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.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

You know what they say about opinions. . .

There are so many wonderful things that I have learned about horsemanship since beginning to follow the vaquero tradition.  It’s been an awakening of sorts for me and has effected each and every thing that I do with my horses and my patients.  Every once in a while you come across something so profound and life altering that it changes the way you look at almost every single thing in your life.  My horsemanship journey has been that for me.  It’s a wonderful, uplifting, challenging and rewarding experience.
The downside is that you also become aware of all the things that people do to their horses each and every day that go against the grain of everything that you now hold dear.  Ignorance is truly bliss.  Sometimes I wish I could go back to my days of riding in a dropped noseband with draw reins on a Pelham bit.  I thought I was so terribly advanced at that point and had properly mastered all these great additions to my tack room.  I knew just how to use every gadget, tie-down, martingale and assorted training aid that I had at my disposal.  “Tricks of the trade” so to speak. 

Now I know that there are no tricks.  Fast fixes don’t exist.  Every single thing that we do with our horses either builds or destroys the relationship that we are trying to create.  Every single interaction with your horse is meaningful.  This is both a very lovely thought and a terribly heavy burden.  What if you are tired, and in a hurry or your mind is somewhere else, or (gasp) you are on the phone while you are handling your horse?  What if this time you let him yank the lead rope out of your hand or walk off while mounting or toss his head during bridling?  What if you just don’t have time to fix it today? 

What it means is that you will have to work twice as hard to fix it tomorrow and three times as hard if you wait until next week.  

Like a reformed smoker, or born again religious zealot I find myself harshly judgmental of my friends and clients.  I’m not trying to be, honestly.  It’s just that I believe I have found a better way for the horse and it is so hard for me to watch horses that I don’t think are getting a fair deal because they ALL deserve a fair deal.  My friends know that I am pretty vociferous about my opinions.  I will tell people what I feel most of the time.  So, I find myself biting my tongue so much more than I used to because I can’t blame folks for not knowing.  It hasn't been that long since I didn't know any better myself.  Like any new convert, I'm sure that fire will fade with time until I can smile benignly at folks and help them to the best of my ability.  I'm working hard on that. 

When I first started on this journey I was very frustrated with the lack of information available.  How come I can’t just go to one web page or join some trainer’s special member’s only group and get a box set of DVD’s so I could learn this more quickly?  That’s how this horsemanship thing is done nowadays. I am a member of the generation of instant gratification! I understand now why it isn't that way with this style of riding and training.  There are  instructors out there if you go and look. Like the guru on the mountaintop they know that if you are willing to go the extra mile to find the answer, you may just be worthy of that answer.   You have to want it and you have to be willing to learn it slowly and by feel so that you can develop your feel and relationship with your horse.  You also have to buck today’s standards.  You aren't going to fit in with the trends in the show pen, any show pen, (with the possible exception of Cowboy Dressage) if you decide to ride this path.  Your horse isn't going to be completely broke in 60 easy step by step days.  You aren't going to play games with your horse and you aren't going to lope him until he begs you not to lope another step.  You aren't going to jab him in the ribs with each stride to make him wait on you for each command.  You aren't going to have to buy any signature tack.  You aren't going to win any futurities.

You can see why it isn't stylish in this day and age. 

Here is what you are going to do if you seek to better your horsemanship and riding skill through learning and understanding the traditions of the old vaqueros and the lessons of classical horsemanship.  You are going to learn to have a respect, dare I say reverence for the horse.  In this day and age of demanding respect from the horse, few are remembering to give that respect right back to the horse.  It needs to be a two way street.

You are going to learn to take things as slowly as is needed for the horse to learn and understand what is asked of it.  This means allowing a horse’s mind and body to mature before asking it to work like an adult horse.  This means allowing the horse the time and freedom to learn to search out the answer.  It means that 30 days doesn't equal a level of training, but is nothing more than a benchmark for how much time it took you to get to wherever you are today. 

You are going to learn to give your horse a job.  Horses are contextual learners.  They understand lessons best when they are paired with a job that they understand.  Make your horse’s training periods relative to a job that they understand and they will learn much faster. 

You are going to learn to communicate more effectively with your horse. If your horse isn't understanding what you are asking, more pressure is not the answer.  Is the horse ignoring your leg, or your hands?  A bigger bit of larger spur isn't the solution.  The problem is in your poor timing and feel. 

I could go on and on but quite frankly it’s just depressing.  It reminds me of a conversation that Buster McLaury related that Ray Hunt once had with a fellow that had recently been at one of Ray’s clinics.  The gentleman was full of the excitement and conviction of the newly converted.  He was enamored of Ray and all he could get done with a horse with no fight, no gimmicks and no rodeo.  He passionately told Ray that he believed that this information, once it got out to all the people, would completely revolutionize the horse industry.  Everybody out there would want to be part of this and change how they were with their horse.  Ray just as adamantly said, no sir, it won’t.  The gentleman was confused and asked Ray what he meant.  He answered that the problem with changing the way people interact with horses is that it’s the people that have to change, not the horse, and he didn't believe that would ever happen.   He was right. At least as far as mainstream horsemanship is concerned.  

I want to help people to find out if this way of being with their horses is what is best for them and their horse. I'm very happy to converse at length about the ins and outs of the bosal and how to use it effectively for softness and collection and why a spade bit isn't the torture device it's made out to be.  But,  I find myself frustrated when asked my opinion on a gag bit or if this two year old's knees are closed enough to start.  I am in a unique position as an equine professional in that I  find myself asked opinions on horsemanship and training as part of my veterinary examinations.  I can guarantee my answer isn't always going to be what you want to hear and it is likely to be the exact opposite of what your trainer told you.  I have to be careful to state my opinions in a way that differentiates between medical advice and horsemanship advice, because like in our schools, horsemanship training theologies and cold hard science don't mix very well.  It makes it very difficult for me when I am asked to preform procedures or administer treatments that I believe fly in the face of the horse's welfare.  Especially when other veterinarians will happily do it without hesitation.  

I am in it for the horse.  From sun up to sun down, my husband and I eat, sleep and breath horses. (that sounds terrible, we don't eat horses, but you get my meaning, I'm sure.  Don't want to feed that rumor mill!)   We care for them from conception to the grave making their health and welfare our primary concern.  When I see practices that I believe to go against the overall welfare of the horse it's next to impossible for me to shut up about it.  But I do.  More often than you know.  So, just remember when you ask my opinion I'm likely to tell you exactly what I think.  Be sure you are ready for that.