Moving to the Hackamore

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


In about the fall of a horse's 3-year-old year, change to the hackamore and continue riding with two hands. The hackamore best suited for the transition is a 5/8-inch rawhide hackamore with a rawhide core. You want it to fit as a hat fits on your head.

Don't confuse a real hackamore with one of those hinged, mechanical jobs that you see in tack shops and local rodeo arenas. It isn't similar, much less the same. "And don't let anyone lead you believe that it is," Buck Brannaman warns.

And don't confuse a hackamore that has a rawhide core with one that has a cable or steel core. You can tell by its weight and by looking in the end of the heel knot whether or not the core is cable or rawhide. If you bought one with a cable or steel core take it back and get a rawhide-core hackamore.

The metal core creates a triangular shape with sides that don't form to the horse's head--they knock abruptly and offensively across the sharp edges of the horse's jawbones. It's the pain these create for a horse that causes him to slow down or stop. It works because pain is intimidating.

Most of the time folks outfitted in these hackamore-wannabe units are simply unaware that they do not--and cannot--rely on feel or education to get a response. They know if they pull long and hard enough, sure as the sun comes up, they'll get a response.

Damage to the horse's facial nerves is another unfortunate result of this inappropriate equipment. And, worse yet, the use of these items deprives the horse of the chance to benefit from his natural ability and inclination to want to feel of the rider.

1b913b8139This is a leather hackamore, also called a floppy hackamore. It should not be used solely in hopes of being kinder to your horse. Before using this, you need respect between horse and rider. If your horse runs off, this will not get him stopped.

Beware: When too much pressure is applied to a horse that is not soft or yielding--especially with the use of a cable or steel-core hackamore or mechanical hackamore--accidents, such as flipping over, can easily happen.

The Right Stuff

The bosal (nosepiece) can be made out of leather, rawhide, leather and rawhide, or combined with horse hair. The leather that holds it in place on the horse's head is called either a headstall or a hanger. The reins are traditionally made of mane hair, which is softer on the hands than tail hair. If a horse-hair mecate is hard on your hands, it's probably got tail hair in it. Anyway, this is the traditional rein setup.

Remember, never tie your horse with the reins of this hackamore.

Achieving Lightness and Accurate Flexion

In this second phase of mounted work, focus on refinement of the same maneuvers and movements that you started in the snaffle. The hackamore will help you achieve increasing lightness, which you'll need to get your horse operating accurately in the bridle.

Your hands and arms will have to operate a little differently and your timing will have to be sharper than it was in the snaffle. Here's the reason: Because of the way the hackamore operates, it's easy for the horse to confuse lateral flexion (left and right, from nose to tail) and longitudinal flexion (up, over the horse's top line, from nose to tail).

Many stiff, awkward responses are likely to shape up from the poll forward as you and your horse sort this out.

Here are two examples of confused responses to the feel of your reins when you want lateral and longitudinal flexion in the poll:

1. When you want lateral flexion--an arc to either side that is smooth and supple from nose tip to tail tip--the horse tips the underside of his chin and jaw toward his chest, or toward your foot or knee.

When your feel and timing improve, he'll reflect it. Instead of bracing against your hand on the rein, he'll tip his jaw to the outside of the arc.

2. When you present him with a feel for longitudinal flexion, your horse might push forward into the hackamore.

Depending on the timing and feel of your release, or the firmness of your response, your horse will either 1) bend his neck just ahead of the withers and plunge his head right down to the ground or 2) over-arch in the mid-neck area with his chin pulled back (against his chest).

In either situation, don't drop his head, "pick him up" or snap the reins left and right. This won't take you where you want to go. Just try to block his incorrect responses with exactly enough--but not too much--firmness. The objective is to head off the wrong thing and make the right thing obvious.

In time, the movements in the poll--and the shape of his neck--that you are trying to develop will become obvious to him. The shape of his body will flow from your supporting rein and leg toward the direction of your leading or opening rein and leg. You will experiment quite a bit with your timing and with the position of your legs, arms and hands. As you get sharper, he will too.

