Ortega Activity Guide
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In the guide below, you will find information and activities about:
  1. Luis Ortega
  2. Rawhide
  3. Braiding

A helpful Glossary and a Bibliography are included, as well.

The guide is designed for you to read from home after visiting the Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West. Materials for the activities are available for purchase in the Museum Store.
Luis Ortega grew up on a ranch near Santa Barbara, where he learned about horsemanship from the older vaqueros (cowboys). When Ortega was 12, Fernando Librado, a 104-year-old Native American vaquero of Chumash descent, began teaching him California braiding traditions.

While working as a vaquero, Ortega prepared rawhide and braided equipment to sell to other horsemen. One important tool of the vaquero is the reata (lariat), a braided rawhide rope used to catch cattle. In the 1920s, Ortegašs reatas sold for $15 each. Today they are worth thousands of dollars.

Ortega became a full-time braider in 1932, selling his reatas and reins to saddle shops across the West. During these early years, he began experimenting with finer strands of rawhide and introducing color into his work.

Luis and Rose Ortega in their sales booth at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, 1964. Photo by George Axt. Courtesy of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
(inset) Fernando Librado (1804-1915), a Native American vaquero, began teaching young Luis Ortega the old California braiding techniques in 1908, at the age of 104.

In 1938, Ortega married Rose Smith, who helped run her husband’s business. This allowed Ortega to focus on creating works of art. For more than 50 years, Luis Ortega was the leading rawhide braider in the country.

Luis Ortega’s work helped gain the tradition of rawhide braiding a new audience and ensured that the art of braiding did not disappear. In 1986, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized him as a Master Traditional Artist at a special ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

  • List the traditions that have passed down to you through your family and friends. Some examples might be family recipes, special dates, traditions associated with holidays, or even a particular occupation.

  • Interview your family and friends to find out what traditions they are continuing..
Go Back
Rawhide, also called leather, is animal skin that has been stretched to dry and had its hair removed. Rawhide is used to make everything from clothing and personal items to building materials and tools.

Justin McInteer, Autry National Center.

To prepare the rawhide string for braiding, a large circle is cut from the stretched animal skin. (Fig. 1) This circle is then cut in a spiral pattern creating a long continuous strip. (Fig. 2).

Luis Ortega could cut 350 to 400 feet of rawhide string from a single hide.


Draw a large circle on a piece of paper. Cut around the circle in a spiral pattern as shown in Fig. 2 until you are left with a long string. Get your friends together and see who can cut the longest string from a single circle.

Why do you think we call it “rawhide”?:

Rawhide is “raw” because it has not been tanned. To create tanned leather, a chemical is applied to the hide to relax the skin and make it soft. Most of the leather we use today is tanned leather, but rawhide is still used to make many products.

  • Make a list of 5 things made from tanned leather.
  • Make a list of 5 things made from rawhide.

Did you know?

A leather strap cut into four strings and braided together is stronger than the original strap itself.

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It takes a lot of patience to become a skilled leather braider like Luis Ortega, but even a beginner can have fun braiding leather.

Braiding involves using a pattern that is repeated over and over again. As you work through these activities, try to recognize the different patterns. Once you understand the pattern, the braiding will be easier.

Before beginning braiding, try these tips:

  • Take your time.
  • Look closely at the illustrations.
  • Read the instructions aloud
  • Label each string with a letter, as shown in the illustrations.
A note to adults/parents:
Children learn new skills in different ways. Take a moment to consider how your child learns. Spatial learners will be able to follow the step-by-step illustrations. With verbal learners, consider reading the instructions aloud to them as they perform the braiding. Some children will learn better if an adult or an older sibling tries the braid first and then shows the child how to do it. Braiding is a difficult skill to learn, so regardless of how your child learns, remember to emphasize patience.
If you have ever braided someone’s hair, you might recognize the Hair Braid shown in the illustration below.

Justin McInteer, Autry National Center.
  • Start with a strip of leather that has been cut into three strings. (Fig. 1)
  • Begin by pulling string A over string B.
  • Next pull string C over string A. (Fig. 2)
  • Then pull string B over string C. (Fig. 3)
Can you see the pattern? The outside string always crosses over the middle string.

The Four-String Braid is similar to the Hair Braid except for the addition of an extra string. You can use this braid to make beautiful bracelets and belts. Remember, labeling your strings with letters will help you through the braiding process.

Justin McInteer, Autry National Center.
  • Begin by pulling string C over string B and under string A.
  • Next pull string B over string D.
  • Then pull string D over string A as shown in Fig. 2.
  • Pull string B under string A.
  • Now pull string C over string D and under string B.
  • Then pull string A under string C as shown in Fig. 4.
  • Next pull string D over string B and under string A as shown in Fig. 5.
  • Now pull string C under string D.
  • Next pull string B over string A and under string C.
  • Pull string D under string B.
  • Now pull string A over string C and under string D.
  • Next pull string B under string A.
  • Now pull string C over string D and under string B.
Can you see the pattern? The string on the right is pulled under the string closest to it. Then the string on the far left is pulled over one string and under one string, stopping in the middle.

Now that you’ve tried the simple braids, are you ready to try more?

The Two-String Flat Braid is a little more difficult than the first two, but it makes really cool bracelets, key chains, and much more.

