Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Spade Bit Explanations

  “Yes, there are many who use the spade with little or no understanding or appreciation for it. But then, you can kill cockroaches with a violin - yet that is not how the violin might best serve us.

   “The spade bit is not a piece of equipment, it is a philosophy. To use it and use it well an entire school of thought must be sought and explored. For those interested in doing just that; welcome to the journey of a lifetime. A human life can barely encompass all there is to know about the mysteries of the discipline.”
---- Gwynn Turnbull-Weaver

   There’s a good explanation of the spade bit and how it works in here. I’ve also compiled some information from my “cowhorse notes” file, that I thought might help some of you better understand what I do.  This file is chock full some of the questions I had as a cowhorse trainer, that came into play when I decided it was time to retire. I’m sharing some of these too. - Mugs

   Reined Cow Horse is a discipline that evolved from the methods of working cattle in California, with its roots deeply in Spanish traditions. Ranching in other parts of the American West was also influenced by the Spaniards through Mexico, like Texas or New Mexico, but it was in California where the Spanish heritage was kept the longest, and where methods and skills and equipment were developed to new heights. California reinsmen and vaqueros were the apex of mounted herdsmen and their way of training and the results they got were unique and incomparable. Any work not done from the back of their reined cow horse they regarded as below their status. Just when they had reached their highest level of reinsmenship is not known anymore today, maybe in the 18th century, maybe in the 19th century all we know is that by the time the 20th century rolled around, those high-class reinsmen were a thing of the past. Whether the few old-timers that were still around had seen, and ridden with, the best of them, or if what they had come to know was while still very good -- already on the decline, nobody knows. We do know though that the fame of the California reined cow horse lasted well into the 20th century.

   The uniqueness of the California reined stock horse was based to a great deal on the training methods, which differed considerably from those east of the Rocky Mountains. The California horses were trained with the rawhide hackamore, then advanced to the bridle, typically a spade bit. The hackamore had its ancestor in the iron Spanish serreta, but is a piece of equipment unique to Spanish America. It consists of a rawhide-braided noseband called bosal, and a mecate, which is a rope made from horse hair that serves as reins and lead rope.

   Traditionally, the reined cow horse was trained with the hackamore until it mastered his job, then gradually advanced to the spade bit, which is a specially designed curb bit the roots of which do not just reach back into Spanish history, but like the hackamore -- even to that of Spain's Moorish rulers. The spade bit's design was developed by California bit makers. It was ridden with rawhide-braided reins, traditionally closed reins attached to a romal, which has a popper at the end and serves as a quirt. These reins have rawhide buttons and were attached to the bit by chains, the buttons giving the reined cow horse a warning, when it feels them slide up on his neck.

The spade bit has a high port in the shape of either a spade or spoon, hence the name. It has a straight bar across the horses tongue, and braces going from the side to the port (spade), and is loosely hinged, not rigid. Its design conforms to the horse's mouth cavity, and it works more as a signal, touching the roof of the horse's mouth with the spade when the reins are lifted. In contrast to what is commonly believed, it is not a severe bit for the reined cow horse when properly designed and used. The ratio of the old-time spade bits was such that it worked less off of curb action and more as a signal bit, that is, the shanks were relatively short.

   The whole bridle -- spade bit, chains, and rawhide reins -- worked as an entity and were carefully balanced. Transition from the hackamore to the spade bit took place over a period of time at first, the horse was just bridled up with the spade bit, but was further ridden with a bosal (the size/diameter of the bosal and mecate used were decreased as the training of the reined cow horse progressed), then gradually, more and more bit reins were used, too, finally less and less bosal reins, until the finished horse was ridden straight up in the bridle . The idea behind this concept was to save a horse's mouth, to never expose it to any pressure, also, to ride a young horse without anything in his mouth as long as he was still changing his teeth. The horse-hair mecate is felt more by the horse than smooth reins, and aids in the training. Generally, the result of a competent and skilled hackamore training is a very light and flashy reined cow horse.

   When about half-way through the last century there was a growing awareness that a great tradition was being lost, it was actually almost too late to really preserve it. Still, if the group of dedicated people that got together in California to found an association for the express purpose of preserving the California stock horse tradition, that was a bright idea and a well-meant effort and could have worked -- if they had listened to, and sought the advice of, the few surviving old-timers who had had first-hand experience during the tail end of the era of the famous California reined cow horse. Those old-timers, with the exception of one, were very reluctant to part with any knowledge, but they were largely ignored anyway.

