Monday, October 7, 2013

The Bosal

I get lots of questions about why I'm riding my horse in a bosal.  Many assume that I am interested in going "bitless" and confuse the bosal with other more modern styles of bitless bridles including the mechanical hackamore and the side pull.  This could not be farther from the truth.  When I tell people that I am attempting to prepare my horse to one day be a bridle horse that carries a spade bit they look at me like I am woefully confused.

So, I thought I should maybe go into a little more detail about the purpose and use of the traditional bosal as there is much misunderstanding regarding what is a very simple and traditional piece of equipment.

I've already spoken a little about the difference between signal and cue and how it is important in preparing a bridle horse. The bosal allows us to train  a horse that responds to signal instead of cue.  Before the snaffle was introduced to the traditional vaqueros the horses were all started in a rawhide braided bosal.  There were many thickness and stiffness available and selection of what type of bosal you placed your horse in was often a matter of personal preference for the rider, sensitivity of the horse, and where the horse was in his stage of training.  To generalize, a young horse is usually started in a thicker and stiffer bosal that measures 3/4 or 5/8" in thickness.  It may have as it's core either rawhide, latigo or in extreme cases wrapped wire, though that is much more rare.  The reason for starting a young horse in a fairly stiff and thick bosal is that it provides a very clear  definition between signal and cue.

One of the things that I love about the theory of starting a young horse in a bosal and "saving" the sensitivity in his mouth for the spade bit is that young horses have A LOT of stuff going on in their mouth.  Young adult teeth are very sharp when they are first in wear.  Caps are often retained and difficult to shed.  It's not hard to imagine that asking a young horse who's mouth is busy going through a lot of sometimes very uncomfortable changes to accept a hunk of cold steel as well can be a difficult thing to do.  Of course in this day and age we routinely float a young horse's teeth to help remedy that problem, but still, it's nice to think that you can leave their poor mouth alone completely until they are done going through all those changes.

There are many misunderstandings in the use of the bosal, but the probably the most common is the fit.  You can't just take a bosal off the shelf (even a very expensive well made one) and just put in on your horse.  A new bosal is shaped roughly like an inverted dew drop.  It's braided in a straight line then bent around and joined in a heel knot.  If you've ever looked closely at a horse's nose that's not at all what they are shaped like.  In order for a bosal to provide a clear and concise signal to your horse it needs to fit all the way around your horse's nose, like a hat fits around your head.

These are new unshaped bosals.

Here is a great shot of a bosal fitting like a glove         

A poorly fitted bosal.Here is what your bosal should NOT fit like

Notice in the poorly fit bosal there is only one point of contact at the bridge of the nose.  This horse will become very sore and have rub spots on the top of his nose which is a very common complaint for the uninitiated that give the bosal a try.  When your bosal fits your horse properly, there is very little to no abrading of the skin.
 This is a bosal shaping block. In general the bosal needs to be narrowed at the nose and widened at the cheek pieces.

When the bosal is properly fitted it rides about two fingers width down from the facial crest.  The bones of the horse's nose are easily felt and you can feel when that junctions to cartilage in the horse's nose.  You want your bosal on the bones, not the cartilage as that is soft and fragile and you can damage a horse by improperly placing the bosal.

Another thing that can take some practice when you first begin to learn to ride in a bosal is that it works much differently than a snaffle bit.  Because it is a signal device rather than a cue device, pulling doesn't work, especially if you are pulling with both hands at the same time. You can't hang on a bosal, and if your hands are constantly bumping and balancing on your horse, he will soon learn to ignore any pressure on the bosal.  So, developing a sense of feel and timing when riding in a bosal is very important.

A good example of this difference is in teaching lateral flexion.  Many who teach lateral flexion in a snaffle bit recommend that you pick up tension on the bit and hold it in a fixed position until the horse gives to that pressure.  The release of the pressure is the reward for the give and you build on that concept.  In a bosal you teach lateral flexion by gentle bumping on the bosal off to the side until the horse give just a little bit and that is his reward.  You can use the same techniques in a snaffle and honestly I think learning how to signal a horse in a bosal improves your feel and timing in a snaffle as well.

