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Hi Bob,

Following on from a vacation in California where my friends and I were stumped on a descriptive word, I have a question for you:

What are the wooden posts called that you see outside saloons in Western films where cowboys would tie their horses?

They are traditionally in a soccer "goal" shape, i.e. two upright posts with a post that runs on top between the two uprights.

J. L.


The thing you're talking about is called a hitching rail -- often mistakenly referred to as a hitching post. You'll find a little more about it in Q&A #162 -- Do-it-yourself hitching posts.

Calamity Jane with a reata tied to her saddle As I mention in the Cowboy Dictionary, in the early days -- especially in California -- hitching rails were rare. This is why the original vaquero "lariat" -- or "reata" -- didn't have a loop and was not used for working cattle. It was simply a very long lead rope (sometimes 30 or 35 feet long) which was tied to a horse's head. When a rider needed to leave his horse outside while he entered a building, the rider simply held the end of the reata, which extended out the door to the horse. When not used to secure the horse, the reata was coiled up and tied to the saddle -- as in the case of Calamity Jane in the photo at the right.

(Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-47390.)

If you look at very many old photos of western towns, you'll notice that stores -- including saloons -- almost never had a hitching rail in front. About the only place where you'd see one was in front of a livery stable. There are several reasons for this....

1. Horses tied in front of a store will quickly produce large piles of smelly and fly-attracting manure. That situation was not conducive to drawing in customers and required extra labor to remove the stuff.

Main Street, Placerville, California 2. Merchants wanted the front door readily accessible to horse-drawn wagons and buggies so customers could easily load up their purchases. Having even one horse tied up in front made it very difficult to park a wagon there. Again, if you look at many old photos you'll usually see a goodly number of wagons parked along the streets, but few, if any, saddle horses.

(For example, take a look at the photo at left of Placerville, California's Main Street, taken around 1865. It's a long street with many wagons on it -- and nary a hitching rail in sight! From a stereograph photographic print, courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-20162.)

3. A hitching rail is not the most secure method of restraining a saddle horse. If a rider plans to be away from his horse for more than a minute or two, it's best to either stable the critter or turn it in at a corral. In the old west, all livery stables, hotels, feed stores, etc. had a corral available for shoppers, travelers, and such. Many of those corrals were offered free of charge, in the same way that a modern shopping center might offer free parking in order to attract customers.

So, why do most movies have the streets lined with hitching rails? Simple. Having the cowboys take the time to turn their horses in at a corral would slow down the action too much. Look closely, and you'll also see that the actors usually just give the reins a quick wrap or two around the rail. In real life (as opposed to reel life) a horse tied in that manner would soon be wandering down the street in search of some grass to munch. What you don't see in the films are the livestock handlers who step in to hold the horse as soon as it's out of camera range!

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