Remember: As you refine your feel, your horse will advance quicker with softness. It might be when you're holding him for the shoer, leading him towards the trailer, feeding, grooming or tacking up. As the horse becomes more supple, soft and willing on the end of a lead rope, it will carry over to your mounted work.

No matter how frustrating or hopeless it seems, do not fail your horse by punishing him as he tries to understand you. He can only succeed mentally and physically if you prepare him well.

It's true that he can be taught to execute a command performance and go through the motions, but this is a dangerous practice. The danger exists for the rider or handler when the horse obliges your demands on the physical level but is mentally absent. It is dangerous not to know the difference.

Two Hands are Better Than One: an Historical Look

I find quite interesting these little-known "actual facts" concerning the evolution of bridle horse training in California--as differentiated from the preparation that took place in many other places--between 1800 and 1940.

During the 19th century and the first portion of the 20th century cowhands drifted from one outfit to another, sharing experiences about more efficient techniques from other regions.

I've been told that by about 1940 information that affects the way we ride today was exchanged between cowboys who rode a snaffle bit horse with one hand and those cowboys who used two hands. Prior to this it was not widely known in California that using two hands on the snaffle bit reins would develop and maintain lateral flexion throughout the horse's body. This turned out to be a vital piece of the preparation puzzle if a cowboy and his horse were going to spend most of their working lives "in the bridle."

For at least a dozen decades the norm had been to start horses more or less one-handed in the snaffle or hackamore. Then it didn't matter to most folks that the rider was not able to provide the horse with essential information about lateral flexion and body alignment. Only a minority had figured out that it was advantageous to have this firmly in place when the horse graduated to the bridle.

By using two hands on the snaffle bit reins at the start of a horse's mounted career, they found that they could offer their colts what wasn't possible with a single hand--a quality leading rein and the all-important support rein that could carry the bridge of the nose across to the new direction.

With these benefits of riding two-handed in the snaffle, cowboys taught their horses to turn loose at the poll, laterally with one rein or longitudinally with two reins. From sunup and earlier to sundown and later, these "renaissance" cowboys worked with the diligence of master craftsmen to "get those feet hooked on to the bridle reins."

Once the horse was soft, supple and willing in these maneuvers in the snaffle, the chances of remaining so in the hackamore were enhanced. If these qualities could be maintained, progressing to the bridle was a natural because the feel between horse and rider was already present. That developed a nice foundation for the braceless bridle horse--a sight rarely seen.

During the 1930's this concept generated a world of controversy. It was widely challenged as an illegitimate riding and training technique, and many prominent horsemen scoffed.

But the proof was right there where it always is--in the pudding. It happened in the earliest California bit futurities.

Upon seeing such impressive displays of willing communication between horse and rider, skeptics became believers. As these methods developed lighter, more maneuverable horses, the controversy subsided.

The evidence became indisputable. Two hands are better than one.

It didn't take long for this two-handed work in the snaffle bit to increase in popularity. But, even with this fanfare, widespread changeover took awhile. It is still an uphill climb for the horse because it is difficult for the person to master.

In addition to being physically demanding work that taxes the rider mentally, it is hard physical work with plenty of heat and dirt mixed in.

It calls for giving up preconceived notions about the importance of show schedules and "looking good."

It also calls for the horse to be mentally right. The idea that a person wouldn't be concerned with the horse's mental condition is not only insensitive and selfish--it's flat dangerous!

As I've come to appreciate the complexities involved with advancing the horse from groundwork to mounted working, and from snaffle to hackamore to bridle--the truth emerges. It is this: The preparation of the bridle horse, by its very nature, is a work in progress. Perhaps it is more, but certainly nothing less.

In part three of this series, "Two Hands are Better than One," Leslie discusses two-handed riding in two types of hackamores.