If you have an older horse that you would like to attempt to ride in the bosal I highly recommend that you get excellent lightness and response in your halter work first.  A halter can loosely work like a bosal in that the horse gives to both direct and indirect pressure.  If your horse tends to lean on his halter and not respond to the lightest touch, he will do the same thing in a bosal.

I need to mention that I am by no means an expert on the use of the bosal.  I am learning as I go and have much yet to learn.  This journey has been an experiment that I undertook as part of the challenge of learning the tradition of training used by the old vaqueros for building a bridle horse.  I have used the bosal to advance my green horse that was started in a snaffle, retrain my older gelding that has been ridden in all types of bits including correction bits and start my young two year old.  There is a very steep learning curve involved but it is incredibly rewarding to build lightness in your horse in the bosal.  All of my horses have responded very well and my 2 year old will be the first horse that never feels the iron of the bit until he is ready for the two rein.

I challenge anyone interested in improving their feel and timing to experiment with riding in a bosal.  I believe that the horse enjoys the break from a bit and it allows you to work on different aspects of your training as well as improve your feel and timing.  It is a valuable tool for any stage of your horse's training and there is nothing better for a leisurely trail ride.  If your horse isn't soft in a bosal, how soft are they really?


  1. very interesting good information (so much to learn) Thank You

  2. "In a bosal you teach lateral flexion by gentle bumping on the bosal off to the side until the horse give just a little bit and that is his reward" could you explain this sentence more please? What do you mean by bumping? Also how do you know when your hands are light enough to use and not abuse a bosal?

    1. Jim's comment below is good, but let me just elaborate a bit. For me the comparison to other methods of flexion commonly taught in various natural horsemanship program is the most helpful to understanding the difference. In a typical natural horsemanship program you hold steady pressure without releasing until the horse gives and then you give them a big release. Steady pressure in a bosal doesn't work as well as more active pressure, small bumps and slacks. I think of it as just putting energy in the rein. So, for example, in teaching my 2 year old to follow the feel and flex laterally I picked up on the rein with gentle pressure pulling out to the side with a wide hand. Of course that meant little to him and he ignored it. I sent energy down the rein by making small bumps waiting for him to give just a little. In a green horse I would keep that up until he searched out the answer. In a horse I believed knew that answer and wasn't listening I would firm up on the pressure in those bumps pretty quickly. The idea is to ask lightly by just taking the slack out of the rein and asking the horse to come to you then making it uncomfortable for them if they don't, A steady pull in a hackamore isn't very uncomfortable for them but an active rein is.

      It's pretty hard to abuse a horse in a bosal. Not like you can with a bit. The worst you can do is be ineffective and create a horse that ignores the cue. My advice is just to play with it. Try to get your horse to respond to the very lightest of cues and then increase pressure until he does. If you find yourself hauling around on your horse just pulling you've missed the release and have failed to create the response in the horse that you desire. You really just need to feel your way through this and starting with a broke horse and putting them into a bosal is the best way to experiment with your timing and feel. Just make sure it fits your horse well as you are experimenting.

  3. Since he hasn't answered you, let me see if I can help. By bumping, imagine your forefinger's movement when you use it to ask someone to come near you. Your hand is upside down and your finger is pointed up, and you are bringing your fingertip repeatedly toward yourself. Now, turn your hand back down and do that same motion with your little finger on an imaginary split rein. It's a quick bump and release. Horses learn from the release of pressure, not the pressure itself. Get them coming to you an inch at a time first, and they will get used to saying yes and they will come to you much easier and sooner than you think. As for not pulling hard on mecate', straight back with both hands, the horse may respond as it would when pulling back when tied. It's called opposition reflex. They feel trapped by being hard-tied and go into flight mode.

    Soft hands = Soft horses.

    Jim Dawson

  4. I'm interested to know where to get adjustments made to a bought bosal?

  5. Can you tell me where you got the bosal shaping block? Right now am using a 2 by 4 and tied tight with leather.