   Even so, what they had told about the old days would actually have been enough to expose contradictions with what was being outlined. Instead of true preservation, what took over was American show business, the new association was run by Anglo-Americans whose only ambition seems to have been to create a better market for their horse breeding programs and training services, fashioned after the already well-established cutting horse association and futurity.

    The first futurity put on by the California Reined Cow Horse Association in 1970 made it all too obvious that the old ways of the California Reinsmen were not honored: The contest consists of three parts, the herd work, the reined work, and the fence work. The herd work is basically a cutting, which is a Texan thing and never was typical for California. But because riders can use two hands on the reins, and actually are allowed to use the reins, this herd work is destined to be a mediocre cutting at best, if not an inferior one. Reined work and fence work are typical and traditional for the reined cow horse, with the fence work the most exciting (and dangerous) part. The real deviation from traditional California reined horse training though is the fact that this futurity is ridden with that contraption from way east, the snaffle bit, which never had any place in Spanish horsemanship, or old-time Californian horsemanship. It was, most likely, a concession to the inability of the trainers to train a real hackamore horse.

   The California trainer of the early 20th century may have known the snaffle bit by then, but used it with difficult horses only, usually only for a few days. The reined cow horse association's concept of riding young horses with a snaffle bit for a year, then ride him another year in a hackamore, is in no way consistent with traditional California reined horse training, The horses were trained in a hackamore, not with a snaffle bit, and even the hackamore was not used for a complete year, it was used until the horse functioned well, then the transition was made. The old-timers knew when the horse was asking for the bit . They made the switch to the bit before the horse became dull in the hackamore. The snaffle does not make a reined cow horse in the old California tradition. Yet the futurity of the association allegedly created to preserve that tradition became known as the snaffle bit futurity !

   What is even worse is the fact that, after all, this whole new industry did in no way result in a renewed aspiration to produce reined horses, especially hackamore horses, the hackamore being an indispensable part of the traditional way of making a California reined horse. Horses are usually trained with everything available, may be even ridden in the warm-up pen with some type of curb bit, then shown in a hackamore that is not a reined cow horse, certainly not a California hackamore horse. 

   Paradoxically, in the hackamore classes (for four-year-olds) and bridle classes (five years and older), the herd work is not added, only in the futurity, which would already be very strenuous for three-year-olds without the added strain of the herd work. No other event requires so much hard training to be put into young horses as the snaffle bit futurity. Needless to say, quality is compromised, and the reining horse has been outshining the California reined horse by far and for decades as far as the reining qualities are concerned.

   Some reiners now also enter reined cow horse competitions, and were able to raise the bar there at least in regard to the reined work.

   Reined cow horses are judged equally on their reined work and their fence work, nowadays also called cow work. The reined work is basically a reining, but patterns are a little different, and the class is also judged a little different, with less emphasis on slides but more on hard, deep stops. The fence work is what really sets the event apart, and is absolutely thrilling to watch if it is done expertly.

    A single cow is let into the arena, which the reined cow horse is to work one-on-one. First it shows dominance over the cow by controlling it on the short side of the arena, where it usually is let in, which is called boxing . Then the rider will let the cow run down the fence, staying closely behind it and a little to the side. After the cow passed the middle marker, he tries to block the cow with his horse, ideally turning her into the fence, or wall, and forcing her to run in the opposite direction. After thus turning the cow at least once in both directions against the fence, the reined cow horse takes the cow toward the middle of the arena and drives here there in such a way that she describes at least one circle in each direction, which completes the run. Taking the cow down the fence and turning her into it is referred to as fencing , driving her in circles as circling . The judge will blow a whistle to mark the completion of the run.

   Spectators unfamiliar with how the fence work is judged should simply observe whether the whole performance looks like the cow is leading horse and rider, determining the direction where to go, or if the reined cow horse looks like it is in control and dominating the cow.

   Breed associations like the American Quarter Horse Association call this event working cowhorse . There, horses up to the age of five years may be shown in a hackamore or snaffle bit in junior working cowhorse , and older in a bit in senior working cowhorse .

   I learned to train for this event in the “show ring” style. Snaffle bit first, then hackamore, then two-rein, then the bridle. During the time I spent deciding my direction as a horsesman I put Madonna back in her hackamore --she had been in the two-rein for a few months—and started Odin on my “one step at a time” breaking method.

