In the early 1500s, when the future western United States was opened up for cattle ranching, expert cowboys known as vaqueros came up from Mexico and Central America to tend the herds. As they galloped north, each held in his hands a set of braided leather romal reins, which were often the vaquero’s most valuable possession. While most reins were, and still are, made of flat leather straps or rope, romals are of a higher order, typically composed of 12 or 16 plaits. Their intricate construction and beauty reflect the precision, skill, and grace of the vaqueros’ particular brand of horsemanship.
While the days of the vaqueros have long passed, their traditions can still be found in rodeos, show competitions, and recreational riding. A small number of romal leather braiders continue to create the reins, preserving a centuries-old craft even as they interpret it through individual artistry.
At Dale Chavez Saddles in Temecula, California, you can see exquisite romals by master braider Modesto Medina on display. Some are made of vegetable-tanned chestnut leather, while others are adorned with etched silver beads called ferrules. There’s even one that flaunts some Swarovski crystal bling, for the Taylor Swift equestrian set. One of the most beautiful examples is constructed entirely of rawhide. The 12 plaits have been woven into an airtight lattice, and protrusions run along its length that look a little like vertebrae. Occasional black-and-red zigzags recall Native American pottery designs.
Medina’s son Reyes, interpreting for his 74-year-old father, describes what it takes to make romals. “You have to have an excellent memory,” he explains. “If you don’t have patience, good vision, and good eye-hand coordination, then this kind of stuff isn’t really for you.” It takes his father the better part of an evening to prepare the leather and to cut it into strips, and another nine hours, working by hand, to complete a set of romals the following day.
Medina met Dale Chavez 44 years ago, when Chavez was operating a small horse-tack shop in East Los Angeles. Medina has been making romals and other traditional vaquero braid pieces for Chavez ever since.
While the craftsmanship and the artistry of the romals are all Medina’s, Chavez has introduced some innovations over the years. Those Swarovski crystals were his idea, as was the addition of lead weights behind the protrusions in the braids, which keep the romals from constantly slapping against the horse. The weights have found their way into some of his competitors’ products. “Everybody copies me, but what can you do about it?” Chavez says. “I’ve been copied for 45 years, so I’d best get on with it.”
Chavez Saddles, which its owner and namesake runs out of his ranch in Temecula, is a diversified operation. The inventory includes saddles, headstalls, bridles, and custom buckles for rodeos and other horsing events. Saddlemakers, bridle artisans, and rein braiders like Medina buy the raw materials from Chavez and sell him their finished products.
It was a hard path that brought Medina to Chavez’s attention. Medina grew up without parents in a remote village in Jalisco, Mexico. By age 21, he was working as a laborer in the cotton fields around Rosarito. “To be honest, it was like slave work,” Reyes explains for his father, “under a sun that had to be the hottest across Baja.” Medina moved on to become an apprentice to a braider in Tijuana, then crossed over to try his luck in California.
Chavez’s long relationship with Medina is based on mutual loyalty and friendship. Chavez provides steady work and prompt payment in full; Medina doesn’t shop around his services seeking more money. Chavez has also extended the occasional interest-free loan and helped Medina become an American citizen. Thirty years ago, Medina bought a ranch in the town of Perris, not far from Chavez’s Temecula ranch. He does all his braiding in his garage.
After nearly half a century of perfecting his craft, Medina no longer needs to look at what he’s doing. “When he’s working, my father loves to watch wrestling—any kind of wrestling,” Reyes says. “He knows the WWF is fake, but there’s something he likes about seeing the little guy beat up on the big guy.”
Reyes asks his father why he’s still so committed to braiding leather. While it’s been more than five decades since Medina worked the fields of Rosarito, the memory of those sweltering days of hard labor is still sharp and informs his answer: “So I don’t have to be in the sun.”
Ed Leibowitz is an L.A.-based journalist who wrote about banjo makers Greg and Janet Deering in Alta, Issue 8.
MODESTO MEDINA’S ROMAL REINS
• $400 to $1,015 and up, depending on the number of plaits and materials
Three more artisans making traditional vaquero crafts
Gail Hought: A renowned instructor of vaquero leather braiding, Hought produces some of the most intricate and expensive horse tack in America from her workshop in Humboldt County, California. Starting at $4,700, her collector’s sets of braided reins are museum-worthy.
Luis Ortega: The scion of a fourth-generation Santa Barbara ranching family, Ortega transformed vaquero braiding into a 20th-century art form. The Autry Museum of the American West has several of his masterpieces.
Jeff Sanders: Central Valley native Sanders carries on the California vaquero tradition begun by his great-great-great-grandfather. Throughout the year, he teaches vaquero horsemanship in clinics held all over Europe, in Israel and Australia, and across the United States.