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Straight Up in The Bridle

(part 3 of the Traditional California Bridling Series)

Selecting the right bit is a complicated matter. First you must the physical characteristics of the horse’s mouth and tongue, and then finding the mouthpiece and leverage that will give you optimal communication and respect. It can be a trial and error process, and it may take some time to find one that works without the aid of the bosal.

In this article Les discusses using spade bits and shares his own experiences about riding his horses "straight up".

This is the final phase of bridling a horse in the traditional Californio way. To reach this point we have taken our horse through a year of snaffle bit training, a year of hackamore training and at least a year in the two rein.

We have educated the horse’s nose in the hackamore phase of training. In the two rein phase we used the bosalito to help educate the horse’s mouth.

As time has passed, you should be gradually increasing your use of the bridle rein while decreasing the use of the bosal rein. The only reason to use the bosal rein is to help the horse understand an unfamiliar situation.

We should be riding the horse mostly one-handed. It is fine to use either the left or right hand, whichever is most comfortable. Obviously if you are going to be roping then you will always want to ride with the reins in your non-roping hand.

As we progress through the two rein phase, the communication is being transferred from the horse’s nose to his mouth. He is developing into a bridle horse. The worst thing we could do at this green stage of training is to over-use the horse’s mouth. That would make him defensive.

The horse should be thoroughly educated by this time and he should be performing all of the required maneuvers very well. He should also be an excellent cow horse at this point if that is what he will be used for.

If any problems have come up during our training we always go back to the snaffle to fix them. The only possible exception to this is in the late part of the two rein phase. You can use the bosal to see how serious the problem is, if it is not too serious then you can fix it in the two rein. However, if it is a serious miscommunication between you and your horse either with a cow or in reined work, it is much wiser to go back to the snaffle.

Sliding stop in the spade bit

Remember that all of our training is based on being able to stair step backwards to find where the problem started, fix it there, and then move forward again.

The Bit

We are now going into the final stage of bridling the horse. Up to this point we have been using a reasonably mild port bit - inch to inch and a half port. We’ve experimented with the bar curvature to find what our horse functions best in.

Now it is time to re-evaluate our choice of bit. We are ready to drop the two rein bosal for a ride or two. We need to find out the answer to these questions:

  • Will the horse be user-friendly?
  • Will he let us pick him up and take hold of him as we would in cow work without shaking his head or opening his mouth?
  • How does he feel in the mouth?
  • Does he feel heavy?

Usually at this stage the horse will move from the low port bit into a different type of bit. How do you decide this and which bit should you choose?

One of the first things to consider when we are re-evaluating the bit is the horse’s mouth.

Look in his mouth. Is his tongue fat or thin? Is his palette low or high? Does he have some room under his tongue so that the bar doesn’t squeeze his tongue causing him to open his mouth? Finding out these answers will help you make a better bit choice.

We want to find a bit that gives the best communication and the most respect and this process can be trial and error. It may take some time to find the bit that works without the aid of the bosal.
The two things that make any bit work are leverage and mouthpiece power. If the horse is carrying his neck too low then the bit may have too much leverage, if he shakes his head that can be too much mouthpiece power. If he gaps his mouth, that is probably also a sign of too much mouthpiece power.

We choose bit leverage according to where we want the neck to go and mouthpiece power is determined by the feel we want and the respect we need. The right bit choice will maximize your horse’s performance.

It is important that we choose a good quality bit. If you are unsure about leverage and mouthpiece power call me and I can prescribe a bit. I do it all day long. Also my website, www.lesvogt.com has a bitting diagram in the Tack Room section that is helpful when you are making a bit choice.

Straight Up in the Bridle

Once we make our bit choice and everything is going well with the new bit in the two rein, it is time to put aside the bosal and see exactly where we are.

Up to this point, the horse’s ability to open his mouth to the bit pressure has been restricted by the bosal. We will find out just how much the bosal has been affecting the horse’s mouth and then we may have to re-evaluate our bit choice.

Be prepared for some surprises when you take off the bosal. This is one of the reasons we have to take it off, to find out how our horse reacts. Sometimes you get a pleasant surprise and sometimes it’s not so pleasant. You may find that when you take the bosal off the horse he doesn’t give you the feel you expected or you may find that your horse wants to shake his head because you have too much bridle.

Sometimes you will find that your first bit choice is the best, but usually you will find that there is a better bit. The right bit choice will maintain your horse’s performance.

Now the horse is straight up in the bridle. Both horse and rider are happy with the bit choice and the horse is working well. That doesn’t mean that you hang your bosal up in a dark corner and never use it again.

It is still an important tool in our training. We never really finish with the two rein bosal. We go back for a refresher course from time to time. We use it after we have the horse straight up in the bridle, as we move the horse into the spade bit and even after he is confirmed in the spade.

I use it on my bridle horses nearly every day to refresh my neck reining exercise. I will also use it warming up before a show to keep them soft and disciplined in the bridle.

