Saturday, October 15, 2011


Glenatron said...
"I'd be interested to read a bit about your development with the Hackamore and where you are with it now."

I hope Glenatron's not the only one interested in this piece of the old west. I love the hackamore, it makes me train, there's no cheating in one of these bad boys, because a horse will run right through it if you hang on them, or hold too hard, for too long.

The hackamore I refer to is also known as a bosal. It is an indispensable part of the vaquero way of making a California reined horse.

The hackamore is in a teardrop shape and made of braided rawhide or leather over a rawhide core. The rounded top goes over the nose and the pointy end has a rawhide knot at the end which hangs below the jaw.

A single length of rein is knotted on the hackamore and called a mecate, (McCarty in hick speak). The knot is tied so there is a long, single rein, like a set of English reins, and a long free end that I use to lead my horse and for ground control. I keep the free end tucked into my belt. You'll see them tied to the horn, but that won't help much when I get tossed and don't have a hold of my horse. When the mecate is properly tied it adjusts the fit of the hackamore for proper communication between horse and rider.

My reins are made with braided horse hair, they are prickly and scratchy, but have a lovely feel after they've been broken in. Mecates are also made out of synthetic rope, but synthetics are not what I use by choice.

 The Persians in 500 BC were one of the first to use a thick plaited noseband to help the horse look and move in the same direction. This was called a Hakma. On this Hakma a third rein was added at the nose, which allowed the rider to achieve more power from the horse. Later the third rein moved from the top of the noseband to under the chin, and there it has stayed.

The hackamore used in the United States came from the Spanish vaqueros in California. From this, the American cowboy adopted two different uses, the "Buckaroo" tradition closely resembling that of the original Vaqueros and the "Texas" tradition which blended some Spanish techniques with methods from the eastern states. When it comes down to the hackamore itself, it is designed to make the horse look and guide in the same direction, same as back in the days of the Persians.

I'm more of a Texas tradition kind of trainer, I start my three-year-olds in a ring snaffle and don't move up to the hackamore until I am satisfied with my shoulder control.

Another reason to be riding a horse in a hackamore through his fourth and fifth year, is because of the dramatic changes happening with his teeth. The vaqueros didn't have any equine dentists available to grind all the enamel off their horse's teeth, so they simply stayed out of their mouths until they were able to carry a bit without pain. I love simple logic. 

Any collection during the snaffle bit phase comes laterally, I don't work on the nose or pushing my horse into the bridle with two legs and two hands, except for backing and stopping, until the horse is in the hackamore.

Once I'm in my hackamore and my horse is pretty soft, I feel I have control of his feet through my body language, and my hands have become a reminder rather than a control point.

The hackamore works on the nerves of the nose, sides of the face and chin. I'm sure there are those of you who have either seen raw, scraped skin on a horse in a hackamore.

Until you get the hang of the things it is easy enough to do, but I have found it's not necessary, as a matter of fact, if my snaffle bit work has been done properly, it never happens.

In the mean time, taping the hackamore with electrical tape will save your horse's face. Don't let anybody tell you, "it's a matter of toughening up the horse's face," if you use the damn thing right, nothing needs to be toughened up.

Don Murphy, the most knowledgeable and successful reined cowhorse trainer and hackamore man I know, gave me a very simple concept on hackamore use that structured my entire training method.

"Imagine the center of the nose piece is the only point of contact and it's very delicately balanced there. You can rattle it back and forth, pull back with one rein or the other, or very carefully hold it's position with two hands, but if you pull or yank you'll lose your balance point."

This comes from the same guy who told me he had known trainers who would push a screw through the middle of the nose piece, so the point was resting on the horse's nose, to show a horse which was pushing through the hackamore.

"After his ride he'll (the trainer) hop down and rub on his horse, then pull the screw before the bridle check. It sure makes the horse bridle up..."

I don't think he told me that story as a training tip, he was getting the point across that proper training creates a real hackamore horse, which is all about softness and suppleness.

