Story by Ryan T. Bell / Photographs by Eliseo Miciú
Argentine gaucho Armando Deferrari explains how he and his fellow countryman Pablo Lozano brought their rawhide-braiding styles north and became two of the American West’s most unlikely traditional cowboy craftsmen.
The sound of cowboy boots walking across a concrete floor is what Argentine rawhide braider Armando Deferrari recalls about that July day in 2002. It was a day that would change the course of his career forever. Deferrari and fellow braider Pablo Lozano were showing their wares at the annual La Rural livestock exposition in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when an American cowboy approached their display.
Leland Hensley introduced himself and told them – through a translator, Florida cowboy Domingo Hernandez – that he was a rawhide braider from Texas investigating gaucho braiding techniques. Deferrari and Lozano invited him to sit at their mini-workshop and braid, and the men forged a friendship rooted in the kinship of their shared trade.
Six years and many trips across the equator later, Deferrari and Lozano became the first gauchos inducted into the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, an elite guild of North American braiders, bit and spur makers, saddlemakers and silversmiths. The story of these unlikely cowboy gearmakers is an inspiring tale of perseverance, masterful rawhide work, and a reckoning between the brotherhoods of horsemen north and south.
“After La Rural, we stayed in contact with Hensley,” Deferrari recalls. “He had mentioned bringing Pablo and me to the U.S., but I figured that was just a dream. Then, in 2004, we received an invitation to participate in a TCAA-sponsored rawhide braiding workshop at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.”
The gauchos made plans to attend, but Deferrari was nervous about traveling abroad. Argentines grow up watching American Westerns on TV, and the movies were his only point of reference when it came to the land of cowboys.
“Westerns give the impression that cowboys are cold and quiet people,” Deferrari says. “Argentines are Latin emotionally, so I worried about how we’d get along. At the same time, there are aspects of the cowboy life that are similar to the gaucho’s. I remember one movie where a cowboy asks another: ‘If you die today, what will you regret most in life?’ He responds: ‘All the horses that I never got to ride.’ It was the kind of thing a gaucho would say, and it gave me hope that Pablo and I could feel at home on cowboy soil.”
The gauchos were so well received in Oklahoma that word spread throughout the west, and they became the go-to guys for all things gaucho. The Western Folklife Center invited them to participate in the 22nd National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 2006. They traveled to Elko, Nevada, to display their gear in the Trappings of the Gaucho exhibit and – with Hernandez on hand to translate – to host a seminar about gaucho gearmaking traditions. The Elko event was their first appearance in front of a large American audience, and their rawhide gear was vetted before the eyes of real working cowboys.
“I remember an old cowboy taking a long look at my bosal,” Deferrari says. “You could tell that he was an authentic horseman by the way he held the gear. He ran his weathered hands over the braids, and then sized up the nose band to imagine how it would fit a horse.”
The man asked an astute question.
“I’m guessing this nose band wasn’t made to fit a Quarter Horse. It’s too wide. What kind of stock horses do you use in Argentina?”
Deferrari told him about the Criollo stock horse, a breed that has a broader nose than a Quarter Horse, and for whom the bosal was made. Deferrari knew the differences between the two horses first hand from having worked onEstancia los Molles, a cattle ranch in Argentina that stood a Quarter Horse stallion at stud. He built gear to accommodate the stallion’s offspring.
As Deferrari spoke with the old cowboy in Elko, he didn’t know that one day he’d apply his gaucho gearmaking prowess to craft North American-style rawhide as a TCAA
applicant. That moment was still three years into the future. For the time being, he enjoyed rubbing elbows with cowboys and comparing traditions.
“I learned during my travels that cowboy culture is nothing like in the movies,” he observes. “They’re full of heart, emotion, and a love of family. They’re jokers just like us gauchos.”
During Deferrari and Lozano’s journey in the American West, Leland Hensley served as a cowboy ambassador. He introduced them to fellow TCAA braider Nate Wald, who, like Hensley, had begun to incorporate gaucho techniques into his working cowboy gear. The men formed a quartet that was a veritable international congress of rawhide braiding.
“There are many similarities between the gaucho and cowboy,” Hensley says. “Our personalities are nearly identical, as are our code of ethics and way of life. When you boil it down, the common denominator is the horseman’s life.”
Hensley, Wald and Hernandez traveled to Argentina in 2004, shortly after the gauchos appeared in Oklahoma, and again in 2007 after Elko.
“Leland and Nate spent one week at my workshop, and another week at Pablo’s. We taught them our techniques for preparing hide, cutting strings, and making gaucho gear. It was an amazing experience to have them here.”
Hensley says that after that trip, every piece of gear he’s made since has a gaucho influence.
