Horses and Hair

October 30, 2006 at 01:55 AM · In the now-closed "Who Uses Gut Strings?" thread Tim Johannessen said: "I don't think that bow hair is actually from dead horses. I recently saw a documentation about purses that are made from horsehair and the horses weren't killed, they just cut the tail."

I'm afraid this doesn't apply to bow hair. Michael Sowden, who has been in the business for some 40+ years and is probably the best-known supplier of bow hair, has stated that 95% or 98% of hair comes from dead horses which are killed for meat and other products.

He has also said that it takes about 5 horse tails to get enough good hair for a violin bow. (These comments were made at Maestronet in 2000.)

Replies (63)

October 30, 2006 at 02:00 AM · Greetings,

also the hair is from a male. Figure it out for yourself...



October 30, 2006 at 03:22 AM · As long as they're not killed JUST for the bow hair...but who eats horse meat anyway? Gross!

October 30, 2006 at 03:22 AM · From the 2002December "Strad" magazine:

"Gender is also important, with stallions' hair tending to be thicker, whiter and more elastic; this may be because mares' tails absorb a lot of urine, which causes corrosion. Different bow makers and players prefer different combinations of all of these qualities."

I have since learned that yes, our bow hair is the by-product of slaughter. I find this quite sad. I am a native Kentuckian, and I love horses. My teacher told me that bow hair came from special horses that, every few years, had the tail hairs pulled out a few at a time (which is not painful), and I plan to keep telling this to my students. I am NOT going to traumatize the children I teach.

October 30, 2006 at 03:38 AM · Oh, yuck. Poor horses. Are they at least killed humanely?!

October 30, 2006 at 03:43 AM · Is ANY slaughterhouse humane? Yes, something else to feel utterly guilty about.

October 30, 2006 at 03:56 AM · Egad. Guilt fit...

October 30, 2006 at 05:14 AM · Greetings,

can we not get around this problem by adding to our program acknowledgements:

Hair by Mr.Ed.

Strings by- BaaBaa Papa



October 30, 2006 at 05:20 AM · STOP! You're making me want to go back to synthetic stuff!

October 30, 2006 at 05:16 AM · Mr. Sowden also mentioned that many prefer the female hair, the relative weakness of which is apparently not so much as to make a difference for our purposes, and which apparently grips the rosin better due to the urine exposure.

October 30, 2006 at 06:07 AM · I understand the desire to look the other way, but your violin is glued together with animal glue... and the mother of pearl on your frog came from somebody's mother's (or father's) shell... and, unless it's a gold or silver plate, there is probably a bone or ivory tip on your bow... and the purfling on some instruments is baleen... and sheep still give their guts for Olive strings.

I'm not sure keeping things from the students will aid them, really. I bet some of them enjoy burgers and fries... If THAT doesn't gross them out, this certainly shouldn't. :-)... and I bet many wear leather shoes.

I believe there was a Latin inscription inlaid to the ribs of a number of German instruments at some point... I think the rough translation was: In life I was silent. In death I sing. While it was referring to the tree... well... you get the idea.

October 30, 2006 at 11:20 AM · Jeffrey,

The mother-of-pearl on my frog at least came from the mother of Pearl. I don't know about urs.


October 30, 2006 at 11:28 AM · Well said Jeffrey.

I must admit Anne that I have a problem with teachers deliberately lying to their students. Teachers are there to teach the facts not to distort things.


October 30, 2006 at 01:27 PM · Jeffrey- you forgot the leather grips on bows...

Neil- I am not a big fan of lying either. Since I learned the real story, I have avoided the subject altogether. As I said, something else to feel guilty about!

October 30, 2006 at 01:36 PM · Thanks Anne... I knew I left something out. :-)

October 30, 2006 at 02:05 PM · my fingerboard is a filet mignon.

October 30, 2006 at 02:31 PM · Some eat sheep, and some are sheep, so let the Lord be thankit.