Once I'm riding in the hackamore I begin working on collection and frame. Keep in my mind, my snaffle bitters are pretty darn handy. Before I even consider moving up my colts know where their feet are.

They can perform a solid reining pattern and are stood up between my reins on their circles, spins and stops. They can work a cow with confidence, out of the herd and down the fence.

Through each task my colts have their little nose sticking out and they aren't as underneath themselves as they will be, so I don't have the clean efficiency I'm building towards. They give their nose through their maneuvers as a result of raising their back when they deepen their stride through a turn.

They also travel often travel with their nose almost on the ground. This is the result of riding with a loose rein and their reaction to finding their own balance and drive from the hind legs. It is also how I develop a nice level head set without setting their head with my hands. This is a bit unnerving, it feels like riding a headless horse, but it's worth getting used to.

I now have a bold, willing horse who knows his job and likes it. These colts can generally place, often in the money, but I only win at the smaller venues or if everybody else falls of their horse.

Now I get to work on my favorite part. The hackamore.

There are varying sizes, from the big, heavy and stiff 7/8 hackamore on down to the soft and pliable 1/2 inch.

The bigger hackamores tend to be less "feely" but have more torque and clearer signals and the thinner, softer hackamores lend themselves to refining and cleaning up the more advanced maneuvers.

The 1/4 to 5/16 hackamores (sometimes called bosalitos, or bosal) are designed for the two-rein, when they are ridden in conjunction with a spade bit to aid the horse in learning to use the bit.

The tiniest of them all, the under bridle bosal, is never more than 1/4 inch and is used to tie the horse and the  sign of a finished bridle horse.

I work my horses with left, right pressure, urging them into the hackamore with my legs. The pressure points are opposite from the snaffle bit, when you guide to the left with your inside rein the pressure is on the outside of the colts face.While there is some initial confusion on the part of the colt, by the time you switch to a bridle your horse will neck rein beautifully

Always remembering the delicate balance between my horse's nose and the hackamore, I work on driving the legs underneath, rounding his back and picking up his shoulders. The low head set comes higher as he learns where to give at the poll (we don't all go for low heads) and he begins to "frame up" as he moves.

I ask for collection just a few strides at a time, then ask for more. I give a lot of pre-signals, so my hackamore horse eventually bridles or turns from hand position alone, with very minimal contact. This prepares him for the spade it. It also creates one helluva sweet ride.

So there you go. My hackamore talk....WAKE UP!!!


  1. Great lesson! It's nice to hear you say "we don't all go for low heads" I grow tired of seeing some of these horses with their noses dragging on the ground. How efficient can that be in "real life"? My own rant, sorry. I always enjoy your posts!

  2. Thanks Mugs! That was very interesting to me at least. For people who haven't seen where a horse is at before they are ready for the hackamore it can be quite surprising how far along the horse looks before they move into the bosal- I remember the first time I watched Buck's snaffle bit Bridle Horse DVD just thinking "damn - I've been working on my horse for years and he's nowhere near where this three year old Buck's riding is at."

    One historical thing about the snaffle-bit first approach to training is that in areas where trainers were potentially going to be selling to the cavalry, they would want horses that could go in a snaffle bit, so that was a financial incentive to the trainers in areas where they might be doing that to be starting with the bit rather than the bosal. Further out in the west it was more expensive to get hold of metal bits in general I think, but they had a huge amount of cattle and plenty of time so making rawhide gear was a good option.

  3. Great! I've been thinking of getting a bosal to play gelding is better at flexing at the poll, but I'd like to experiment with him. And of course, my mare :) Will look funny in a bosal and a dressage saddle, tho!


  4. I love riding in a hackamore! I'd love to hear more details about the work you do with it :)

  5. Great post! I just *wish* my girls were at the stage you describe in the snaffle, before I moved into the hackamore. But I do ride my one girl in a softer, kangaroo/latigo(?) covered bosal, mostly on the trail. She does well, and has developed a very nice frame.
    And RHF--I *have* ridden with the above bosal and my Prix de St. George for awhile, back when I discovered my old trail saddle wasn't fitting my mare as she developed.

