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Contemporary Cow Horse Bridling

What is the contemporary method for bridling a reined cow horse? It develops a prospect so he's straight up in the bridle and ready to be shown by his Non-Pro owner as a five-year- old. The horse is started as a two-year-old, with a goal of showing him in the snaffle bit as a three-year-old.

During the late spring of his three-year-old year, he is taught to neck rein and introduced to a leverage bit, while being prepared to show in the snaffle.

In the fall of this same year, he will go in the hackamore for a short time as preparation for the two rein bosal, and from there, he graduates to the bridle. Les outlines the steps involved in this process and presents the pros and cons of contemporary vs. traditional Californio bridling, a longer process.

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For the past 20 years we in the cow horse world have been evolving toward a more contemporary style in the way we bridle our horses. The reason for this is simple economics. It is just not financially practical for most professional trainers to take four or five years to produce a finished horse. Their clients bring them a two-year-old and say, “I would like to have a finished horse that I can show in the bridle as a Non-Pro.

How long will that take”? Today’s training fees spread out over a four or five year period would make many customers think twice. They would probably think that they could buy a finished horse and start showing it today for that figure.

Using the contemporary method for bridling a reined cow horse the trainer can have the same two-year-old straight up in the bridle and ready to be shown by his Non-Pro client as a five-year-old.

Left: The Argentine snaffle bit
Right: A bit with swivel cheeks and a low port

How is it Different?

The contemporary process is a mixture of the reiner style and the traditional style of bridling. There was a time when every reined cow horse was bridled in the traditional way. This began to change as we became more familiar with the reiners and their style of bridling a horse. We began to integrate their methods with our own and the contemporary method of bridling the cow horse was born. Can this combination of styles produce a horse that is as good as a horse bridled in the traditional way? Yes it can if it is done correctly.

So what is the contemporary method? We start our reined cow horse prospect as a two-year-old with the goal of showing him in the snaffle bit futurity as a three-year-old. It is during the late spring of his three-year-old year that this method diverges from the others. He will be taught to neck rein and be introduced to a leverage bit at the same time he is being prepared to show in the snaffle bit.

Then in the late fall of this same year he will go in the hackamore for a short time to educate his nose which will prepare him for the two rein bosal. From there he will graduate to the bridle. If you read the other articles, you can see how this method cuts quite a bit of time off the traditional California bridling method.

Steps to Contemporary Bridling

Our cow horse prospect will begin his education in the snaffle bit as a two-year-old so that by the spring of his three-year-old year he will be ready to learn two new things. It is at this time our horse will learn about neck reining and a leverage bit in the form of an Argentine snaffle bit. He should be introduced to the Argentine snaffle in a relaxed way after he has worked in his regular snaffle. Let him walk around in it so that he can get used to it in a light pressure situation.

The Argentine snaffle should not be used as a bit to reprimand the horse; it should be used as an educational tool. Keeping that in mind I usually choose to use a leather curb strap instead of a chain. 
Once we have the horse in the Argentine it is time to teach him to neck rein. We have already discussed how to teach the horse to neck rein at length in another article.

The first step in teaching a horse to neck rein is to educate him. Start walking to the left and lay your right rein against his neck. At the same time give him an educational pull with your left rein. Match the pull on the left rein with leg pressure from the left boot top, this will encourage him to flex and bend to the left. Repeat this exercise to both sides. Always remember to release the pressure when the horse gives a sign that he is trying to do what you want him to do. The horse learns from the release of pressure when he does well, not from the pressure itself.

This exercise needs to be repeated over and over everyday so that the horse really understands what you want. He needs to have a thorough understanding of it because it is crucial to your end result. It is one of those exercises that you can do a lot of without hurting the horse physically or mentally.

As the horse understands what you want you will ask him to flex more and more until he really bends his neck around to about 90 degrees. We ask him to bend a little extra when we school because under pressure at a show we will probably get half of that which will be about right.

Remember that we are not teaching the horse to change directions, only to bend his neck equally well to either side. I know that my prospect really understands the neck rein when I can lay my rein softly across his neck at a standstill and he will bring his nose around to the toe of my boot on either side.

By educating the horse to the leverage bit and teaching him to neck rein through the summer of his three year old year we have trimmed off a lot of the bridling time of the traditional method. We have accelerated the bridling process without stressing the young horse. Today the bar is set so high that nearly every futurity horse that is showing in the snaffle has had some form of education in a leverage bit.

