Sunday, February 23, 2014

Understanding the traditional spade bit

The one thing about the vaquero tradition that is a stumbling block for many people that take the time to investigate it is the use of the spade bit.  To the uninitiated the large and imposing spade bit looks like a torture device.   I blame this misconception entirely on western movies.

We've all seen the John Wayne movie where the cowboy comes galloping into town then wrenches his horse to a dramatic stop in front of the saloon.  The horse's mouth is gaping open and he's flinging his head around.  Or how about when the cowboy whirls after a particularly scathing confrontation and yanks his horse's head almost upside down?  That makes most horse folk in the audience cringe.    When that is your idea of an old time cowboy, you can't image somebody hauling away on a great big bit in their horse's mouth. How barbaric those old cowboys must have been! Not enlightened like the horseman of today! It's hard to comprehend how anybody could do that to a horse.

In our fast paced world today when 3 year olds are loping around in show pens like Grandma's broke pony, the preparation and slow process required to create a bridle horse is also hard to comprehend.

The spade bit is the crowning glory of the Vaquero's bridle horse.  He is carefully brought along over a period of several years (maybe even 3-5 years) to wear that large and imposing, yet beautifully crafted metal accessory so that by the time he does wear it, there is no yanking, pulling or otherwise reefing on your horse's mouth.

The spade bit is a signal bit.  It is designed to be carried by the horse, not worn, so that it lies on the tongue like a lozenge.  The copper wraps on the braces and the copper roller (cricket) all encourage the horse to actively carry that bit on a soft and supple tongue. The bit is rigged to a weighted set of rommel reins that are attached to the shanks of the bit by a set of rein chains.  This configuration allows for even minimal lifting or shifting of those reins to be transferred down to the spade bit in minuscule movements that the horse has been prepared to receive.  The first signal to the horse is when the spoon of the bit lifts off of the tongue (a movement of fractions of a millimeter) if the horse fails to respond to this signal, the following cue would be palette pressure of the spoon.  Because the leather (never chain) chin strap is adjusted much tighter than your average leverage bit, there is not much rock allowed on the spade bit and pressure that would force a horse's mouth open or drive that spoon into the pallet are prevented in such a way.

Much the opposite from the over exaggerated cues showcased in old western movies, the Vaquero of old prides himself on the inability of the observer to see the cues being given to the horse.
Ideally you want the level of communication between horse and rider to be so refined that the horse almost seems to respond from mere thought processes of the rider.

Obviously this takes a long time to cultivate.  On first impression this might appear to the novice as even more reason for such a large and imposing piece of equipment on such a finely tuned horse to seem like overkill.  After all, we have all watched Stacy Westfall's gorgeous reining pattern performed bareback and bridleless.   Shouldn't the bit become unnecessary in a properly trained horse?

Not to impinge Stacey's training or riding skills, I have the utmost respect for her, but the goal of a Vaquero is much, much different than performing a routine to music in an arena setting.  All well trained show horses should be able to perform adequately without a bridle if they have been well schooled in their job.  Texaco, Trevor Brazil's amazing calf roping horse, can perform out of the box equally well whether bridled or not.  There are impressive jumpers and dressage horses able to execute advanced maneuvers bridleless.  There are drill teams that execute complicated maneuvers bridleless.

Riding without a bridle is not the goal of a traditional Vaquero.  The spade bit is a badge of honor for the horse that has advanced in his training far enough to be awarded the trust to ride straight up in the bridle.  To be able to work with the finesse and deliberate intricacy showcased by the traditional bridle horse is a feat of training and communication with a fair bit of talent and ability on the horse's side.  Not all horses started in the hackamore and advanced into the two rein will become bridle horses.  Some just don't cut the mustard and remain an accomplished hackamore horse without ever moving beyond.  A true Vaquero doesn't allow the horse to be put in a position where failure is the only option.

The Vaquero bridle horse is not an arena horse, traditionally.  Not that a well trained bridle horse shouldn't be quite capable of performing dry work in an arena, but their end goal is to work cattle and to work cattle at the direction of the rider.  Unlike the Texas style of working cattle where the importance is placed on the cutter who will work the cattle on his own merit, the Vaquero prizes the horse that works in concert with the rider.  So cues, rapidly and quietly conveyed are the end goal.  While a Vaquero tries to keep the pace of working cattle quiet and calm, unpredictability is the rule not the exception when livestock are involved.  If things get a little "western" and the horse isn't able to respond to the slightest cue without a harder pull on that spade bit, the horse isn't ready and will continue to be worked in the hackamore or two rein set-up until he his.  Some Vaqueros choose to only bridle their horses when they know the work is intricate, yet controlled, and save the hackamore for work that is likely to be more fast paced with inadvertent rein pressure a possibility in the heat of the moment.  It all depends on the horse and the rider and the work to be done for the day.

The spade bit isn't the only traditional bit used by the Vaqueros.  Horses are individuals and they don't all respond the same way to the same bit.  A bit that may be perfectly balanced and fitted for one horse may be unsuited to that horse's stablemate.  For the aspiring Vaquero this is a challenge as finding just the right bit for your horse has much more to do with your horse's tastes than your own and it takes the hanging of several bits in your horse's mouth to find the one that he carries most comfortably.  Not a encouraging thought when each bit is such a finely wrought piece of working craftsmanship that you cannot simply go the tack store and pick one up.

Here are few of the other bits that maybe used by the Vaquero of both yesterday and today.

The Mona Lisa mouthpiece
 The half breed mouth piece

A properly balanced spade bit with rein chains and braided rawhide rommels is the ultimate in intricate communication between horse and rider.  The traditional Vaqueros communicated almost solely through this rein system disdaining use of the leg aids making immediate response to the bit of the utmost importance.  That is why anybody can learn to ride with out reins.  It is the accomplished Vaquero that learns to properly ride WITH them.  A crayon may get the job done when writing a letter, but isn't a calligraphy pen more elegant?

So, obviously the spade bit isn't the appropriate choice for the vast majority of horse and rider combinations out there today, but understanding the spade bit and the horseman that uses it will prevent you from unduly insulting what is likely to be a very accomplished horseman.  Good horsemanship speaks as loudly for itself as bad horsemanship and it is up the discerning horseman to ferret out the difference for themselves.


  1. Thank you so much for explaining the spade bit in a language that is easily understandable. I have often wondered what it's purpose was and with so many different bits out there, was overwhelmed by it all. Now I understand :)

  2. I'm looking for the exact bit above with the Mona Lisa mouth- do you know who this bit is made by?

  3. I'm looking for the exact bit above with the Mona Lisa mouth- do you know who this bit is made by?