October 30, 2006 at 02:31 PM · Good post Jeffrey! I like that German inscription. :)

October 30, 2006 at 10:17 PM · 95% from slaughtered horses? Please show me the proof. Horse meat is gross?- well, some consider it a delicacy and healthier than bovine(which nowadays is full of steroids and antibiotics - this is gross). Then again, some (millions) eat snails, frogs, insects, seal, whales, monkeys, etc. Humans have raped and pillaged the earth - and you talk about gross? There is nothing more gross than witnessing the utter destruction of a virgin forest by clear cutting. Not to mention nuclear bombs on Nagasaki. Tell me how you explain that to a child? There is no resolution to these topics. Can we stick to bows and violins?

October 30, 2006 at 10:38 PM · Hmmm.. no comment.

Anne, I actually wince more at the thought of these horses having their hair plucked out bit by bit. How can that not be painful? Oww!! Learning that they're byproducts doesn't make me feel guilty, because those poor horses would have been killed either way, and there's nothing I can do to change it.

By the way, I see we're pretty close to each other geographically (B'ham and Tuscaloosa). Do you play in the TSO? And if not, did you see the concert they did last night with Robert McDuffie? He was awesome.

October 30, 2006 at 11:00 PM · Mr. Gorthuis–the reference has been given. If you consider Mr. Sowden’s word inadequate, perhaps you should take that up with him.

As to sticking with violins and bows, by all means, thanks for setting the example by showing such restraint.

October 30, 2006 at 11:08 PM · Hear hear Amanda,

my girlfriend insists on pulling out my nose hair. The rational being that if you cut it it grows back stronger.

Only Mattias` playing make s me cry more,



October 31, 2006 at 12:06 AM · This is pretty sad... I became vegetarian to avoid being a cause of animal death but I guess there's no way to completely escape it if I want to be a violinist. Ron, if you want gross go on and look at some videos. Not that clearing a forest isn't gross.

October 31, 2006 at 12:16 AM · "but who eats horse meat anyway?"

The French, for example. Don't go into a French butchery with a golden horse's head above the door...

Pulling horse's tail hair is standard horse-care practice - it's how you get the tail nice and even (you don't cut it). Doesn't seem to bother them, otherwise I would have been kicked many times...

October 31, 2006 at 12:18 AM · " meat...aaarrggghhh...."

H. Simpson, noted gourmand

OK - I'll stop horsn' around. Seriously, I would think that it would be more efficient to cut the tail hair, let it grow back, cut it again - like shearing sheep for wool. Or does it not grow back?

October 31, 2006 at 12:37 AM · it seems mine doesn`t. :(

October 31, 2006 at 01:37 AM · Buri, you have a tail!?!??!


PS: I'm not touching the horse line.

October 31, 2006 at 03:07 AM · Amanda- I used to sub in Tuscaloosa, but now I sub in Montgomery (less work, more rubles)!

I missed the concert Sunday because that was my first day off in 28 days, and I was too tired to do the drive. I'm sure it was wonderful- Robert McDuffie is always awesome!

Now, back to my regularly scheduled guilt...

October 31, 2006 at 01:42 PM · Enosh: I don't think that it is possible to avoid being a cause for animal death. You wouldn't believe how many things are being made from animals. Almost all glues and soaps contain animal products. Even wine and most orange juices contain gelatin. Fishbladders are used in the filtering process of wine. Several other animal products are used for the filtering of sugar. I could go on for hours. It's pretty sad.

I'm not saying that one shouldn't try do the best one can, though. At least that's what I do. But there are some things you just can't avoid.

October 31, 2006 at 04:17 PM ·

October 31, 2006 at 03:55 PM · Hey Anne - Montgomery is actually my hometown, and I commute there about once a week to see my fiance. If you ever know any one in need of a violist, can you refer them to me? The only gig I've done in Montgomery was First Methodist's Mozart Requiem in the chapel at Huntingdon. Were you at that gig by any chance? The pay was awesome.