Left: The Argentine snaffle bit Right: A bit with swivel cheeks and a low port

Left: The Argentine snaffle bit
Right: A bit with swivel cheeks and a low port

As long as the training has gone according to plan we usually try to upgrade the horse from the Argentine into a bridle bit around July. This is usually a light, reiner style, bridle bit not the more sophisticated bit associated with the traditional California style of bridling. This bit should have swivel cheeks, a low port and regular eight inch shanks.

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Today’s reined cow horse should continue to show in the snaffle bit while he learns about leverage bits and neck reining at home

In both the traditional Californio style and the reiner style of bridling we introduced the horse to the bridle by first working in the snaffle, then putting on the bridle and letting the horse get used to the feel and action of the leverage bit. We still start out that way when we upgrade our bit with this method. However, because we are moving through the steps more quickly with this method we will soon start the work in the snaffle then switch to the bridle to finish. Of course you would stay in the snaffle if things were not going well.

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The hackamore phase of this accelerated method should be done only by an expert. Otherwise, skip it.

While our prospect is learning to neck rein and being educated to the leverage bit he should still be showing in the snaffle bit. It goes without saying that he should be able to perform all his required maneuvers and cow work at a fairly high level in the snaffle before he upgrades to a leverage bit. This is the most important step in bridling no matter what method you use. I feel that if you are trying to teach your horse these maneuvers and educating him to the bridle at the same time you are heading for trouble. You need to completely make the horse first in the snaffle and then refine the control system.

The Hackamore & Two Rein Bosal

Bridling the reined cow horse has a phase that we do not have in reiner style bridling and that is the move into the hackamore. This is not going to be the long education (around six months) that you'd find in traditional Californio bridling; it will be a shorter, condensed version. In expert hands the horse can be put into the hackamore in as little as one month but I do want to emphasize the ‘expert hands’ part.

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You can find more information on selecting and fitting a hackamore in the Tack Room section of the website, so I will just touch briefly on it here. I would start the hackamore training late in the fall after the horse had finished his three year old show season.

I always like to start my riding session in the snaffle and change to the hackamore at the end of a good ride. Once the horse shows he understands the hackamore, the rider can be more assertive, but this is only if you know what you are doing. If you don’t have enough experience with the hackamore phase then just skip it. Always remember that you should fix any serious difficulties by going back to the snaffle bit. This is true in all the phases but especially true in the hackamore.

Once the horse goes into a cow horse class and takes a cow down the fence in the bridle he can no longer show in the hackamore. The main reason we put him in the hackamore at all in this method is to educate his nose before we put him into the two rein.

Now we have our four-year-old in the finishing stages of contemporary cow horse bridling. He’s been educated to the hackamore and he has had some bridling as well. If you have done an expert job, never hit any bumps in the process so far and your horse is very understanding and uncomplicated you could go ahead and put a sophisticated bit on him. He might bridle right up but I find that some horses need the support system that comes with the two rein bosal.

I start my horse in the two rein bosal early in his four-year-old year so that he will be ready to show in it around April. The horse is allowed to show in either the two rein or straight up in the bridle for the season which allows me to go back and forth if I feel I need to. There are a couple of added benefits to showing in the two rein bosal. First is that the bosal acts as a cavesson to keep the mouth closed. Second is that you are allowed to put your fingers between the reins which can help give your horse extra support if he needs it. The two rein bosal can help a green bridle horse to feel more secure in a show situation.

Our reined cow horse will be ready to be shown straight up in the bridle the following season. This is not a cut rate way to bridle a reined cow horse, but a system that is commonly used today in the cow horse world and it produces high quality horses. As I said in the beginning, it is mostly due to economics, time is money. Back in the day when there wasn’t as much money at stake as there is today there was a more relaxed approach toward bridling.

As Good as Traditional Bridling?

Dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists will argue that the contemporary horse could not possibly be as good as a horse trained in the traditional way. I disagree with that. I won’t say every horse is as good but many of them are. The big difference in our horses today compared to the horses of 30 years ago is how finished they are as long three-year-olds. The three-year-old horse we produce today just has to go through the rest of the steps which allows us to shorten up the bridling process. We just have to change his controls from the snaffle bit to the bridle.

I still like to use the traditional method on my horses and there are many people today who want to learn the old way. The contemporary style does cut corners and any time you do that you take a chance with the foundation of your training. That is why I stress that this way of bridling the horse should be done by a professional who will recognize the red flags if they appear.

So there you have it, three ways to get your horse straight up in the bridle. The traditional California method handed down from the vaqueros, the reiner method which produces some of the top performers you see today, and the contemporary cow horse method which is a combination of the two. Get your horse solid in his fundamentals in the snaffle and then give one a try.

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The goal of any bridling methods - getting the horse straight up in the bridle.


 

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