They Shoot Horses. Don't They?

Photograph by Jill Greenberg Close

Photograph by Jill Greenberg

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Photograph by Jill Greenberg

You'd think retailers would try to downplay Black Beauty's contribution to your $2,300 Fendi tote. Yet pony hair gets top billing there and on various hairy Laboutin shoes.

So it's doubly confounding that pony hair isn't pony hair at all, as it turns out, but plain old cowhide. Whoa there.

"I've been in the business for 35 years and I've never heard a reason" for the name, says Rob Deits, president of Hide and Leather House, a hide wholesaler in Napa, California. "Probably some hotshot designer came up with it." In the U.S. tanning industry, he says, "you won't find much horse hide at all. There's only one tanner in the United States who does it, and all of his leather goes over to Italy to be made into men's shoes."

What retailers call pony hair is in fact the "hair-on" hide of American beef cattle. "The hides we get are byproducts of the beef industry," says Skip Horween, president of Horween Leathers, a tannery in Chicago. He adds: "No one took down a cow for its hide. The economic justifications for killing a cow are in its meat." Horween says he doesn't treat the pony-hair-style hair-on cowhides. "It's a very specific way of tanning that we don't do," he says. "Though we played at it a couple of times."

The difficulty Horween had tanning hair-on hide is a clue to why it's a luxury good. "There's a machine in the leather industry called a splitter," says Shelby Hendershot, the owner of Promised Land Ranch, a tannery in Okanogan, Washington, that tans hair-on cowhides. "It's similar to a band saw. Hides are run through it to thin the leather, but if you were to run a hide with fur on it, it would shred."

Instead, hair-on hides have to be treated by hand; that's why pony-hair-style cowhide is often much costlier than regular leather. There's another way to make pony hair, but that would involve ponies, more labor and terrible, terrible guilt.

"No one's going to step up to the plate for real horsehair," says Horween. "Seventy-five years ago it was acceptable. Now it's a hot potato."

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