Yeah, the Robert McDuffie concert was great, and it's always fun when I know half the orchestra - I like watching the expressions on their faces and hearing them moan and groan during intermission. His violin is incredible. He also did a masterclass the next day for UA School of Music. He's a really nice Southern gentleman, and he was more genial and positive than anyone I'd ever seen in a masterclass. He also kept pulling out his 3.5 million del Gesu in the middle of the masterclass.. it was awesome.

And Buri - I saw an old post where you related some story told by McDuffie about Dorothy Delay.. well, yesterday in the masterclass he repeated the story exactly as you told it. I'm guessing he tells that story a lot. ;)

October 31, 2006 at 05:56 PM · Amanda, please e-mail me, where we can chat about University of Alabama football, barbeque, the weather, employment opportunities in the Southeast, more football, the upcoming elections, football again, and anything else...

did I forget football (hee hee).

Guiltily, Anne

October 31, 2006 at 06:25 PM · [quote]

my girlfriend insists on pulling out my nose hair. The rational being that if you cut it it grows back stronger.


Hmmm, what is the rationale for stronger nose hair then?

Why meat-eating is gross?

October 31, 2006 at 08:29 PM · Greetings,

Darwinism. Ultimately we will be stirnging out bows with nose hair.



October 31, 2006 at 08:32 PM · Oh man.... that's disgusting.

Now my mind is coming up with things even worse.

October 31, 2006 at 10:31 PM · Buri, either those would be really short bows, or you've got some impressive nose hair...

October 31, 2006 at 10:53 PM · But great to play boogie music.

October 31, 2006 at 10:55 PM · Greetings,

Maura, some people are so stingy with bow usage they might as well have a matstick strung up with the new generation nose hair.



November 1, 2006 at 12:11 AM · well said, Buri

March 31, 2007 at 11:30 AM · Horses need not be slaughtered for their hairs. The tail sheds enough hairs to be used for the bow. Just have to make sure the horse does not kick and brush some hairs out.

March 31, 2007 at 12:32 PM · In Australia (I don't know about the U.S. or elsewhere), horses are very happy to have their tails trimmed. For horses that are left free to roam for a long period of time, the tail can get very long, and in danger of getting knotted up into a big ugly blob of matted hairs, with sticks and burrs all caught up in it. To avoid this situation, the tail is trimmed every now and then.

Perhaps there is an opening there for someone who wants to supply the trade with live horse bow hair from happy and free horses.

March 31, 2007 at 12:49 PM · Thanks for resurrecting this thread. I got some laugh. If horse meat is really a delicacy, why is there this joke?

In communist Poland, someone ordered a rabbit stew in a restaurant. Upon tasting horse meat in the stew, the customer called on the owner to complain. "Look, I ordered a rabbit stew. Why is it made of horse meat?" To which the owner replied, "Only 50%, one horse and one rabbit."


March 31, 2007 at 02:45 PM · That must have been one underfed horse...

I've heard that in Kazakhstan (or maybe it's Kyrgyzstan?), horse meat is basically the staple of their diet, but they have very strict rules about which horses they can kill for food. If a horse has ever been saddled, even if the saddle has just been placed on its back for a few seconds (not to mention if it's been ridden), no Kazakh (Kyrgyz?) would dare even dream of eating it!

March 31, 2007 at 03:00 PM · Question: What are the properties of horsehair that make it ideal for the violin bow?

2nd Question: We live in a highly scientific age. Why can't science come up with a replacement for horsehair that would avoid the necessity for killing an animal?

Comment: If you make a bow out of nose hairs, that should help you if you are playing Beethoven's Kreutzer Snota.

:) Sandy

March 31, 2007 at 03:53 PM · Sándor, :)

I think it would be easier to just get bowmakers to just cut the hair from a live horse's tail rather than taking it from dead horses, instead of going to all the trouble to try and synthesize something that works just as well.

However, people do eat horse meat, and if the horses are going to be killed anyway, I don't see any problem with also making use of their hair, rather than letting it go to waste.

March 31, 2007 at 04:01 PM · I understand that the best horse hair comes from Siberian horses.

