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Tying The Knot Between Cowboys and Sailors

“To me the simple act of tying a knot is an adventure in unlimited space...it provides an opportunity for an excursion that is limited only by the scope of our own imagery and the length of the ropemaker's coil”

- Clifford Ashley


Most people don’t think twice when tying their shoes or their tie. But the knot, defined as as a “complication in cordage” or “the fastening made by tying a piece of string, rope, or something similar,” is a deceivingly simple, omnipresent concept at work in nearly every facet of our lives--from the wire suspension in bridges to modern art to the pretzel on our plate. Most of us only know a few (the square knot or maybe the bowline), but there are thousands upon thousands of knots in existence, each with their own backstory and specific purpose. Take, for instance, the “granny knot,” frequently used by surgeons as a binding knot. From the “sheepshank” to the “wall and crown,” the name of the knot is often more beguiling than the knot itself.

The history of the knot dates back to the Stone Age, but the greatest contribution to the subject was made by English-speaking sailors (primarily the Americans, British, and Swedes) during the 19th and early 20th century. Already familiar with rigging ships, these resourceful men picked up any condemned rope on board and fiddled with it to create hundreds of knots. Standard knots could be tweaked to create variations of the “sheet bend,” whereas other knots were purely original, like the “monkey’s fist.” Many of these knots are still in use today; the sheet bend can be used to join two separate pieces of rope together, and the “fisherman’s bend” is used as an anchor hitch. Everyone, from mountain climbers to construction workers to ranchers, relies on a basic set of knots developed and improved upon by sailors.

The deeper you dig into this history, the more you discover several similarities between maritime culture and cowboy culture; long hours, hard labor, harsh elements, and a scrappy and idealistic attitude. Out of relative isolation and a healthy dose of boredom, sailors invented crafts like scrimshaw (engraving and carving of whalebone), while cowboys took to leather work. Each culture also has their own idiomatic language to describe daily tasks, from the sailor’s “splice” and “sinnet” to the cowboy’s “loop” and “coil.” We have sailors to thank for our most basic and important knots, but there are a few “cowboy knots” that are specific to the American West, like the tricky “fiador knot”-- a decorative, symmetrical knot used in a hackamore bridle set-up. By the 20th century there was a substantial body of knot literature that included ancient, tried-and-true knots, as well as their modern iterations.

If you’re curious about this tangled world, look no further than Clifford Ashley, the sailor and artist who spent eleven years documenting and illustrating thousands of knots, which culminated in his manifesto: The Ashley Book of Knots, published in 1944. It’s an encyclopedia with personality, devoid of stuffy descriptions and written entirely in Ashley’s whimsical, passionate voice. Knotting is an art form to Ashley, a chance for the mind and body to play, to be challenged, to be useful. Even the most simple knots that require only one or two steps receive undivided attention. He provides succinct and cheerful illustrations for each knot and a brief history of their origin--a toolbox and a picture book all wrapped into one.

At Ranchlands, we rely on knots on a daily basis to help us get the job done. If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to tow a car out of a ditch, tie a horse to a post, or secure your bandana, keep reading. We thought we’d share some glimpses of ranch life and provide you with resources to learn these knots yourself. And remember, one of the most fantastic things about knotting is that the craft requires no additional tools besides your hands and a piece of rope, thread, or string. Let’s get started.

The Halter Hitch

We use the halter hitch to tie our horses to any kind of fixed object--a hitch, rail, tree, or post. In the event that a horse spooks by rearing up or sucking back at the rail, pulling the end will quickly release the knot. The halter hitch is practical and safe because it’s secure with the option of a quick release. An additional fun fact: it’s nearly identical to a falconer’s knot, which is used to tether a bird of prey to a post.

The Clove Hitch

The clove hitch is considered, far and wide, the best “utility” knot. You’d use it if the “running” or “working” end needs to be adjustable. It’s not a particularly strong knot since it has the potential to slip and doesn’t perform well with square objects, but a classic example of the simple beauty of the clove hitch is a polywire fence. If we ever have to rotate calves through several different pastures, we’ll put up temporary polywire fences and use the clove hitch to connect the fiberglass posts. The clove hitch is also a great knot for the end of your belt and is used to secure the leather knot bracelet.

The Bowline

The bowline is frequently referred to as the “king of knots.” It’s primarily used to tow vehicles and boats, but comes in handy in any rescue situation. If you’re ever stuck at the bottom of a ravine, you can tie this knot with one hand while still holding on with your other. It tightens with pressure but is also easy to undo, no matter the amount of weight carried. It’s a fun one to learn and easy to remember thanks to this saying: “the rabbit comes up through the hole, around the tree, and back down the hole.”

The Diamond Hitch

The diamond hitch is used for packing a mule or horse and requires two points of tension on a fixed object: the saddle. To watch someone pack a mule from start to finish, watch this video:

The Honda Knot

This could arguably be called the “king of cowboy knots.” According to Ashley, it’s one of the oldest knots in existence, but Mexican and American cowboys “adopted it for their lariats.” This knot creates the loop in our ropes that we use at brandings or to doctor sick cattle.

The Square Knot

The easiest knot to tie, but also the most often tied incorrectly. The square knot is used with saddle strings to tie a jacket onto the skirt of the saddle. It’s also the knot used to tie a wild rag.

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