Pin the Tails on the Carousel : Couple’s Use of Real Thing Gives Wooden Horses Happy Ending
In merry-go-round circles, June Reely has the world by the tail.
She is a 58-year-old antique collector who uses real horses’ tails to bring turn-of-the-century wooden carousel horses to life.
She does it from the attic of a rambling 80-year-old South Pasadena house, where tails from more than 600 horses hang from the rafters and wait to be reunited with galloping steeds--this time on carnival rides or in art collectors’ living rooms.
Reely takes pride in bringing up the rear.
Restorers have long used putty and paint to repair the flashing hoofs and flowing manes of hand-carved merry-go-round horses that have suffered from years of neglect and decay.
But many of the carousel animals produced in the 1800s featured tails made from actual horsehair instead of wood. Over the generations, the techniques used by 19th-Century artists to preserve the horsehair were lost.
When wooden horses gained popularity among collectors in the 1960s, most restorers were baffled by how to fix the tails.
Most replacement tails attached to refurbished merry-go-round horses were unrealistically stiff or limp. The primary source of horse tails--an East Coast firm--used a leather tanning process that left the tails looking fake, Reely said.
When Reely purchased her first wooden horse 12 years ago, the tail that came with it was frayed and scraggly. “It was skimpy. It didn’t look right. It should have been full. The other tails I found were just god-awful.”
Horsefeathers, she thought.
Reely high-tailed it to a local slaughterhouse to hunt for a replacement. But the tails she found from animals being rendered into soap were “mangled, smelly and wormy.”
Then she heard about the gourmet horse meat business.
A plant in Texas was processing horse meat for sale in Japan, France and Italy, where it is a popular food. As part of the process, the horses’ tails were being preserved by salting so they could be sold to violin bow makers and to Korean paintbrush manufacturers.
Reely and her husband, John, bought a batch of the tails and brought them home. She washed them and combed them. And then watched the horsehair fall out.
“We didn’t know what we were doing. And there was nobody to ask,” said her husband, a 69-year-old retired aerospace engineer.
After experimenting with about 500 tails, Reely hit on a system. She washes them three at a time in her washing machine, then dips them into her secret chemical concoction. Finally, she shapes them by drying them over molds made from short lengths of plastic garden hose.
The process preserves the tails’ full look and their characteristic coarse feel. It also removes any lingering slaughterhouse horse odor--"which can be a pretty nasty,” she said.
Tales of the Reelys’ tails have spread through the wooden horse world.
Operators of merry-go-rounds at such places as Knott’s Berry Farm and Shoreline Village in Long Beach rely on the Reelys’ attic inventory. “I’m very pleased with her tails,” said Wes Bakken, who uses them on the 49 steeds on Shoreline Village’s 1906 Looff carousel.
“This is horsetail heaven,” said wooden horse collector Debbie Ratliff of Whittier, who selected a $75 tan tail for her circa 1915 carved horse. It was salvaged from the now-defunct Doodlebug Kiddieland amusement park in Trevorton, Pa.
These days, the Texas slaughterhouse sends 5,000 horsetails at a time to the Reelys’ Indiana Avenue home. The Reelys sort through the truckload and typically pick the best 85 or so. The leftovers are sent to a ship headed for the Korean brush factories, they said.
“This is a hobby that went cuckoo,” June Reely said. “We find ourselves watching westerns on TV now just to see the horses’ tails.” Visits to local equestrian centers gives a similar slant to horse watching.
The most striking tail they have seen locally is attached to the Morgan horse owned by Reely’s daughter, Virginia Adams. Its flowing strands are 15 feet long and have to be tied up most of the time.
“I’d love to have its tail. But I think she’d have a fit if she heard me say that,” Reely said.
Horse lovers want stable family relations.