March 31, 2007 at 04:23 PM · OK, but what are the actual physical properties of horsehair that make it ideal for a bow? For example, does it have little "spikes" on it that grab the string continuously, or does it have some other similar property? It can't possibly be completely smooth, or it wouldn't vibrate the string.


OK, on the possibilities of a bow made with nose hairs, here we go...

The Devil's Nostrill Sonata

Preludium and Allergico

The Witchoo's Dance

Serenade Smellincholique

March 31, 2007 at 04:42 PM · someone's little write-up (not sure if it is valid),HPIC:2007-04,HPIC:en%26sa%3DN

March 31, 2007 at 04:40 PM · Sandy, it's the rosin that grabs the string not the hair. I read that the rosin sticks to the hair whether the hair is rough or not so...

March 31, 2007 at 05:47 PM · Jim: If that's the case, why use horse hair at all? Aren't there many other fibers (including synthetic) that are smooth?

March 31, 2007 at 05:59 PM · Sander, I read that the adherence of rosin to hair is electrostatic of some kind and that synthentic mat'ls don't have that property, or less of it.

March 31, 2007 at 06:19 PM · OK, I've got the answer. The horse's tail hair is NOT smooth.

"Thicker and coarser than any body hair, the strands of the tail are made entirely of hardened (keratinized) protein. A typical tail hair consists of three layers; an inner core (medulla); the middle cortex layer comprised of long, twisted protein strands; and a thin protective outer covering known as the cuticle. Through it appears smooth, the cuticle actually is made of overlapping horny scales."

Therefore, it is these scales that must actually continually pull at and vibrate the string. So the rosin would make the scales highly sticky so that they vibrate the string maximally and continuously as you draw the bow across it. If that's true, then as the scales (or cuticles) get flaked off the more you play, it reaches a point where you have to rehair your bow.

Anyway, the reference is on this website:

(Isn't science wonderful?) And, just as another afterthought, I wonder if the horny scales are major scales or minor scales.

March 31, 2007 at 06:05 PM · I've also heard the electrostatic thing. I'm pretty sure, though, that on a microscopic level at least, horsehair isn't actually smooth, it probably has tiny little spikes on it--think about it, the function of hair on a horse is to keep dust and junk from getting in sensitive spots on the body, if the hair is totally smooth it wouldn't catch any dirt or anything.

March 31, 2007 at 06:28 PM · Sander, from what I've read that's all wrong. My own understanding is that the hair is not smooth, but that it's immaterial except in as much as it relates to the electrostatic thing. Then rosin adheres to the hair in the form of jagged clumps, which pulls the string until string tension makes it let go, then it repeats. Naturally the string is going to vibrate and it can only do so at its resonance. I really hate music science.

March 31, 2007 at 06:35 PM · Looks like there are some different theories:

“It is not the minute barbs on the horsehair of the bow that makes the strings vibrate. If it were, the bow would only produce sound in one direction. Instead, those barbs hold rosin that is rubbed on the bowhair; it is the rosin that grips and releases the string, causing it to vibrate. Rosin is made of spruce resin, paraffin oil, beeswax, and mineral oils, according to typically secret formulas.” -

“The sound was produced by the friction created when rough hair (from a horse's tail) strung on a curved stick, similar to a bow for shooting arrows, was drawn across the string.” -

So, there appear to be 3 theories:

- The Barb Theory - It is the mechanical pulling of the hair barbs on the string that makes it vibrate.

- The Rosin Theory - It is actually the rosin that pulls the string and makes if vibrate.

- The Electrostatic Theory - It is some sort of magnetic or electrical charge between the hair and the string that makes the string vibrate.

Hey, we have the makings of a genuine scientific controversy here. Seems to me it would make a considerable difference in playing the violin and caring for the bow, depending on which one of these theories is the closest to the facts.

March 31, 2007 at 06:54 PM · I only read the electrostatic pertains to holding the rosin to the hair.

