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What is a Western Dressage Bridle Horse?

img 1435Developing a good "Western Dressage Bridle Horse" is all about your expectations of what you want in a "finished horse". There are many training methods claiming that they are the only correct way to train a horse. Even though there are many ways to "start", "develop", or "finish" a horse, the results are pretty much the same. So many "western riders" are quick to take a horse from a snaffle to a shanked bit and call them a finished "Bridle Horse". They may have basic control and ride okay, but generally speaking, most are a long way from the refinement of a true "Western Dressage Bridle Horse". Some horseman will say no horse is ever completely finished.

Bridle Horse:

The end result of a "Western Dressage Bridle Horse" means to have a horse developed far enough that he can be ridden and worked one-handed in a leverage curb, or spade bit. Although the path may change from person to person the most common "modern" sequence is snaffle bit, hackamore, and then to the bridle.

The original vaqueros developed their methods during the 1800s, and can be traced back to Classical Dressage. The vaqueros were in no hurry. Rushing never worked with animals. We also need to work with our horses to build that true leadership and partnership; that takes time. With the bad economy and with our busy lives, generally many horses are not given that chance to be as refined as they could be.


A Simplified History Lesson:
The goals of both the Vaquero and Classical Dressage were to develop a working horse that worked one-handed (since they were used for cattle or war) with the lightest of cues. The spade bit that is traditionally associated with the Vaqueros was intended not to be harsh (despite their appearance), but rather, to communicate very subtle cues from the rider to the horse. A working bridle horse will look very similar to a Classical Dressage horse in that it operates in a very collected manner (self-carriage). The difference is that a bridle horse does this one-handed with very little rein input. The cues to collect are mainly seat and legs with only a minuscule input from the reins. (the finished horse can actually be ridden bridleless to show his refinement – but having a bridle horse is an honor and a way to show off some fine crafted silver, leather and rawhide.)

The modern western training procedure is to start a young horse (about 3 years old) in the snaffle bit and start teaching it to work off a direct rein (Traditional Vaqueros generally do not use a snaffle at all). There are four basic steps in training a modern western bridle horse.
  1.  In a snaffle, they start using more neck reining. 
  2. After the horse is going well in the snaffle (a year or more), they will switch to the bosal. This moves the cues from the cheeks to below the jaw and starts to prepare the horse for the feel of the leverage curb bit or spade. You also continue the change from direct rein to neck reining since you can direct rein in a bosal without mouth pressure.
  3. Next they go to the two-rein where the bosal and spade bit are used simultaneously. You start out with the horse just carrying the spade and the bosal providing the cues and end up with the spade providing the cues. 
  4. Finally, the spade is used by itself. 
spadedbit2Despite the apparent size of the spade it DOES NOT jab the horse in the roof of the mouth. The side of the spoon (the end of the port) presses against the roof of the mouth over a fairly large area. The other areas of pressure are the bars and the chin- just like any curb bit. The other parts of the bit like the roller (called a cricket) in the port are intended to give the horse something to play with their tongue and help keep the mouth wet. You can hear them buzzing as they play with them even when standing still. The braces (curved wires going from the hinge at the cheek piece to the spoon are intended to help keep the horse from ever getting its tongue over the bit. It doesn't have a pressure function.

 

Two-Rein:
The next level of equipment, for definition's sake, is the small "two rein" variety, usually 1/4″ to 5/16″ in diameter, and is worn with the bridle and a small mecate. The third piece of equipment often confused with the hackamore is the even smaller "underbridle bosal" used with a shorter lead mecate for finished bridle horses. It is often delicate, usually not more than 1/4″ in diameter, fitting subtly beneath the bridle. It is a lead as well as a mark of distinction for the bridle horse.

The "true" hackamore of this article is the larger of the three.

See also Spaded bit:

Bridle Horse
Pressure, a port of any size is of little importance.

The horse trained and ridden in a leverage bit is not taught to carry the bit or have any sensitivity to its shape or configuration. They most often just respond to the curb strap pressure. A rider's goal when using a leverage bit is to engage the curb strap as quickly as possible to achieve the expected results, that is to stop or at least slow down.

Do the majority of horse owners that use leverage bits, understand how to use them? The common understanding of leverage bits are; pull until the horse stops, and if that doesn't work, pull harder. For those who only want to dabble in basic horsemanship, the leverage bits are probably "NOT" the best choice. Any type of leverage bit with a port should be used as a refinement tool not as a correction tool. This will require more time, effort, and knowledge to use it correctly.
 
Horses trained in this discipline are not to be used with heavy hands. Their mouths are respected and protected. The sensitivity of the bridle horse is a prize. That sensitivity would not remain if the process of making a bridle horse was severe. The truly great "soft mouthed" bridle horses have benefited from a long series of training steps that have prepared them to carry the bridle.

A good bridle horse will search for that sweet spot and in so doing correct their way of going and enjoy the ease with which they can travel and work in that way. It is not unlike the ballerina who walks with a book on her head. The book is not painful, it merely reminds her to maintain a posture required for the dance.

The Western Dressage style of riding should mainly be using body and leg aids. Many people are happy trail riding and are not interested in working towards refinement; this is a choice each of us make. Do you want to stay where you are in your horsemanship or go further and learn more about yourself and your horse and truly become one?

Of course this involves a "feel" that some riders will more naturally have than others. Western Dressage promises to help raise your expectations to higher levels so you can learn to have better feel and timing. It's about building that true bond and relationship with your horse like no other. 

Article inspired: by Leslie DesmondTraci Davis
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