Straight up in the bridle with a pencil bosal for maintenance

I very seldom ride straight up at home. There’s really no reason to except if I want to test how my horse is going to go, how he feels, how he responds. The two rein is great insurance on your four year training investment.
So the two rein bosal should be on the horse whenever you feel he needs it. Some horses seem to need a little more correction than others. It’s up to you to ride your horse with the two rein bosal at home to keep him correct. Some people might think this is boring work. To me the end result isn’t the fun part. The fun part is the project.

Traditional style bit cheek

Avoid heavy schooling straight up in the bridle. That can be very counter-productive. I school in the snaffle if I’m going to school hard and will occasionally test in the bridle to see if my schooling paid off.

If I’m going to ride in the bridle on a daily basis I’ll just go out and do soft preparatory drills or approaches to maneuvers.

When is he a bridled horse? The answer is: When you can take off the two rein bosal and be happy with the result. You can do what you intended to do with him in the bridle. In order to be a bridle horse the horse has to let you use him. You have to be able to put him where you want to, at any stage with no effort. Then he’s bridled.

The Spade Bit

The thing that I think is most fun about traditional bridling is introducing the horse to the spade bit. If the horse is working well and really understands being straight up in the bridle, now is a good time to consider introducing the horse to a spade bit.

The introduction to the spade is not a magic trick. By this time the horse understands what a leverage bit is and how it works. He knows how to neck rein. He has respect for the bit and he reacts to the bit in a positive way.

To move on to the spade bit we have to make some decisions about the spade bit itself. We will have to choose the type and angle of the spade, the leverage, whether to use sway braces, and the type of bar. Spades are strange - some look really good and don’t work and some don’t look as good and work really well.

A spade bit has a spoon that grows off the top of the port. This spoon can be flat, it can be wide and it can be as long as you’d like it to be. The spoon I use is determined by what fits comfortably in the horse’s palette and gives me the feeling I like.

The little springs that you see on either side of the port are the sway braces. These serve a very important function in the operation of the spade bit by adding pre-signal.

A spade bit is designed to work more on the interior of the horse’s mouth than on the corners or the curb strap. The spade itself works towards the palette. A trained spade bit horse will hold the bit so that the spoon cannot rotate towards his palette. He will give to the bit as you tighten the reins which creates a cushion.

Choosing a Spade Bit

In choosing a spade bit, the spade angle is very important. Obviously the straighter the spade is set in the mouthpiece the faster it will get to the palette

The style of spade I like is a flatter spade about 3 1/4 inches tall from the bottom of the bar up. There are three angles of the spade, 1) is straight up, 2) is a mild angle and 3) angled back further. I like the second angle to start with.

We must also consider what leverage that will work best for our individual horse. Unless the horse overloads his forehand I will use a mid to high leverage bit because it will act a little more slowly.
A mid to high leverage bit has the bar set towards the top of the bit so it takes a stronger pull on the reins for the spade to reach the palette. A low leverage bit has the bar set more toward the middle of the bit and it takes less rein to bring it into affect. Think of holding a pen by its top, you can swing the bottom of the pen quite a lot before the top moves very much. Now hold the pen more toward the middle and swing the bottom of the pen. It takes very little movement before the top of the pen is at a 45 degree angle. That is why a low leverage bit is usually a little too abrupt for a green horse.

This photo shows a spade mouthpiece with sway braces

The type of bar is critical. The old spades had a straight bar which was pretty severe. Today we design the bars with a certain amount of curvature so they are more comfortable for the horse. Again, you need to see how much tongue room your horse needs.

The purpose of the sway brace is to pre-signal the horse. If they are set up properly as you neck rein the horse left and your right rein moves towards the neck, the right sway brace will move about a quarter of an inch. This is enough to tell the trained spade bit horse he is turning right. The horse learns this signal and you can softly lay your rein against his neck at any speed and he will respond.

The curb strap is adjusted the same on the spade as it when we started with our low port bit. If I ride him and feel he is operating too much off the curb strap then I’ll loosen it a hole at a time until I get the feel I want.

We start the horse in the spade bit with the two rein bosal. He knows and understands this method and so do we. Go through the neck reining exercise until he responds as well (or maybe better) as the port bit.

Once the horse understands the spade bit then we work on the approach to the maneuvers, keeping him soft. As both of you feel comfortable you can gradually add more speed to your work.
Of course we test the maneuvers themselves, but if the approach is perfect the maneuver should be no problem. If your approach is not perfect you don’t have a very durable foundation in your training.

The horse should go in the two rein with the spade bit every day that you ride him at this point. Again, I wouldn’t school hard with it and if there were major problems then it’s back to the snaffle.
I wouldn’t downgrade from the spade back to the low port bit unless the spade was completely unacceptable. But if you go through all the steps to traditional bridling this shouldn’t be an issue.

Why a spade? If you’ve never ridden a true spade bit horse it’s hard to explain it. It is the most wonderful communication experience that I’ve ever had on a horse. There is so much more signal to it, there is so much more respect and cushion. There’s never a dead-end pull on your reins at any speed.

The other good reason is that it is a long lasting process. The spade bit horse retains his respect for the bit at any speed for the rest of his life. He’ll never get heavy in the reins. He is more fun to ride; he is more fun to show. A good spade bit horse will make you smile on one of your worst days.


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