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Bosal, snaffle, spade - why?

From: Damian

Dear Jessica, your site is awesome and so is your insight. I guess that is sort of a pun, ha ha! I really appreciate you taking all that time to write articles so that riders like me can get good information. I like it that you talk about all different things, I am not ever going to be a dressage rider but I am very interested in those articles, for instance. Here is my question. I got interested in spade bits when I saw some incredible horses at a show out here in Nevada. I went to the library and did some reading about spade bits and vaqureos (not sure about the spelling), and now I have a question. In one of the books, the tradition was to train the horse in a snaffle, then in a bosal, then in a curb bit, then a spade. In the other one, the tradition was different, the bosal came first, then the snaffle, then the spade bit. Which one is right? I asked a bridle horse trainer at another show, who had some really great horses, and he said that the California tradition was bosal first, then the trainer would maybe use a snaffle or maybe go straight to the spade. He was real definite about how this was the right way, so what I want to know, is, what do you think? Also, can you tell me why one book talked a lot about the fiador and the other one showed pictures of bridle horses that didn't have fiadors? Thanks a lot for all your good work! Damian


Hi Damian! I'm not a bridle horse expert by any means, but as I understand it, the basic difference in the two traditions was a fairly simple one: the horses trained in the vaquero tradition were meant to carry a spade bit in a completely educated and soft mouth, and work ONLY on a loose rein, when their training was completed. The horses trained to a curb were not handled quite as gently, their training took much less time, and when trained, they were worked in a curb (and only very rarely in a spade) by riders were more concerned with getting the job (moving cattle, usually) done than with the art of horsemanship, and who DID put some tension on the reins a good deal of the time.

As for the sequence for California method, vaquero-style bridle-horse training, it's actually very sensible. The horses were traditionally started at three or four, and using the bosal let the horses learn to balance under a rider without ever getting heavy in the hand. Starting them in the bosal rather than the snaffle made, and still makes, good sense, because very young horses - under the age of five - are always teething and experiencing constant changes in their dentition. The snaffle wasn't introduced until the horses knew how to balance under and obey the rider, and at that time it could be used for its real purpose: lateral control.

In the case of vaquero-style bridle-horse training, the snaffle was often dispensed with entirely, the horse going directly from the bosal to the spade. Keep in mind, though, that the previous sentence encompasses a lot of different pieces of equipment over many years of training. "The bosal", in this context, doesn't mean a single piece of equipment, but a series of bosals (each correctly bent for that indivual horse, and each with correctly-fastened and tied mecate and fiador) used in sequence as the horse progessed through its training. Some old-style trainers would use three or four bosals of different thickness on the same horse during the course of its training, and while each bosal was in use, it would be adjusted and readjusted several times to fit that particular horse. Other trainers would use as many as seven or eight bosals in the first stages of a horse's training. The first bosal in the sequence was usually thick and wide, the last one was pencil-thin.

The reason that you read a lot about the fiador in one book and saw just a brief mention of it in the other is probably because one of the books was more concerned with the early stages of training. The fiador, which goes over the poll, is connected to the headstall by a browband, and then is fastened to the heel knot of the mecate, just under the horse's chin, serves as a stabilizer for the bosal. It is usually used just in the earliest stages of the young horse's training, because it limits the movement of the bosal. Once the horse is comfortable in the bosal, the fiador is removed, because the trainer will now need an increasing amount of finesse, which isn't possible unless the bosal can be moved easily.

As for which sequence is correct - I would say that the answer is "It depends". Your reading has already made you aware that there are strong opinions about this matter. Some trainers feel very strongly about the importance of using a snaffle first, then the bosal, then the spade; others go from bosal to snaffle to spade, or from bosal to spade without even using a snaffle. In general, a horse that is destined to work in a curb will be started in a snaffle, and the only "bosal" it will see is not an actual bosal but a cable tie-down! For a horse destined to work in a spade bit, the progression is different - but wherever you go, you're likely to find at least one person who insists that one progression is the "right" one, and someone else who has equally compelling reasons for insisting that the other progression is correct.

My own preference is for the California, vaquero-style progression that begins with the bosal and may omit the snaffle entirely. I've always thought that it was very silly to start two-year-old or three-year-old horses with any kind of a bit in its mouth. Why should horses' first experience with bits come at a time when they are not only extremely immature physically (and with a body balance that changes almost from day to day) but also most likely to find any bit annoying, irritating, and quite possibly painful? I don't do spade-bit training myself, so I begin with some form of bitless bridle and then progress through a series of snaffle bits, but I can certainly understand and appreciate the logical progression of bosal to snaffle to spade - or bosal to spade.

Jessica

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