Justin McInteer, Autry National Center.
  • Begin by cutting a long strip of leather.
  • Double it up by holding both ends in one hand.
  • Mark one end A and one end B.
  • Loop the doubled up end over a hook and tie an overhand knot. Keep the knot loose for now as shown in Fig. 1.
  • Thread string B back through the knot leaving a loop behind as shown in Fig. 2.
  • Pull a loop of string A through the loop you created with string B as shown in Fig. 3.
  • Pull string B to tighten the knot.
  • Pull a loop of string B through the loop you created with string A as shown in Fig. 4.
  • Pull string A to tighten the knot.
Can you see the pattern? After you create a loop with one string, you pass a loop from the other string through it and tighten the original loop. Repeat this pattern until the braid is finished. Complete the braid by tying a double knot.

What do you think is so tricky about this braid?

As you can see, you make this braid from a single strip of leather with two slits running along the length. Braid the inner strips just like the hair braid, but after each step, slip the bottom through the slits to keep it from tangling.

Dazzle your friends and family by showing them this unusual braid.
  • Begin the trick braid by cutting two slits into a strip of leather. Be sure not to cut all the way to the ends. (Fig. 1)
  • Holding the top flat, begin by pulling string C over string B.
  • Next pull string A over string C.
  • Then pull string B over string A.
Can you see the pattern? This is same pattern used in the Hair Braid.

  • Now pull string C over string B.
  • Next pull string A over string C.
  • Then pull string B over string A.
  • Untangle the bottom portion by sliding the bottom end through the open slits.
Tip: If you hold the braided part at the top straight and pull down to the bottom, the bottom will try to untangle itself.

For the final braiding exercise in this activity guide, we will make the Square Crown Sennit. Use this braid to make bracelets, straps, and beautiful cords. Try using four different colors of string for interesting braiding results.

Justin McInteer, Autry National Center.
  • Begin by cutting 4 equal lengths of string or leather and tying them together at one end.
  • Hold the knot in your hand and spread the 4 strings out to form an X as shown in Fig. 1.
  • Begin braiding counterclockwise by passing the first string over the second string as shown in Fig. 2.
  • Working in the same direction, pass the second strand over the first and third strings as shown in Fig. 3.
  • Continue by passing the third string over the second and fourth string.
  • Finish the knot by passing the fourth string over the third string and down through the loop formed by the first string as shown in Fig. 4 & 5.
  • Pulling equal tension on all four strings, tighten the knot as shown in Fig. 6.
What you have just created is called the Crown Knot.

  • Repeat the steps above, but begin in the opposite direction by starting clockwise.
  • Continue braiding, switching directions after each knot, until you create a long cord.
Go Back Spanish explorers introduced the horse to the New World. Consequently, many of the pieces of the equipment we use on horses still carry names closely related to their Spanish origins.

See if you can match the Spanish word and definition to its English equivalent. Draw a line from the English word to the definition.

Bozal-A braided rawhide noseband, part of the jáquima

La Brida-the head harness for a horse

Las Chaparreras-Leather leggings worn while riding a horse for protection against brush and weather.

La Cincha-a fabric or leather strap that secures the saddle to a horse’s back by strapping onto its underside

cuarta-A whip

La Espuela-A u-shaped device strapped to a rider’s heel used to communicate with the horse by taping its side

Hondo-A ring through which a rope slides to make a loop

jáquima-A halter that fits around the head of a horse with a rope for leading

El Mecate-A rope of braided horsehair,that is used as a rein and lead rope

La Reata-A long rope with a running noose at one end, used especially to catch horses and cattle

La Rienda-A strap or cord by which a rider can manipulate a horse

Vaquero-A ranch hand or someone who tends cattle and performs many of his duties on horseback

Go Back

Ashley, Clifford. The Ashley Book of Knots. Doubleday, 1944.

Gould, Roberta. The Kids’ Book of Increedibly Fun Crafts. Charlotte, VT: Williamson Publishing Co., 2003.

Grant, Bruce. Encyclopedia of Rawhide and Leather Braiding. Cambridge, MD: Cornell Maritime Press, Inc., 1972.

Grant, Bruce. How to Make Cowboy Horse Gear. Cambridge, MD: Cornell Maritime Press, Inc., 1953.

Grant, Bruce. Leather Braiding. Cambridge, MD: Cornell Maritime Press, Inc., 1950.

Museum of the Cowboy, Santa Ynez, CA, High Noon, Los Angeles, CA, Ortega Biographical Text by B. Byron Price. California Vaquero Traditions: Luis B. Ortega Master Rawhide Artisan. Dos Lindas Publishing, 2000.

Pawson, Des. The Handbook of Knots. New York, NY: DK Publishing, Inc., 1998.

Reeves, Don. Luis Ortega’s Rawhide Artistry: Braiding in the California Tradition. National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 2004.

If you liked the exhibition Luis Ortega’s Rawhide Artistry, The Museum of the American West’s permanent galleries will be of interest to you. The Cowboy Gallery on the lower level contains displays on vaqueros, ranching, horsemanship, and even a display of Luis Ortega’s work from the Autry National Center’s collection.

Justin McInteer, Education Coordinator, Autry National Center.

Luis Ortega’s Rawhide Artistry: Braiding in the California Tradition is organized by
the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.