"The True Way"
The Round Corral ~ The Rope and Flag ~ Hooking On ~ Learning to Learn
Yielding the Whole Body ~ Blanket, Saddle, and Rider ~ In the Saddle ~ Use of Aids
Some Elements of Horsemanship ~ Distractions ~ The Quick Fix ~ Natural Horsemanship?
The Soft Feel ~ Spade Bit ~ Out of the Arena ~ Who's Calling the Shots? ~ Straightness

(last edited 05/10)


by Jan Young

The colt is started in the snaffle bit for the first couple of years. Jointed in the middle, and with no shanks for leverage, it can be a gentle bit, and works on the bars of the horse's mouth. If you have to take hold of him, it is not going to tear up the inside of his mouth. The colt is ridden in the snaffle until he has learned to respond to the rider's hands, legs, and shifting seat. As the colt progresses, the rider places greater emphasis on the use of his legs and weight, and applies the reins less.

In the old-style California vaquero or "buckaroo" tradition of horsemanship, the next step in the colt's training is the hackamore or bosal. He is ridden in the hackamore for a year before putting him in the bit.

The bit is introduced gradually. At first he wears it over the bosal--the horse is said to be in the "two rein." The rider holds both sets of reins but uses the hackamore reins to direct the horse while letting the reins attached to the bit hang slack. Gradually he begins to pick up those reins more and more, letting the horse feel the bit working in his mouth. Eventually the horse is being directed more by the bit and less by the hackamore. When the hackamore is finally dispensed with, the horse is said to be "straight up in the bridle."

"The bit" generally refers to a bit with a mouthpiece and shanks, as opposed to the snaffle bit, which is often just called "the snaffle." The particular bit that is used is usually the spade bit. The spade bit has been called a severe and cruel bit, but it is only so when used improperly. Properly used by a skilled horseman on a horse whose mouth has been prepared, it is an excellent bit.

Many bits consist of a straight bar, or a bar with some sort of port in the middle of it. The bar rests on the bars of the horse's mouth, the space on the gums where there are no teeth. The spade bit has a bar, and behind it is a mouthpiece that rests on the tongue. When used on an undisciplined horse by an undisciplined rider, this can cause great pain to the horse--to his tongue, the bars, and the roof of his mouth.

But the spade was not designed to be used so rudely. It is only for the horse who has graduated from "grammar school" and is ready to start "high school." This horse has been taught to respond so well to the rider's legs and weight that very little use of the reins is necessary. He responds to the snaffle with such a soft feel that only the lightest touch on the reins is used. When the rider's hands ask for a soft feel, his nose comes down so that his face is almost perpendicular to the ground, even when the reins have a great deal of slack. He carries his head in this position, rather than with his nose sticking out in front of him.

Now this horse is ready to be put into the bit. The bit is designed in such a way that when the horse carries his head in this way, the mouthpiece hangs perfectly balanced in his mouth. But if he begins to stick his nose out, the mouthpiece applies pressure, encouraging him to drop his nose again.

All the parts of the bit are loose and movable, not stiff in the horse's mouth. The copper-wrapped swaybars and the cricket cause him to salivate, keeping his mouth "alive." The cheekpieces, often beautifully decorated with inlaid silver, provide just the right weight to encourage the horse to hold his head so that the bit hangs properly. Positioned thus, the spade bit acts by dispersing the pressure over a larger area of the horse's mouth, rather than concentrating it in one smaller area, as with some other bits. Compare the same amount of pressure applied in two ways: an open hand, spreading out the pressure, or a poking finger, concentrating the same amount of pressure into a small area, creating pain. In this way, what appears to be a cruel bit is actually a comfortable bit.

Now it is even more important than before that the rider use a light touch on the reins. As he rides the horse in the bit, he continues to refine the horse's response to his legs and his weight, using more leg and body and less rein, always working toward the goal of being able to guide the horse without the help of the reins. The vaquero tradition is built around the working cowhorse, so the rider will often carry his reins with slack while using his rope with both hands. He must be able to guide the horse mostly with his body.

Some of our trials, like the spade bit, look more intolerable than they really are. Someone watching you endure some trial may shudder at what looks to him like an unbearable situation. To him, such a situation may indeed be unbearable, because God has not prepared him for that particular trial.

But God's spade bit is not for the baby Christian. When God takes you through afflictions, He prepares you first. He promises to give the necessary grace at the time it is needed, not ahead of time so that we have it in our back pocket "just in case."

Some, in viewing another's affliction, might even think God severe and cruel. Surely a loving and powerful God could keep these things from happening; either He cannot protect us, or He does not want to. But this is misunderstanding God's purposes. His plan is not to keep us from discomfort, but to refine and mature us through the afflictions that are part of life because of the curse of sin, back in the Garden of Eden.

Psalm 119:71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Thy statutes.

Like horses, humans too have a comfort-seeking mechanism. Our desire for comfort is so great that it often overrides our desire to know God better. Misunderstanding the purposes of the pressures God allows in our lives, we spend much of our prayer time asking God to remove those pressures. Ironically, we may have also asked God to draw us closer to Him, but we sometimes fail to see the connection.

When God takes you through deep waters, He guides you with a gentle hand on the reins. If the bit begins to hurt your mouth, you know you have gotten out of position. Like a yielded horse, you need to keep your head in position, slightly bowed, which is the attitude of worship. As close contact between horse and rider results in a light hand on the rein, so our staying close to God lessens the discomfort of our trials.

Copyright 1998

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