“…And a Three Fold Cord Is Not Quickly Broken.” Ecclesiastes 4:12
Tanned to cowboy perfection and accented by his trademark bushy, golden mustache, Charlie Liesen works from his sunlit “braiding room” in Hazleton, Idaho. Quietly and methodically, Liesen weaves thin strips of rawhide into intricate masterpieces of practical horse gear including riatas (lassos), bosals (nosebands), bridles, reins, and whips. Using three fingers on both hands (middle, forefinger and thumb), Liesen weaves with balanced tension that later lends to perfect communication from rider to horse.
Liesen met his future wife, Sheila, in Bible class four years ago. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 became their signature scripture in place of most couples’ sentimental song. Indicating the strength of two over one, the verse illustrates symbolism that a threefold cord is not quickly broken. For Leisen, the deep significance of the scripture’s meaning traces back over 40 years to his childhood.
Born and raised in Brussels, Belgium in the mid-1950s, where wide open spaces are rare, Liesen merely dreamt of the wondrous Wild West. His grandfather fostered the young boy’s love of cowboys and horses with movies featuring the legendary John Wayne. While still young, Liesen developed a passion for weaving, devoting hours to the intertwining of leather strips. Early on, most of these attempts were discouraging and resulted in his setting the hobby aside for a time.
Though in the early 1970s western riding had emerged in Europe, Liesen focused on the arguably more sophisticated style of English riding. The accompanying indoor arenas and short trail rides did little to satisfy his deep yearning for the great outdoors found in the West.
It was during a “pato” (where horseback riders engage in a game combining polo and basketball) that Liesen caught his first glimpse of authentic western cowboy attire. Rene J. Duykaerts, who later became a close friend of Leisen’s, was decked out in western gear. Sitting atop a work saddle, Duykaerts guided his steed with soft pressure to a bosal, while a wide brim hat lent shade and shotgun chaps protected his legs down to spur adorned boot heels. After gathering the courage, Liesen approached him with “Mister, may I ask you a question?” This was among his first exposures to the “real” West.
Another impressive moment for Liesen came when a retired cattle horse was imported from California by a friend. The equine came complete with gear including a silver mounted bit and set of rawhide show reins. When he saw them Liesen admits, “I was marked for life!”.
While in Belgium Liesen was educated in interior design but, because of his love for horses, also began a horseshoeing school. However, this venture ended abruptly when he departed for Saudi Arabia and put his interior design degree to use by remodeling military officers housing. During his time there, Liesen was presented with the opportunity of making his first trip to the United States accompanied by Duykaerts and a few other friends.
His introduction to the high deserts of Nevada with the seemingly limitless expanse of open land along with thousands of horses and cattle amazed Liesen. But what stood out most was the horsemanship and traditions of the vaqueros (Spanish cowboys hired to herd cattle). Their ability to train horses and work the livestock impressed Liesen.
During a visit to one of the Spanish ranches in Tuscarora, Nevada, Liesen remembers watching them sort over one hundred head of horses in a huge round, willow corral. Liesen recalls, “The earth was shaking! What a learning experience, what a dream!”
Liesen would never be the same after experiencing his ultimate longing for the West. After his duties is Saudi Arabia ended, he was invited to ride once again with the cowboys. It wasn’t long though before he was back on the deserts of Nevada riding and roping. In Leisen’s biography he notes, “From that time on, life and learning experiences continued from ranch to ranch, year after year.”
During these years he observed that most cowboys practiced some craft or skill whether it be rawhide braiding, leather and silver work or horsehair twisting. It was during this time that Liesen returned to braiding once again and determined to address the challenges of understanding the art. With materials readily available and tools easy to find, Liesen began learning to make serviceable horse gear.
Researching the art through books Liesen attempted various ways of weaving. “Through my career I must have tried to quit half a dozen times,” he confesses. But in 1987, Liesen met braiding expert, Doug Groves, who taught him several tricks of the trade.
For the next 16 years Liesen studied the work of Luis B. Ortega and met professional braiders including Bill Black, Randy Stowell and Frank Hansen. Each braider left their impression on Liesen which, as he puts it, “was like pouring oil on fire! A burning passion…”
Years of experience working with a variety of rawhide has given Liesen the credibility of an expert. Each piece of rawhide gear requires a specific moisture content and thickness. As Liesen learned to tighten the braid and control the moisture content, his work with rawhide became exceedingly refined and exquisite.
The smooth finish Liesen gives his work has a unique quality which surpasses manufactured leather works. Before completing a piece, Liesen rubs it first on his own skin (or nose if it’s a bosal or bridle) making sure the surface is smooth enough to keep from burning or chafing the hide of an animal.
Liesen now creates stunning but usable gear made to endure for years. Although functional and long lasting, Leisen’s artistic nature and training in color and balance also lend to creating beautiful designs often found in exquisite Argentinean leather work. Due to the durable quality of workmanship put into each piece, he admits most of his creations go to working cowboys who appreciate equipment able to withstand everyday ranch use.
Collectors, however, do not leave his work unnoticed. Requests for the quality craftsmanship of his masterpieces pour in from France, Belgium, Germany as well as California, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and Wyoming. Not wishing to keep his talent solely to himself, Liesen imparts his techniques for rawhide braiding at the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada to any interested.
Today, braiding rawhide gear, giving riding lessons and engaging in groundwork with colts, Charlie Liesen is doing what he loves best while giving back to the community. His goals for the future are to keep improving and sharing the knowledge he has with others.
When asked who has had the greatest influence in his life and work, without hesitation Liesen replies, “God.” He notes, “Every day I thank God for the experiences He has given me, the people I meet, the abilities He has blessed me with and the opportunities He gives me.” With that combination in Liesen’s life “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
Charlie Liesen’s work can be seen on his website and blog.