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Journey of the Bridle Horse (and Rider)

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The Journey

When training in the traditional California vaquero style, the journey is traveled in phases. These phases build a strong relationship of trust between horse and rider. Cooperation rather than the use of force characterizes this relationship and each phase contributes to the future. 

This is a process that builds relationships gradually—there are no shortcuts. The concepts of mañana (“tomorrow”) and poco a poco (“little by little”) are mainstays. Time means nothing and the journey is as important as the destination. It is important to remember that this style can have many paths that lead to the same goal. The path taken will vary with each horse and rider. There is no single “right” way.

Constant feedback is another key requirement for success.  Whether this comes through self analysis or a competent observer (be it a friend, mentor or hired trainer), identifying areas for improvement and eliminating inconsistent behaviors is critical if horse and rider are to progress.


While there is no “magic hackamore”, using properly crafted, well-fitting, durable equipment is an essential ingredient to your success. If equipment is ill-fitting, made of irritating and chafing material or poorly constructed, it will cause physical discomfort for your horse. Additionally, it will transmit your signals inconsistently to the horse, thus causing confusion for the horse and frustration for both horse and rider. Poorly made equipment is a virtual guarantee of failure. Investing in good equipment is investing in the relationship between horse and rider.


Many believe the horse receives all of the training. This is not so—both horse and rider should be constantly learning. As they progress through the phases together, they learn about one another as well as how to perform specific tasks. The schooling can be broken down into the following stages:

Kindergarten-Laying the Foundation.

Here the horse and rider learn the basics of understanding and start building a relationship. Objectives and behaviors include

    • Courtesy
    • Respect
    • Pressure and release
    • Managed stress by reducing fear & nervousness through deferment & acceptance
    • Setting the context and rules for communication
    • Making decisions to participate
    • Developing trust
    • Allowing the horse to soak and sort through
    • Forward motion
    • Backing
    • Dealing with foot and health care
    • Saddling
    • Resisting the flight impulse
    • Trying new things without avoidance and fuss
    • Disengaging
    • Separating
    • Bending
    • Standing patiently while tied
    • Loading and traveling
    • Finding his feet
    • Basics of internally comprehending

Foundations of learning rudimentary signal communication are traditionally in a corral or later a round pen, guided from the back of another horse or from the ground. This also gives the human and the horse time to size one another up and trust can begin. The vaquero’s training works with the nature of the horse.

Beyond the basics, two fundamental schools of thought are offered:

a. those who do little on the ground. The objective is to get the horses going under saddle and on the payroll as soon as possible.

b. those who build a strong basis of understanding on the ground prior to saddling and easing the horse into work.

Ground work is done with a heavy hackamore whose mecate is tied for a lunge type line, or of late a rope halter (we recommend the former). Upon completing pre-school ground work, the mecate is retied as reins and lead. Colts are ridden in the hackamore for the kindergarten and primary school phases. Mature horses are also put into the hackamore for re-schooling.

Primary school through high school: the Hackamore. 

This stage builds on what was learned during Kindergarten.  From here we develop more advanced skills:

    • Balance and rebalance
    • Proper positioning
    • Interpreting single hand or leg signals
    • Learning the ropes of tasks
    • Developing muscles, wind and ligaments by covering country and doing ranch jobs
    • Gaining experience in rope work and gathering cattle
    • Transitions
    • Rating
    • Lead changes
    • Direction changes
    • Basic cattle handling and later roping
    • Becoming familiar with and increasing confidence in an expanding variety of situations
    • Development of signals as units of  communication
    • Neck reining basics
    • Vertical and lateral flexion
    • Rocking back beginning to coil the loins and starting to lift at the withers, thereby freeing the shoulders
    • Isolating each body portion
    • Beginning to know what to expect and how to react

Some horses are started for short time on a 3/4” bosal. However, most of the work is done with the 5/8” diameter bosal and mecate with plenty of fiber and twist for appropriate weight. This is true in part, due to economics, better breeding and more early contact with humans.

The 1/2” is next. About 20-25 percent of this middle phase is done with the half inch. Some people skip the half inch which is a pity--especially for the ranch horse that is used for brandings, etc. (in the old days rodear was for bridle, two rein and sometimes advanced hackamore horses only). The half inch is an important stage of the process and should not be rushed.

This is a big stage with at least two parts: two hand and one hand. Toward the end of this foundational period in the half inch bosal, the rider is beginning to use one hand periodically.

The old saying states: “When the true hackamore horse is about as good as he is going to get,” he can move into the upperclassman stages in the two rein.

College Prep - The two rein.

This is a critical transition phase where the partnership between horse and rider continues to develop.  During this phase we see:

    • Starting in the 3/8” bosalita and bit (either a leverage to start or straight to the spade in the old style)
    • Increased responsiveness
    • Advanced tasks and maneuvers
    • Cattle work outside
    • Learning to pick up the bit (which is, remember, actually suspended from the crown and governed by an appropriately adjusted leather curb)
    • Easing into the transition from 3/8" bosalita to the bit for the shortened primary signal
    • Developing self carriage and a top line
    • Increased endurance
    • Refined neck reining
    • The horse noting & responding to the internal state of the rider
    • More complex signals
    • The start of working straight
    • Speed, strength and rhythm
    • Comprehending what the situation requires
    • Beginning to “fill in” as the partnership develops


College and graduate work: the Bridle.

Finally, horse and rider display the confident ability to handle nearly any situation, at any speed, in any direction with efficiency, grace and fluidity. Communication is achieved through complex sets of signals and “filling in” from experience. The horse works straight: in his body and straight up in the bridle. By consistently working toward refinement and honing skills, the progress toward the responsive, moist (soft) mouthed bridle horse is never boring; there is always something new to work on and refine while continuing preservation for the future.

Seldom truly attained today, the post graduate level features the nuances of the spade bit for the bridle horse honed to an art. The relationship between horse and rider is well-developed and continues to grow as long as they are partnered in work. Ideally, the rider considers himself a steward and always offers his best abilities as he and his horse work together. All is from God. The California vaquero style is not as concerned about what the task is so much as how well horse and rider perform together as they do the job. This is the pride and legacy of the legendary Californios.


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