“As a cowboy gearmaker, I have no problem with crossing over to use their techniques, so long as the gear remains traditional and functional,” he says.
They weren’t the first gauchos and cowboys to cross the equator. The way was paved by American Bruce Grant, who visited Argentina in the 1960s to learn from master rawhide braider Luis Flores. Grant later wrote the seminal tome Encyclopedia of Rawhide and Leather Braiding; Flores’ influence is found throughout the book.
“That book is so widely read that there isn’t a rawhide braider alive who wasn’t influenced by Grant and Flores,” Pablo Lozano says.
It’s a bold statement, but one that Hensley acknowledges is true in his own case. He read Grant’s book when starting out and ranks the day he spent with Flores in his Buenos Aires workshop a career highlight. It was one of two landmark events during Hensley’s 2007 trip to Argentina. The other was a conversation when Deferrari and Lozano asked if it was possible for them to apply to the TCAA.
Wald and Hensley tempered their responses. What the gauchos were suggesting, they knew, was an undertaking of enormous magnitude. The TCAA is arguably the American West’s most elite trade association. As members of the group, but also friends of the gauchos, Hensley and Wald felt obliged to warn that the application process was arduous, the gear requirements strictly cowboy, and that they couldn’t even guess how their fellow TCAA members would vote when considering two foreigners for admission.
Deferrari and Lozano were undaunted. The gauchos resolved to transform into cowboy gearmakers to succeed.
TCAA applicants submit three pieces of cowboy gear to be judged. With a 75 percent vote from active members required for approval, the group turns down far more applicants than it accepts. Deferrari and Lozano’s challenge was to prove that they had the chops to make cowboy gear that met the standards of North America’s best craftsmen.
“Our TCAA pieces had to have the measurements, functionality, and design of [gear used by the] American cowboy,” Deferrari explains. “As gaucho gearmakers working on the metric system, it was a big undertaking.”
They were up for it, so long as their friends Hensley and Wald were standing by to consult.
“The TCAA’s mission is to preserve the skills of cowboy gearmaking and to promote the role of these crafts in the cowboy culture,” Hensley explains. “We teach and mentor aspiring cowboy gearmakers, which is what Armando and Pablo were. Nate and I agreed to be their mentors. We answered questions over the phone, sent samples by mail, took measurements, and drew diagrams.”
The gauchos were acquainted with cowboy gear after their time spent with Hensley and Wald, and their various trips north, but they had yet to try their hand at actually making North American-style pieces. Deferrari combed through the material Hensley and Wald sent, studied the photographs in the American books and magazine he’d collected, and made numerous practice pieces.
“My final three TCAA pieces were a bosal, a miniature set of hobbles, and a martingale,” Deferrari says.
The items were strategically chosen. The bosal is a popular piece of gear with both cowboys and gauchos, and it represents a bridge between the two. The miniature hobbles demonstrated his mastery of highly refined braiding techniques, a gaucho’s specialty. Lastly, the martingale was a Luis Ortega reproduction, a respectful nod to the renowned cowboy braider. The martingale incorporate dyed strands of rawhide, a technique foreign to gaucho craftsmen and meant to prove to TCAA members his ability as a cowboy artisan.
Pablo Lozano’s approach was to submit gear illustrating the similarities between the trapping sof the cowboy and gaucho. he crafted what would be called in argentina a juego de cabeza (a complete headset) – everything a cowboy’s horse wears from the shoulders forward. specifically, the set included Santa Ynez reins, a braided rawhide headstall with a matching chin strap, and a pair of hobbles that incorporated the newly acquired technique of dying rawhide.
In September 2008, Deferrari and Lozano traveled to Oklahoma City for TCAA’s annual show. There, they presented their cowboy gear and, with Hernandez providing critical translations, stood before the group to answer questions. “I felt like a Ph.D. candidate defending my thesis,” Deferrari recalls. “They asked why I was applying to a trade association outside of my own country and culture. Curiosity, I told them. When I discovered that the gaucho and cowboy have so many things in common, it raised my curiosity to the point that I wanted to learn more about their culture and how to make rawhide cowboy gear.”
Back in Argentina, three weeks after interviewing in Oklahoma, Deferrari and Lozano were notified that they’d been voted into TCAA.
The two braiders have, in some form, been interacting with cowboy culture ever since meeting Hensley at La Rural in 2002, whether it was traveling to the United States for a workshop or exhibition, or hosting American braiders on a rawhide pilgrimage to Argentina. This year, as full-fledged members of the TCAA, they traveled north to showcase their work at the 2009 Exhibition and Sale, along the way furthering the relationships with those who’ve believed in them along the way.
“It is healthy to encounter other cultures, customs of dress and personality types,” Deferrari says. “Those experiences are what make cowboys and gauchos human.”