March 31, 2007 at 07:21 PM · OK, so we've got 2 theories, with the electrostatic hypothesis supporting one of them. Very, very interesting.

Wait a minute. If the rosin and electrostatic theory is correct, then why would a bow need to be rehaired. All it would need would be more rosin. Unless, the scales get flaked off as you play, and then it still isn't the scales that pull the string.

On the other hand, it seems to me that a substance like rosin is less likely to have the pulling force on a violin string than an anatomically hard object like a scale. Maybe it's just that the rosin makes the scales sticky, so it's still the scales that stick to the string because of the glue-like coating of rosin.

March 31, 2007 at 08:13 PM · The "Barb Theory" for how the bow grabs the string is known to be wrong. Nevertheless, it comes up frequently among violinists, perhaps because it has some amount of intuitive appeal, while the correct explanation is a bit more exotic. The reason why you need rehairs is that after a while the hair accumulates a gunky residue of rosin and dirt and stops holding fresh rosin well. Some interesting reading is here:

The reason why something sticks to something else is usually a complicated issue, but it does often involve electrostatic forces. I don't know about the case of rosin and horsehair in particular. I wouldn't be surprised if some microscopic roughness of the hair is responsible in part for mechanical adhesion of the rosin to the hair.

Why is horsehair ideal? I don't know, but I suspect that the reason why synthetic alternatives are so poor is that there is no real incentive to invest in their development. Real horsehair is not terribly expensive, and string players are a pretty small niche market.

March 31, 2007 at 07:41 PM · I've put bow hair under a microscope. There are barb like phlanges. When the bow starts slipping I've looked again after getting as much rosin off without alcohol as possible. Guess what? Those barb thingys are now flat. Rub the hair thoroughly with an alcohol soaked rag and the barbs are now raised again.

March 31, 2007 at 07:50 PM · If you rub rosin vigorously on the hair, you make the condition worse. Rosin has low melting point. When you rub it fast, it will melt and stick to the hair.

Just to give you a ballpark figure, about 65,000 horses were slaughtered yearly in Canada. The number is tapering off because of the concern about the side-effect of women's hormone replacement. The hormone is manufactured from pregnant mare urine.

March 31, 2007 at 11:18 PM · So, the question then is, how does rosin cause the string to vibrate? If you take a cake of rosin that is about a foot long and run it across a violin string, will it vibrate the string? And if there are barbs on the horse hair that stick out, and if those barbs are not there when the bow gets worn down, how can the barbs not come into contact with the strings? It seems clear that the barbs have a function and are necessary for the bow to work properly, but what is that function? Is it to actually vibrate the string, or to support the rosin?

April 1, 2007 at 12:47 AM · i think the phenom may be explained in terms of coefficient of friction. the fact that horsehair with rosin works so wonderfully may be a reflection on the wonders of the Nature. the smart people couple hundreds years ago got lucky.

April 1, 2007 at 01:05 AM · Photos:

April 1, 2007 at 04:24 AM · The nylon "hair" of the inexpensive Incredibow holds rosin and works on violin/viola/cello strings. I think the phenomenon of bowing involves coating the string with rosin (from the bow) also and the rosin of the bow creates friction with the rosin on the string that displaces the string.

In my experience, the Incredibow "hair" needs to be re-rosined more frequently than horse hair does.

Horse hair stretches and I think that stretching is part of its action in combination with the flexing of the bow stick. In my measurements, a specific amount of stretching of each hair in contact with the strings produces the best playing result and the best sound (for a given bow stick). THus teh hair is displaced from its resting state and is acting with a restoring force as it pulls on the string in one direction or the other.

Once "live" hair that is tstrong enough to talke the stress seems to do this best (so far).


This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

ArmSymphony AI Violin Competition
ArmSymphony AI Violin Competition

Find a Summer Music Program
Find a Summer Music Program Business Directory Business Directory

AVIVA Young Artist Program

Antonio Strad Violin

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases


Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Metzler Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin



Johnson String Instrument and Carriage House Violins

Potter Violins

String Masters

Bein & Company

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine