle Market Rears Its Head
While many collectors concentrate on bits and spurs, bridle collecting may finally be coming into its own. A forthcoming book on horsehair bridle history should spark more interest in this niche. So, whether you really rope and ride, or just dream about it, bridle collecting presents a unique way to collect the authentic Old West.
Bridle Collecting Resources
If you’re interested in collecting bridles, you need to realize research on the subject is just beginning. Here are some places you can go for more information on the history of bridles and to research values. Best bet? Study the market for awhile before plunging in so you know you’re getting a fair deal.
Hawk Hill Press offers perhaps the definitive histories completed to date regarding bridles specifically.
National Bit, Spur and Saddle Collectors Association consists of devotees of tack collecting with resources on its website.
National Cowboy Museum devotes one exhibit to Luis Ortega, considered the master of 20th century rawhide braiding, with several examples of his bridles.
The Autry National Center, founded by Gene Autry, contains a vast collection of all types of artifacts relating to the American West. The Cowboy Gallery includes a section of handcrafted saddles and bridles.
Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum, which is not affiliated with Gene Autry, nonetheless boasts a little museum with a lot of singing cowboy collectibles, including bridles and other tack.
High Noon Auction is a good place to research values.
Brian Lebel’s Old West Show & Auction is another place to research values.
The Great Southwestern Antique Show held in Albuquerque each August and usually includes vendors with various antique tack items for sale.
Elizabeth Hanes is a registered nurse and a freelance writer in Albuquerque, N.M., and is a fan of both Western American memorabilia and, ironically, Mid-century Modern design.
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