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By Kristen Spinning
An old horseman once remarked, “Heck, you could ride your mare with a piece of string.” To me, that evoked a mental image of galloping unencumbered through fields of wildflowers. It also terrified me – how could I control anything without a bit? Granted, a hackamore is heftier than a piece of string, but a simple teardrop-shaped loop around the nose can appear to be as ineffective, especially on a young horse. Hackamore proponent and venerable trainer Benny Guitron cautions, “It’s the biggest bluff you can put on a horse. If you don’t use it properly, and you don’t use your hands properly, you’ll get them to run through it. Once that happens, you could tie them to the front of your pick-up, and I’ll guarantee you won’t get them to stop!” However, with patience and proper education, the hackamore can deliver great results.
The hackamore is a product of traditional Vaquero Horsemanship, but its roots transcend its Spanish usage by thousands of years. Its nomenclature can be somewhat confusing. You may hear someone refer to riding in a bosal, yet that’s only one piece of the set-up: the loop that goes around the horse’s nose. The most traditional bosals are made of braided rawhide, a combination of leathers or rope. The bosal itself has three main parts: the nose button, which rests on the nose; the cheek pieces; and the heel knot, which sits underneath the horse’s chin. The knot adds weight to the
bosal, amplifying any movements by the rider’s hands. It also rubs the chin, adding a different kind of pressure. The bosal is held in place by a simple headstall, called the hanger. Finally, the mecate is one long rope that’s tied just above the heel knot in a fashion that both adjusts the size of the bosal and forms reins, as well as a lead rope.
It seems as if the hackamore has lost its place in the trainer’s bag of tricks over the years. The pressure to bring on a young horse quickly is in opposition to the traditional technique of using it for as long as a year in the transition from a snaffle to a curb bit. There has been a resurgence of its use lately, and more horses are showing up in classes wearing a hackamore. But as respected trainer and hackamore expert Bob Avila put it, “Just because you have a hackamore and you have a horse, doesn’t mean you have a hackamore horse.” It takes a great deal of finesse to use this piece of tack correctly and to realize its tremendous benefits in a training program.
Avila feels that hackamore training is a disappearing art. “You very slowly have to teach the horse how to follow his nose by moving forward, pushing a horse into his face, and getting him to bend his neck.” He admits that it’s a long process, but it’s worth it to build a light and responsive horse. “I see a lot of people just throw one on and ride them in it. That’s not the way to do it at all. It takes months and months to develop a really nice hackamore horse.” Besides the time, it takes a lot of feel and a lot of patience – three things that are in short supply for both trainers and owners alike. “It’s almost impossible anymore,” he says with a laugh of futility. “Trainers are pressured into making things happen yesterday.”
Al Dunning would like to see more people use the hackamore – so long as they use it correctly. Dunning was driven to preserve its traditions and inform a new generation of horsemen and women by co-authoring a book with Benny Guitron titled Art of Hackamore Training. “I wrote it because the last book written on the subject was The Hackamore Reinsman by Ed Connell back in 1950. That book was such an influence on so many of us.” When used properly, Dunning says, “The hackamore is one of the most wonderful pieces of equipment you can use to get a really nice feel to your horse.” A hackamore can be gentle or harsh, depending on the hands of the rider. But even in skilled, gentle hands, there can be some abrasion on the face. “We often say, he’s not really a hackamore horse unless he’s scuffed up a bit,” Avila adds.
The upsurge in hackamore popularity shouldn’t lead to the assumption that people are actually using them correctly. As Avila laments, “I’ve seen people hang hackamores backwards or tie them upside down. They’re up there just pulling the horse’s head around with it, which defeats the purpose.” Dunning adds, “You see a lot of horses with a hackamore resting down around the nostrils. That changes the function tremendously. And you certainly don’t want it cutting off the air passage.” According to Dunning, the bosal should ride on the nose, midway between the eyes and the nostrils. In that position you have more pressure on the nose button and more rock to the bottom of the hackamore.
Benny Guitron is encouraged that the thirst for knowledge about hackamores has been rejuvenated. Yet he is also concerned that there is a bit of fad mentality surrounding it. He says many people assume they can hang one on their horse and it will immediately become light. He is quick to dispel that myth and encourages folks to embrace the real benefits. “It was a piece of equipment we got away from using because of the futurity programs and such,” he continues. “Now, people are wanting to go back and figure out how to make a true bridle horse – a horse that will last years for a non-pro. They’re finding out this is one of the most crucial steps that you have to take to end up with a really good horse,” he concludes.
The hackamore is traditionally used in the progression of a horse’s training. It works on the sensitive parts of the horse’s nose, the sides of the face, and the underside of the jaw through a subtle side-to-side rocking motion. It facilitates the transition between single-reining your horse and neck reining. While the snaffle works on direct pressure, the hackamore introduces indirect pressure and release in order to cue the horse. In addition to the nose pressure, the roughness of the mecate against the neck teaches the horse to move away. “Where most people get into trouble with a hackamore is they won’t let the horse take the time to find the center of it and learn to move away from it,” Guitron says. He stresses that everything a rider does with two hands in the hackamore is to prepare the horse for two hands on the bridle. He says, “If you do a poor job in the hackamore, you’re going to do a poor job in the bridle.” Guitron feels most people are intimidated by the hackamore, so they won’t use it long enough to get comfortable. He concedes that even when plenty of time is devoted, it doesn’t ensure the horse will be a good hackamore horse. “Still, the discipline they will learn along the way is very valuable,” he says.
