Moving into the Bridle

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond Published in the November 1996 issue of The Trail Less Traveled Copyright 1996 Leslie Desmond, Diamond Lu Productions. All rights reserved.


When your horse is a five-year-old, or a little older, he may be developed to a point where he is willing and calm as you maneuver him one-handed in the bridle. At this stage, he is referred to as being "straight up" or "in the bridle."
As your horse continues to refine the position of his body and feet in response to the feel of your legs and seat, he will also learn to respond to mere ounces of pressure on the reins. When your single-handed sensitivity on the reins brings about the long-sought lateral and longitudinal flexion of the poll in combination, the "sweet delicacy" that typifies the experience of riding a light, well-made bridle horse is close at hand. Eventually, it will become reliable. Depending on your personal style, this might be just cause for a journal entry or a little celebration. In any case, your horse's mental attitude and maneuverability in the bridle will be the signature of your work.

How We Got Here

The first four parts of this series, covers the gradual process of preparing a horse for the bridle. This results from patient, consistent work that starts two-handed in the snaffle bit. From here the presentation of the feel--from your mind, through your hands and body, to his mouth and mind, and down through his body to his feet--becomes refined to the point where the horse can associate the intent of the feel in his mouth with the new feel (same intent) of the rawhide and leather hackamores across the bridge of his nose.

hrs11 6aBuck Brannaman and his bridle horse Rambo, whose attention is on Buck. Note the combined lateral and longitudinal flexion at the poll with the elevated withers and shoulders.

fc8ad6f943Bill Dorrance's thoroughbred mare Beauty in the bridle and wearing the traditional, decorative bosalita, which is attached to her foretop with a leather thong.

Essential information is easily lost at this stage. Great care must be taken to ensure that the horse does not become disrespectful of the hackamore. He will if he is rushed, or pushed beyond his level of comprehension. As you help him to understand your intent by relieving him from pressure for his choice of correct body alignment and foot placement, you'll probably discover that varied exercises will reflect his accuracy more quickly than a drill.
If he were to get a little strong or high-headed in the hackamore, you would slowly review the maneuvers that were practiced (or perhaps missed) earlier, even returning to two-handed work in the snaffle bit if required. For each horse you ride, a customized blend of feel, timing and balance will lead to refinement of his responses. You'll want to have a very dependable line of communication in place before advancing to more demanding, one-handed work in the hackamore. You'll need even more feel and accuracy built into your hackamore horse before you advance him to the two-rein.
Transition to the two-rein is pivotal in the development of your bridle horse. It should be given as much thought and care as you gave the transition from the snaffle bit to the hackamore.

49b6cb56f3Above is a traditional spade bit mouthpiece with Santa Barbara cheek pieces.         
Below is a half-breed mouthpiece with Santa Barbara-style cheek pieces, shown as a two-rein setup.f150d0fd5b

Ride to Fit the Horse: Relax and Forget

To lead this dance, Buck Brannaman encourages his students-- no matter where they are in their work--to maintain a steady, ever-changing but always adjustable vision of what they want to happen underneath them. To be effective, you must ride to fit the horse and the situation. When (not if) the maneuvers fall apart, you and your horse will also derive tremendous advantage from the capacity to relax and forgive the mistake instead of asking harder for more. Harshness is not fitting. Anger at the horse is always misdirected.
If the end result is important, then the process is even more important. There is always time to take a rest and start again. This gives you time to think and will help cultivate the horse's trust and willingness. In any horse these qualities are desirable, but in a bridle horse they are indispensable.


The Code of the West Lives

The old California style of marking ranch horses was to clip and notch the mane from the base of the withers to a point about eight inches up the neck. It was more a matter of convenience than safety, although it reduced the risk of injury for anyone who might assume that a horse had more education than he actually had received.
This way a cowboy selecting a horse to ride from the hundreds of horses who might be in the remuda could distinguish where the horse was in his training and use the appropriate headgear. He wouldn't have to ask, "Hey Charlie, do you remember what the heck that guy rode that horse in" There wasn't enough time for that and the chance were, with so many outfits constantly changing hands, no one could recall. Therefore, you just looked at how the horse had been clipped by the cowboy who had ridden him and you knew how to ride him.
If the area of the mane had been clipped off, then the horse could be ridden in a snaffle or a hackamore. If there were two little tufts of mane sticking up with a clipped space ahead and behind, then the horse could be ridden in the two-rein. If one notch as sticking up, then he was a bridle horse.
That was the code. In some places, it still is the code.

09f8b264edA single notch or tuft of hair at the base of the mane indicates the horse is being ridden straight up in the bridle. Shown is Bill Dorrance's hand and his mare Beauty. Note the reins and rawhide reata on the saddle horn. They were braided by Bill.