  6. definitely interesting!

    Thank you!

  7. This makes me want to go buy a hackamore. Right now.

  8. Wow...what great timing! I just got back from watching my 2 year old, who is with a colt starter. In 2 weeks, she comes home, at least for the winter. She has about 50 rides on her, and is beginning to figure out what do do with her body in response to rider commands. Our goal with her is a true all-arounder, WP, horsemanship, trail class, and western riding class, and then english pleasure and equitation. But first, we are going to use WP as it was intended, as an entry level class. We won't show her until next year, but then she will probably be in a hackamore/bosal. I haven't ridden in a bosal since they were the colt starter bit of choice in the early 70s. It has taken me reading your work to understand that a bosal is a finishing tool.

    That quote from Don Murphy, about jiggling, etc., is excellent! I got lost in one place though, where you were saying "They give their nose through their maneuvers as a result of raising their back when they deepen their stride through a turn.

    They also travel often travel with their nose almost on the ground. This is the result of riding with a loose rein and their reaction to finding their own balance and drive from the hind legs."

    Remembering that I am working with a WP prospect, I am not seeing that they will raise their backs on their own? Right now, filly is learning to balance herself, and follow her nose through a turn, w/o dropping shoulders, not being asked to slow, in fact, being pushed to maintain a free flowing gait. How do you get the to stepping under themselves at a turn, w/o taking hold of their mouths?

    Second..right now, they are holding her shoulders and head up, if I let her drop her head, why won't she fall onto her forehand? Is this a worry, since a WP bred horse doesn't have much "forward" except that which is man made? If this (the falling on her forehand) doesn't happen, and she can develop that "balance and drive from the hind legs" and get the strength to go as slow as she wants, I think we will have it going on.

    I know this long and rambling, but I wanted to be sure I understood your comments. This is the first baby I have had in many years, and the best horse I have had in a long time. I'm very nervous about bringing her home to school, and put some more advanced skills on her.

    Thanks in advance for giving this some thought for me.

  9. burdfour- I quit working in the WP world before I learned this approach to training.

    I don't want to screw up what your trainers are working on by telling you to do things my way.

    I would ask them to explain to you in detail the hows and whys of what they do, it's on the other side of the planet from me.

  10. burdfour- I do take hold of their mouths, I teach them to seek the release of little to no contact, but it takes time.

  11. :) Yeah, it is another planet, isn't it? I think a lot of principles of good horsemanship are the same all over, though, with dressage (which I have never ridden) kinda being a foundation. I really want a handy horse, and love to follow what you are doing.

    They are not as good at communicating as you are ;).

  12. Thank you for this informative post. I have been wanting to try a hackamore for some time now, but had always heard you need to know what you are doing. Can you explain how to make sure the hackamore properly fits your horse. I have a few sizes, but they seem a little tight on my horse.

  13. Thank you for talking about the nose dragging on the ground. Mocha can move like that, well-balanced, on a very loose rein. It makes me crazy when people tell me it isn't possible, because it is.

    Also, for really depends upon where you are for the tradition. Many ranches did have the wherewithal to make metal bits, and I do have at least one handmade snaffle I picked up in a yard sale. Most likely more for a draft work horse, but my trainer has a few snaffles around the barn that he made himself, when he was younger and experimenting. I've heard an old Nevada cowboy talk about making bits, and it was utterly fascinating.

  14. Just out of curiosity, what is your opinion on a rope halter being used as a hackamore? My last horse (Arabian) I started with a bosal and eventually just rode her in a rope halter. This would of course be my horse that was over-sensitive to the point,I had to ask of EVERYTHING as slowly as possible. I have had her for 10 years now and she is being ridden Dressage as well as my chief camping/trail horse. My 3 year old Arabian isn't as sensitive, but I just went straight to my rope halter. I did buy Pat Parelli's "natural hackamore" because it was a rope halter that I didn't have to tie my lead rope to for reins. There isn't a balancing point, like in the bosal, but there are the knots on the sides that give a similar effect. Was wondering your thoughts!

