Horsing Around by Russ Forney

Articles, Step-by-Step Tutorials — By on May 2, 2010 1:29 pm

Horse hair is one of Wyoming’s most abundant natural resources. Coal, oil, and natural gas are the media darlings, but horse hair is everywhere in the Cowboy State. To a fly tier, it would be a shame to waste all that beautiful long hair when it looks so good wrapped around a fly hook.

It may be hard to image the back end of a horse as a fly tier’s friend, but cul de cheval is a long, tough strand of tying material that makes great bodies on smaller hooks. When you are locking in the grasp of the cold winter months and want to experiment with something different, give horse hair a try; it is amazing how six months of frozen water sparks the imagination. Horse hair has been used to tie flies (and make fly lines, snelled hooks, and furled leaders) for years. It may be an uncommon accessory on tying benches these days, but horse hair has a long and distinguished angling history.

Horse tail hair is coarse and hard, not hollow like elk and deer hair, and does not float or flare. Hair from a horse’s mane is not quite as coarse as tail hair, but neither location produces a soft material. Long strands of horse hair are a good surrogate for stripped peacock quill and can be used to form slender, segmented abdomens for nymphs, emergers, and duns. The color or shade of a hair often varies along its length, offering tiers a multi-hued material in a single strand.

Like other hard materials, horse hair and will slip around on a metal shank if not firmly anchored to the hook. An extra half-hitch over the cut end of a hair is a good investment of time and thread to secure the loose ends of horse hair once it is trimmed to length.

I find it easier to work with moist hair. Soaking a strand of hair in water or wetting a coil of hair between two damp paper towels reduces splitting and breaking when working the hair around a hook. There is no need for moisturizers or conditioners, a little water works fine and does not leave a residue on the hair. Once the fly is dry, a drop of Water Shed helps surface flies stay atop the film.

The Giddy Up emerger illustrates the body building qualities of a horse’s tail hair. Tied with a translucent glass bead head and a soft collar of grey ostrich herl, the pattern drifts just beneath the surface film to emulate an emergent olive or dark midge. A tuft of Antron fibers are used as a short shuck and a small loop wing, balanced against a flashy blue metallic underbody. Horse hair is stiff and small gaps may form between adjacent wraps on a curved hook shank, the reflective luminance of the flashy underbody fills the gaps and adds contrasting glimmer to the dark hair.

Horse hair and hare’s ear dubbing are perfect partners for small bead-headed nymphs. The “horse and hare” scheme in size 16-20 with a black metal bead have proven reliable on streams and creeks in northern Wyoming, especially during the early season olive hatches. Shift the materials to a straight shank dry fly hook, add upright hen hackle tip wings and an Adams hackle to satisfy your dark dry fly needs.

Horse hair is available in short shanks at craft stores, by the pound from wholesale distributors, and directly from the horse if you have a ranch in the neighborhood. An hour’s worth of grooming provides enough hair to last all winter; you might be able to swap some time with the curry comb and dandy brush in exchange for the hair removed by the brush. Conjures up recollections of Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence, doesn’t it?

If you ever find yourself negotiating washboard ranch roads in rural Wyoming, you are probably lost. And while interrogating your GPS for the intersection of Rattlesnake Canyon and Prairie Dog Gulch, don’t be surprised to see a gray-bearded fly tier, scissors in hand, snipping a few strands of tail hair from a patient mare. Not only can that old tier give you directions back to town, he can tell you more about the fly tying qualities of a horse’s behind than you ever imagined possible.

Tying the Giddy Up emerger

Hook: Curved shank emerger or scud hook, Tiemco 2487 or similar, sizes 16-20
Thread: 6/0 Danville nylon, black
Head: Translucent glass bead, size and color to complement fly
Shuck: Small bundle of Antron yarn fibers
Body: Horse hair
Wing bud: Yarn fibers as used for the shuck
Collar: Grey ostrich herl

Step 1. First slip a glass bead over the hook bend, slide it up behind the eye, and then mount the hook in the tying vise. Now start the tying thread at mid-shank and cover half the body area with a smooth thread base, working back toward the glass bead.

Step 2. Add a sparse, 2-inch bundle of Antron yarn fibers to the top of the hook shank; leave plenty of yarn on either end of the hook (head and tail), it will be trimmed to length as you finish the fly.

Step 3. Anchor a 6-inch strand of blue metallic thread or flash to the top of the shank, followed by 8 to 10 inches of dark horse tail hair. Anchor these materials securely to the hook and park the thread behind the hook eye with a half hitch.

Step 4. Wrap the metallic thread forward to form a smooth underbody underbody, the flashy base layer complements the dark horse hair and provides a bit of sparkle to the pattern. Secure and trim the excess flash. Now wrap the horse hair forward in close spirals; horse hair is stiff and you may find it difficult to make touching wraps. No problem, just keep them close and let the blue sparkle shine through the gaps between hair wraps.

Step 5. Anchor the horse hair securely to the hook, adding a half hitch or whip knot to hold the hair in place. Form a short loop wing behind the glass bead with the Antron fibers, secure and trim the excess yarn.

Step 6. Tie in an ostrich herl and use 2-3 wraps to form a collar behind the glass bead. You can now finish the fly with a whip knot immediately behind the glass bead and trim the Antron suck to a half-body length.

Recipe for the Cowboy Quill
Hook: Standard dry fly hook, straight shank, sizes 16-20
Thread: 6/0 Danville flat-waxed nylon, black
Tail: A few stiff tailing fibers, dark dun or black
Body: Horse tail hair tied as a quill
Wings: Grizzly hen hackle tips
Hackle: Dark Adams (grizzly and black)

Recipe for the Horse and Hare nymph
Hook: Wet/nymph hook, straight shank, sizes 16-20
Thread: 6/0 Danville flat-waxed nylon, black
Head: Metal bead
Tail: Tailing fibers
Abdomen: Horse tail hair
Thorax: Natural hare’s ear, course with guard hairs

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  1. what a really simple way of making a “buggy” looking fly!

    I’m off to get some horse hair today – fishing at the weekend and just gotta try the Giddy Up:)

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  2. Russ says:

    Good luck Darrell.

    A quick dip in bleach produces a nice blonde strand, a good match to a clear, silver-lined glass bead.

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  3. Rachel says:

    Interesting. Thanks.

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