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Handy hackamores: Bitless bridles fill a gap

by Rebecca Colnar, Article donated by the mane points horse resource center.

Hackamores, loosely described as bitless bridles, provide an alternative to snaffle and curb bit bridles.

"The hackamore is the oldest form of horse control," notes Pony Club instructor Susan Harris. "It works on pressure points on the horse's nose, chin and face." Possibly the truest form of hackamore is the bosal, simply a braided rawhide device that goes around the nose, ending in a heel knot under the chin.

"The bosal has to hang just right, because you want to use touch and release to stop the horse," explains Harris. "You certainly don't want to ever pull really hard on the reins of a hackamore bridle, because your horse will very quickly learn to run away from the pressure, and you'll have undone all your hackamore training. But if a horse

is light and sensitive and trained to a hackamore, a bosal can be used very handily."

Picture of rider and horse grazing

The bosal should be placed in the spot where the nasal bone ends and the cartilage begins, easily felt by running your hand down your horse's nose. The heel knot should hang away from the chin. Bosals are available in rawhide and cable. Although the cable may be cheaper, the rawhide can change to fit the shape of your horse's nose better.

Many endurance and pleasure riders are using rope halter hackamores which have knots placed in exactly the right place to contact the sensitive spots on the horse's face. "These work just fine when used with touch-and-release riding," says the Cortland, N.Y., instructor.

Another choice is the side-pull hackamore, which is a rope and leather noseband that has rings for reins on the side. "This is useful for starting colts, because it's very easy to turn their heads left or right. When you pull back, the noseband and chin strap tighten up just a little. It's also useful if you have a horse that has not had hackamore training," Harris says. "The English-jumping hackamore is a similar bridle. It looks a lot like an English bridle, except that it has no bit."

Side pull bridles should be slightly above the cartilage spot; definitely not below, Harris explains. "If you put a hackamore on too low, it will irritate, and the horse will toss its head about."

Both the bosal and the side-pull are good for beginning riders, or fill the bill if the horse has had mouth problems and can't use a bit for a while. "But you still need to ride them with a light touch," Harris stresses. The mechanical, or leverage hackamore is another bitless device. It puts pressure on the nose and under the chin. Generally it has a noseband, curb strap, and a ring for the bridle and shanks.

"Keep in mind that the mechanical hackamore acts somewhat like a curb bit," says Harris, who adds that a noseband that is thick, soft and flat will be more comfortable and easier on your horse.

The mechanical hackamore should be placed higher on the face than a bosal, between the cartilage spot and where an English noseband would rest.

"When you pull back with a mechanical hackamore, the curb strap should be adjusted so the shanks rotate 45 degrees. A good rule of thumb is you should be able to put two fingers between the chin strap and the chin," the instructor says.

The worst hackamore currently available is one that encircles the horse's entire nose with metal.

"The manufacturers promote these as 'easy stop,' but they certainly aren't easy on the horse. They're extremely severe, and should be avoided," she cautions.

Harris strongly advises that before you just "slap on a hackamore, make sure your horse is used to it. It's important to do some groundwork and make sure the animal knows how to give its head. I'd advise first walking beside the horse to make sure it understands, then first trying the bridle in a round pen or small, safe enclosure."

Generally, endurance riders like the hackamore because the horse can easily eat and drink with the bridle on. Speed-event participants like it because it gives the horse a free head. It's also a good alternative for horses with sensitive mouths.

"If you're a pleasure rider and your horse is happy and works well with a hackamore, there's no need to use anything else," Harris concludes.

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