  15. @ Joycemocha:
    Thank you for talking about the nose dragging on the ground. Mocha can move like that, well-balanced, on a very loose rein. It makes me crazy when people tell me it isn't possible, because it is.

    While it isn't my style of riding I always laugh when I hear people say that - have they never seen a stallion at liberty in unfamiliar pasture? All the engagement, power and cadence they could ask for, delivered with nostrils glued to the ground to better smell the previous occupants!

    Mugs, I was always taught that your horse is ready to go bridleless or in the kind of hackamore I think that you're talking about, round about the same level of training where you might introduce a double bridle.

    Unfortunately, if people ride in a hackamore in this country, most often it's a mechanical hackamore, which is in many ways as severe as any bit with the additional 'bonus' (add your own eyeroll here!) that it's really hard (aka painful) for the horse to run through it. I've seen several horses start rearing because they've been ridden inexpertly in one.

    I also wanted to ask about this -
    The vaqueros didn't have any equine dentists available to grind all the enamel off their horse's teeth is this really a thing now???
    I've not come across it - I've had dental work done on older horses to deal with general pain in their mouths, but that's not specifically bit related, and as far as young horses go, I've never really had bitting problems, except occasionally transitory when teeth are erupting or a cap's gotten wedged. And the cap thing only involves putting your hand in and flicking it off - I've done it myself.
    The one thing I have seen with dental work being involved is where wolf teeth grow in an awkward place - but in my own, admittedly anecdotal experience, the ones that have problems with wolf teeth tend to be 6-7ish and have had them erupt late.

  16. SplendidSR- a rope halter doesn't have the feel I'm looking for.
    FD- I am not a fan of mechanical hackamores on many levels.
    Equine Dentistry is a big part of our vet bill now. Luckily I have an old race track vet who still works on a horse by hand with a rasp.

  17. I heard a statistic that one in ten US Cavalrymen had to be able to shoe a horse and one in seven had to be able to do basic dentistry, so I guess it's not completely a new thing. Or that statistic I heard is totally wrong...

  18. You should be using your BODY to ask for collection... yes indeed quite a trainer. Is that failed or retired. Maybe for you it is one in the same.

  19. Hey Anon, we play nice here. Please go to another blog if you're going to talk that way.

  20. Anon - I don't mind criticism, but you might want to actually read about my training methods before you start trying to start a ruckus.
    It absolutely doesn't work around here.

  21. Irrelevant but the new look is a big improvement as far as my eyes are concerned- much easier to read. Good job!

  22. Thank my "get your blog on track" fairy. She told me I was blinding you guys....

  23. Hey Mugs.. you made Larrys Training Tips.. is he a little late or did we miss something?

  24. Based on the "training" techniques that Janet writes about, I would say that she does not play nice. If it is my opinion that Janet is not skilled then I will say it. There are good people around; however, it is not Janet. You know Janet reading your articles is really a waste of time.

  25. thanks for the post mugs, I am forever in awe and amazement to the vequero style of training. I want to create my own reined cow horse using this system, but I have not found anyone local to me who continues to pass on the traditions. It was great to read your take on the bosal- my too favorite piece and although I havent ever gotten the finesse in it that you described, or used it as a building block from snaffle to spade, it has been a favorite headpiece to use on my faithful old horse years ago. I only wish I knew more about it when I was starting my three year old (now seven). Back then I was too afraid of messing him up in it from not knowing all I could about it.

  26. Francis - That was written several years ago. I've mentioned my use of Larry's tapes several times on this blog. He's the one trainer I have gotten real help from.He has always been willing to help me via email too.

  27. Can I ask a question? if you against nose band why do you use a Hackamore? since they err... have nosebands? I thought they were all abusive end of story?

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