Preparation of the Bridle Horse

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond Published in the July 1996 issue of The Trail Less Traveled


To most people, the term 'bridle" refers to any kind of headstall with any kind of bit or reins. For this series, the terms "bridle" and "bridle horse" refer to specific equipment and a specific style of one-handed riding that is tied deeply to the traditions of the Spanish vaquero and the early American cowboy.

This series will also contain references to "feel" that are difficult to grasp. When "feel" is mentioned it is assumed the reader is aware that timing and balance are necessary to apply feel successfully when handling and riding horses. Just one, without the others, is a good start but is not enough. It takes all three--feel, timing and balance--to arrive at the point where you and your horse operate together with a shared center.

When it comes to preparing a horse for a career in the bridle, Buck Brannaman is an ardent traditionalist, a self-proclaimed purist.

Brannaman's reverence for training horses in the vaquero tradition is spreading. Many of his students--regardless of their equine sport or saddle preference--are bringing their horses to the point where they can maneuver successfully in the bridle with one hand.

"It's not just having him wear a bridle." Brannaman said. "You could stick this outfit on any one of your horses, but that doesn't make him a bridle horse. It's what does he know and what can he do while he's wearing it? If he's really achieved that level, it's an honorable place for a horse to be in his life and that's why I'm so respectful of this tradition. It's from this country and I'm doing everything 1 can to preserve it."

How long does it take? Years.

Work in the Snaffle

Start your 2-year-old horse in a snaffle bit and ride him in it, two-handed, until the fall of his 3-year-old year. It's optimal to use a 5-inch sweet iron, eggbut snaffle with a 3/8-inch mouthpiece. Use a browband headstall with this because it's pretty hard to be smooth putting a split-ear headstall on a green colt. Plus, they can slip out of it.

b066cb19adHere Buck Brannaman demonstrates lateral flexion, which is the foundation maneuver for vertical or longitudinal flexion. Notice that the horse 's left jaw is tipped away from the pressure of the pull on the right corner of his mouth.

You will want to have your horse walking, trotting and cantering--on a loose rein or collected--in the snaffle. Your extended or collected transitions up and down through each gait should be smooth. Your simple (drop-to-a-trot) lead changes should approach perfection. Your horse should be started on traveling changes of leads and he should be comfortable at a counter canter (traveling one direction while on the opposite or "wrong" lead). (For more information see the series on leads and changes, starting with Prepare for Lead Changes).

You should be able to rock your horse's weight forward and backward without causing him to move his feet or root his head. His turns in both directions, on the forehand and over the hocks, should flow. Forward motion, when you want it, should be at full throttle. When backing up you should be able to set the pace--from slow, to quick, to slow--and move straight back and left or right in a backwards arc. Your horse should stand quietly on a loose rein. He should be gentle to handle.

Your horse should be willing to watch a cow. Try to expose him to an active environment like roping or branding calves. This requires him to feel of you (the leader of the dance) with confidence as he places his feet where, when and how you want them. He should settle with focus mentally and physically, with your direction and support, as changing demands are placed on him.

You can keep your horse in the snaffle bit his whole life. That is fine. But if you wish to finish a horse or make him a bridle horse, then you must progress through some additional stages and achieve refinement in the maneuvers.

Your daily goal is to reach further for refinement in your presentation of feel to the horse. Your consistent efforts will help the horse discover your meaning in your increasingly subtle movements.

Having good hands is very important, but not enough. The arms must be accurate and sensitive because they influence the movements of your hips and legs. Be aware that the slightest independent movements of your body will cause a sensitive horse to respond.

Your vision of what you intend the horse to do in response to your movements must be clear. To eliminate irrelevant and unconscious physical movements requires self-discipline and thousands of tries. In time, you'll get it.

Part two of this series, "Moving to the Hackamore," explains some of the difficulties the horse has interpreting the feel a rider presents for flexion and what to look for when selecting a hackamore.