The Vaqueros of the old west were skilled horsemen who valued their horses and their rawhide horse tack. The Vaqueros had many "tools" to assist them with their everyday tasks on the range. One of these "tools" was the rawhide reata (or riata).
The word reata is from the Spanish word reatar, meaning to retie or a rope which ties one animal to another. The rawhide reata was a long braided rawhide rope used by the early Mexican Vaqueros and was, no doubt, first introduced into Mexico by the Spanish conquerors. Though the word reata is often used to refer to any rope; the genuine Vaquero reata was, and is now, a special item. The reata was usually 40 to 80 feet long and was made from twisted strands of rawhide. The finest reatas used rawhide strands, cut by experts, from the most prime part of several young heifer hides. The hides were well chosen and properly cured.
The Reateros (Spanish for "rope maker") were masters at the craft of braiding reatas and other Vaquero rawhide tools. The braiding of the reatas was not only an art form but the braids had uniformity and even tension. This was to ensure a durable working tool for the Vaquero.
The rawhide reata was the most useful tool of the Californio Vaquero and he was highly proficient in handling it. The dexterity displayed by the Vaquero ropers impressed the early American cowhands and the reata was quickly adopted by them, as were other items of equipment used by the Vaqueros. The reata can be thrown farther, with the use of less energy and retaining a more perfect loop, than any other type of rope on the market.
The Mexican way to treat the reata to keep it supple, was to tie it between two trees. Then rub it first with lemon juice (cut a fresh lemon in two and rub the fruit along the length) and then rub it with beef fat (suet). This kept the leather from drying out or becoming stiff. Today, if you use an artificial product it will make the reata too limber.
The reatas of the old west and today are braided in four, six, or eight strands. The eight strand, if made by a top reatero, is a beautiful article and superb for light roping. For average hard work on large stock, the four strand is the best. Diameters vary according to individual preference, but the 3/8” reata is the one most used today and in the old west. Rawhide reatas can vary in degrees of stiffness (called lays in roping circles) depending on the type of rawhide used. For instance, bull hide makes a very stiff rope perfect for heel roping.
The rawhide reatas of the old west were a useful tool of the Vaquero. One may also look at them as a true work of art and craftsmanship.
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