A young horse with a solid foundation under saddle can be progressed to a snaffle/hackamore combination, or directly to the hackamore alone. Dunning believes that a three year-old should move into a snaffle/hackamore combination. Then, about a year should be spent training the horse how to properly neck rein. However, it’s rare to see that much time taken.
Dunning outlines his ideal progression. “You’ve already worked on the snaffle horse pretty good, so you might put a little hackamore underneath it and ride ‘cuatro reindas’. In this combo, the horse is ridden mainly off the snaffle,” he says. As the horse gets used to the combo, the rider will shorten the hackamore reins up so the snaffle and hackamore can be ridden together. Eventually, the snaffle is used less and can be removed altogether. Months are then spent refining movement, cues, and lightness. “You would do the same when transitioning to the bridle. You ride them with a pencil bosalito under a light bit. Once the horse understands how to handle the bit well, you take the hackamore off and ride with a curb bit by itself,” he concludes.
Dunning further explains how to begin with a hackamore. He explains, “You start a horse in the turn by pulling the direct rein. Then, you rub the neck up and down with the outside rein, and you add outside leg. After some time, he understands that the inside rein gives direction, the outside rein is telling him to move away from it and move his shoulders, and the outside leg adds impulsion. As the horse progresses, you switch this. You touch them with the outside rein first. The rein should have an effect on the outside of the neck, while the inside rein is giving reinforcement of the cue, if necessary. This is why the old traditional mecates were real prickly. They were made out of the tail hair of the horse.”
The reins have to be handled with some finesse to effectively communicate through a hackamore. “You don’t want to have a real firm pull on these hackamores,” Dunning says. Instead, a rocking or bumping motion is used: pull/release, bump/release. He says the key is to keep in rhythm. “You have to stay in rhythm with the movement of the horse’s feet. At the walk, you can alternate your hands, left, right, and rock them a little. At the jog, your hands work more together with a rocking motion. When the horse is working in a vertical manner, you let your hands stay still with a little slack in the reins as a reward,” he says. Yanking the head around can get you into trouble fast. Dunning continues, “If a horse ever figures out that he can put his head up and push his nose through the hackamore, you’re done. Then, you have to go to the bridle and you’ve missed that good step of training in between.”
Benny Guitron also sees a place for hackamore training with advanced horses, especially those carrying too much on their front end. He explains, “In a snaffle, they learn to break in the middle of their neck and roll over, getting heavier on their forehand.” The hackamore can shift that. He says, “When they find the center of it, and give their nose, it elevates their poll level a little bit. Then, there is a domino effect over their spine. Everything tightens. They get in frame where you can distribute the weight that’s on their withers back to their haunches.” The effect rebalances the horse.
The fit of the hackamore is important to its function. Dunning explains, “Some people like a tighter hackamore, called a nose hackamore, but others, like myself, prefer a longer hackamore with a little more movement to it.” That longer hackamore is about 12 inches long as measured from the heel knot to the nose button. The usual range is about 10 1/2 to 12 inches. Guitron laughs, saying he’s a bit at odds with his co-author and friend on the length. He says, “I don’t like a long hackamore. If you get too many wraps on it, it’s always giving the horse a signal.” Instead, he takes a couple wraps and brings the reins up on the top part to get good lateral movement. “If you put your reins too low, you only get a lot of nose.” He prefers a 10 ½ to 11 inch hackamore. Whatever length, the sizing should allow a two-finger gap between the last wrap of the mecate and the horse’s jaw.
The 22 to 23 foot long mecate is tied onto the bosal by putting the tassel end through the bosal, giving it about an extra inch or two of a tail. The mecate is worked firmly down into the V of the bosal. The mecate is then wrapped around the bosal to the right, 2 to 3 times, and cinched down snug against the heel knot. Next, you draw a loop, about arms-length, through the middle of the bosal to create the reins. Another wrap secures the reins, and the excess is fed under that last wrap to become the lead line. The reins and lead are pulled and twisted tight. Many people like to tie the lead to the horn with a couple half hitches when they tack up. Guitron prefers to tie the coiled lead rope to the saddle strings. He says you can get a quick release that way, and you have your saddle horn to use for other things. Either way, it’s important to have enough slack in the lead so it won’t interfere. A nice drape slightly longer than your reins will do.
Horsehair was the material of choice for mecates and rawhide for bosals back in the Vaquero days, primarily because that’s what they had available. Guitron says that with the sensitivity of our horses today, one should be open to using newer materials including nylon ropes and kangaroo or goat leather bosals. He relishes trying new tack and materials because different horses respond in different ways. “The main ingredient is you have to give anything you try enough time to see if it has an effect,” he says.
The stiffness of a bosal comes from the amount of twist in its core. Dunning recommends that the core of the hackamore be rawhide and cautioned that metal cores are illegal. You can find a range of flexibility from stiff to very soft. Dunning prefers a medium flex, which allows it to spring back into shape. He typically uses a 5/8” diameter, though he will use a ½” bosalito when pairing a hackamore under a bridle.
Bob Avila insists that there is absolutely still a place for the hackamore in horse training, yet he concedes, “I just don’t know if our world is going so fast that people won’t take the time to learn how to use it.” He encourages anyone who is serious about his or her horsemanship to try it, cautioning, “It’s not something that you can read an article about and go do it. I think you need to get some help from someone who can really teach you. It’s that much of an art.” Despite the years of experience and volumes he’s written, Avila is the first to say that not even he could teach someone how to use a hackamore in one interview.
Guitron echoes the advice that any amateur who wants to learn how to use a hackamore should seek help. He states, “Go get a good start with someone, so you know what you’re going to be doing.” He is convinced that the more any horse person learns about the hackamore, the more they will appreciate it, and the better off his or her horse will be as a well-trained animal.