    I had decided I knew nothing about using a hackamore, and Madonna would stay in one until I understood it. Odin would progress at the speed he was meant to, not in a pre-ordained time-frame.
   I also needed to learn to cut, I recognized the herd work we did was stressful, non-thinking, and did nothing to prepare our young horses for cattle work. So I started working with cutters, in their sport, using their rules, studying their art form, except Madonna was in her hackamore.

   Another area I was lacking in was honest cattle work. Everything I knew came from inside an arena. I have been learning to control a cow off horseback. Out in the field, in a feed lot, on the range, every chance I get, I work cows. I focus on reading them, finding the air space (called the bubble) between the cow and my horse, and learning to manipulate it to get what I want.

   As far as the training method goes, I have continued to start my horses with a snaffle bit. I prefer an O-ring, but that’s just me.

    The snaffle gives me shoulder control that I haven’t found within my reach when I start with only a hackamore. I leave the nose and poll alone during this phase, letting my horses learn to carry themselves through placement of their feet.

   Once we move to the hackamore, I increase my work on collection, and find the face and poll get where they need to be easily and naturally. I have found my hackamore horses stay safe and solid in the hackamore for many years this way, and am happy with it.

   So traditional or not, I start with a snaffle. Sometimes sticking with tradition is the same as being stuck in the mud. Being afraid to improve on things can easily be hidden behind the word “tradition.” Or maybe I’m just not that good with a hackamore yet.

    I get a lot of my help and spade bit information from a crazy man, Joe Bruce, who is also a master of the spade bit tradition. Big K told me to suck his brain dry before he dies, because it’s packed with spade bit knowledge that is going to be lost forever. So I’m doing the best I can. Joe tolerates my snaffle bit use because I’m a “girl.” Go figure. He is very pleased with the way I handle a hackamore though.

   I still want to show. My beliefs have changed, I’ll never have another futurity horse, but I can show in a snaffle or hackamore until my horses are six-years-old. This gives me plenty of time to show the horses I train in a way I feel is thorough and fair. Plus it leaves all the fun and none of the pressure.

   The bridle classes will be available to me, and I’m hoping to kick some serious butt on horses that have been trained well and know their job.

   We’ll see.

   I'm not there yet, in my Horsaii journey, but that's what makes it so wonderful, the road never stops. 


Anonymous said...

What a great post. Can you please post a picture of the hackamore you use? I have seen several different kinds and am curious as to what the one you use looks like.
Thanks so much.

deedee said...

Mugs, I am spending the week with a student of the Californios tradition. This is so darn timely. Thanks again for your passion for horses, writing and never ending learning and improvement.

Francis said...

This makes me snort " Joe tolerates my snaffle bit use because I’m a “girl.” Go figure"

Very informative.. lots to chew on here.. thanks!

Francis said...

This makes me snort " Joe tolerates my snaffle bit use because I’m a “girl.” Go figure"

Very informative.. lots to chew on here.. thanks!

mugwump said...

Anon..I'll find some pics.

mugwump said...

Dee Dee - I am sooooo jealous.

Anonymous said...

From the world of dressage (lower levels) where only snaffles are accepted, needing to put metal on the roof of the horse's mouth for obedience seems harsh ...

Heidi the Hick said...

That last sentence - exactly.

I'm sorry though, I have to say this to "anon" who commented :

"From the world of dressage (lower levels) where only snaffles are accepted, needing to put metal on the roof of the horse's mouth for obedience seems harsh ..."

Please, go back a couple weeks' worth and read. This has been discussed already. I'm so tempted to throw back some comment about how cruel things often look in the dressage world, but I have to keep my mouth shut because I've never ridden dressage in my life and am ignorant of the art and science off it.

My take on this is that we want our horses responding off the lightest cue. And then we can do more.

I'm excited about the possibilities - and only one of my 3 are out of a snaffle and into a curb so I've got a long way to go and that is pretty cool. I'll never run out of things to improve on! Yay!

Susan said...

When are you going to post a picture of Madonna working in her decorative bridle? I bet the two of you are beautiful to watch.

horsegenes said...

