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Regionally Influenced Bits

Last week I was writing about progressing a horse from the snaffle bit up to a shanked bit and when was the right time for this move. As I stressed in our last newsletter, a job in the snaffle is so important in developing a nice ranch horse.

In order for a horse to move forward in its training in a shank bit, I believe a solid foundation being applied can vary depending on the location. What I mean by that, and I'm talking ranch horses here, is that you may go about it a little differently depending on your location. California has a different way of developing a nice ranch horse than does, say, Texas or the Great Plains.

Let me tell you what I mean, and keep in mind I'm talking about the old days before television and the internet. Years ago in California, a horse would be started in a hackamore, not a snaffle bit. The reason being is that the snaffle was an English east coast bit not found in Spanish-influenced California. So as I said, a young horse and a young horse ready to start back then would have been 4 or 5 years old. Starting as early as we do now would have been considered horse-child abuse. So these four or 5-year-olds would start out in a hackamore to learn the basics of what was needed to perform their duty as a ranch horse. When they were doing all the aspects of a ranch horse well, cutting, sorting, roping etc., both in two hands as well as one, the buckaroo would start thinking about moving them up into the bridle with a shanked bit.

So remember, they were in California, so there was no hurry, and there was a reason for this laid-back attitude that the old Californian vaquero had, it was the country and the weather. In many other parts of cow country, you are constantly fighting the weather and the terrain, but in California, that wasn't the case. Those ideal conditions allowed the work to develop into an art form, so it took as long as it took. The result, the end product, was all that mattered. So they didn't hurry them into a bit, they gave the horse time to learn how to carry this foreign object in their mouth before they ever asked to respond to it. How this was done was to hand a small bosal on the horse attached to a set of horsehair reins underneath the bridle with the bit.

To start with, the horse would be directed only using the bosal reins while giving the horse time to learn to pack the bit in his mouth. Gradually the rider would pick up on the rawhide reins attached to the bit and ask the horse to rein with the bit. This would be done when the work was slow so that the horse would have plenty of time to learn how to respond to the feel of the bit. If the work got fast again, the buckaroo would go back to using his bosal reins. Using this back-and-forth method gradually months, sometimes years in the making, they would train very light and soft handling bridle horses. When the horse got to the level that the rider seldom if ever, felt he needed to go back to the bosal to help the horse, the bosal would be removed, and the horse would be ridden in the bridle alone. This was called “having a horse straight up in the bridle.” This method took years to develop, but as I said earlier, they had the time.

Today in this day of fast food and instant gratification, it is very rare to find a customer that is willing to pay for the amount of time to pay for a true bridle horse in the old-time California tradition.

I will talk more about this in the future and how different regions influenced different styles of horsemanship and gear.

Happy Trails

-- KJS



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