By Holly Clanahan
In the August 2021 issue of The American Quarter Horse Journal, readers are introduced to the craftsmanship of Douglas Krause, who began making mane-hair mecates in 1995, after purchasing equipment that was brought into being in 1940 by a man known as “Blind Sam” Champlin. Sam sold his business and equipment to another blind man, “Blind Bob” Mills, who made mecates for nearly 40 years, and Douglas bought his equipment from Bob.
Mecates come from the vaquero traditions and are a long rope – usually 22 feet long – that is tied to a hackamore or snaffle bit to form a looped rein, with the free end making a lead rope that can be hitched around the saddle horn or looped in the rider’s belt while mounted.
Mane-hair mecates are favored by a variety of riders, from working cow horse competitors to working ranch cowboys to horsemanship clinic afficionados. But for those who are interested in trying a mecate for the first time, a bit of instruction is in order.
Dennis Moreland, a tack maker who previously wrote “Tack Talk” columns for AQHA’s America’s Horse magazine, offers tips on how to attach a mecate to a snaffle bit, using slobber straps that add weight to the bit end of the reins, magnifying the release the horse feels.
Dennis also shows how to attach a mecate to a hackamore, sometimes called a bosal (pronounced “bo-ZAL”).
So now you’ve gotten the mecate tied on, you go to use it and … ouch! For riders who are used to smooth, synthetic ropes or leather reins, a mane-hair mecate can feel pretty bristly. Don’t despair. The ropes will smooth out with use.
“If you ride a lot, usually within three or four months, (the part of the rope) where your hands grip it starts to get pretty smooth,” Douglas says, and within a year, the mecate should be completely smooth.
Just don’t try to trim the prickly ends down. And please don’t wash or soak the mecate, even though that may soften the rope in the short term. After soaking or washing the mecate, “when you pick it up, it may feel better,” Douglas acknowledges, “because it’s a little bit soft and spongy, which then makes the message soft and spongy. You’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot, because you’re taking away the tools that you’re using to communicate.”
A tightly twisted, never-soaked mecate has a life to it that transmits subtle signals easily to the horse and “makes your job of communicating with your horse easier,” Douglas says.
A ranch cowboy caught in a rainstorm won’t have any choice in the matter, Douglas says, but don’t voluntarily soak a mecate to preserve its feel. If the mecate happens to get muddy, “I’d rather just see you let it dry and then take a brush and brush that mud off it,” Douglas says. A damp towel might also be used to finish cleanup.
A properly cared for mecate only gets better with age. Douglas owns a Blind Sam mecate that was probably made in the 1940s, although it isn’t used any more, and he has a lot of others that are more than 20 years old.
National Reined Cow Horse Association top competitor Erin Taormino agrees that a mecate is like a fine wine. She has been riding with Douglas’ mecates since about 2015, when she went out on her own as a trainer, and her ropes are only improving. “I feel like the more you use them, the better they get. The older my ropes are, the better I like them.”