Great post. I missed my opportunity to learn or "suck his brain dry" from a master of the vaquero way and it is one of my biggest regrets. I was a teenager and had the attention span of a gnat. My loss.

quietann said...

anon, as another LL dressage rider, I might have agreed with you at one point, but please consider the difference in contact between a LL horse in a snaffle and a trained "bridle horse" in a spade. In dressage we pretty much have constant contact with the horse's mouth and the snaffle bit lends itself to this. When a dressage horse moves up to a double bridle, the contact with the curb *is supposed to be* very light as it's a back-up in some ways and a refiner in other ways for the snaffle. Yet you mostly see heavy contact with both the curb and the snaffle. Not nice for the horse!

I think Western riders, a lot of them, understand how to use a curb (and ultimately, a spade, which seems to be a very specialized bit for the hands of experts) much better than dressage riders do. It's a very light touch.

quietann said...

anon, as another LL dressage rider, I might have agreed with you at one point, but please consider the difference in contact between a LL horse in a snaffle and a trained "bridle horse" in a spade. In dressage we pretty much have constant contact with the horse's mouth and the snaffle bit lends itself to this. When a dressage horse moves up to a double bridle, the contact with the curb *is supposed to be* very light as it's a back-up in some ways and a refiner in other ways for the snaffle. Yet you mostly see heavy contact with both the curb and the snaffle. Not nice for the horse!

I think Western riders, a lot of them, understand how to use a curb (and ultimately, a spade, which seems to be a very specialized bit for the hands of experts) much better than dressage riders do. It's a very light touch.

Valreegrl said...

Long time lurker here...very happy with all your posts!
Would love if you could do a post on cribbing. How to combat effectively, alternative methods, keeping weight on the cribber, etc.

jme said...

cool! i'm always interested in the history and art of bitting, and i love to learn about the different disciplines' different philosophies of bitting... very educational!

Anonymous said...

I got to watch a Ca Master when I was a teenager. He brought 2 cows and calves into be doctored with just trained bridle horse (in a spade), a dog and a bull whip. These were wild, I do not want to leave the pasture cows. The only thing you could see move was his head or the bull whip to flick toward the cow. It was amazing to watch. I wish I had even a small amount of the knowlegde he had. He died in the saddle a few years after that. His horse brought the cows to the gate, blocking the cows from going back out. The cowboy working with him went to find out why he was not shutting the gate. He had died somewhere on the way in and was still in the saddle.

TBMare said...

Thank you, Mugs. Two things I learned: that the horse really *feels* the mecate, unlike a smooth rein. Duh! and Awesome. Second, that the knots or beads on the romal serve as signals to the horse as well. What a HUGE LIGHTBULB this was for me. My background is english, but I taught my dressage horse to work in a cordero as a challenge once she was retiring and we needed interesting for her brain that was easy on her aging body. While that went very well, these thoughts will have me completely reconsidering my methodology, use of pressure and the types of signals I can give. I am blown away. Thank you!

I live in Santa Barbara, California, and the traditions of the vaqueros are revered here, but there is so much we'll never know because it was lost to time.

Anonymous said...

Very educational interesting and understandable. Great for highly skilled riders who stay very light reined with very well trained horses. Dressage is totally different and too much mouth contact IMO. But I can see for those who do not understand the spade - better off not going there. Only for the very skilled - and careful master horseman/woman - like Mugs. Love your blog by the way.

Holly said...

a good article about spade bits

Carla said...

Excellent post! I'm glad that you explained the previous picture post so thoroughly here.

Carrot Top said...


redhorse said...

I read quite a bit of the link that Holly posted, Mike shows a whole catalog of bits, and gives some descriptions of their uses. He says that several of the bits give a feel back to the rider's hand. What does that mean, what would that feel like?

I have to admit, although I enjoy all the explanations of equipment and techniques, I ride by feel. I don't really understand the words until I get on a horse and feel it.

Laura said...

fascinating stuff. I love delving into another discipline and learning about the details. I just had my first encounter with a real-live reining trainer and I was fascinated!

Thanks for the educational post!

Cycle said...

People get up in arms about spade bits because they see people like a lady I knew using one to control her hot horse. She'd hang on the reins until her horse had pink foam dripping from his mouth and was fully lathered himself.
She didn't know any better. No one had taught her or her horse anything. But people see things like that, and equate the spade bit to overbitting. I try to keep an open mind about everything, but I felt that way too until I did some research (and read your blog) and learned how a spade bit was MEANT to be used. I wish I could see a properly trained bridle horse up close.

RHF said...

I had a clinician tell me he could get my clearly green, ridden in a snaffle mare going in a spade bit in two weeks. I had a hard time taking his advice the rest of the weekend.

mugwump said...


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