Solid in the Snaffle

It’s important for your horse to have the basics down before you move on.

Editor's Note: The late Bill Van Norman learned from some of the best cowboys in the business, including his father-in-law Ray Hunt, who also recently passed away. America's Horse Daily is honored to help tell others of their time-honored training techniques

Nothing is hurried in the vaquero tradition of training horses; things take as long as they take.

We like to give our colts time to adjust mentally and physically to being ridden. We typically put about 10 rides on our 2-year-olds in the winter, getting them used to yielding to pressure on the snaffle bit and used to being ridden in general. Then they’re turned out for about six months.

It’s funny, but their new knowledge must really soak in during that time, because they don’t seem to forget anything they’ve learned. When they come back, we start working cattle on them every chance we get. There are just so many opportunities for learning.

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If you’ve got to chase down a cow, your horse has to speed up, then slow down to keep pace. If you’re holding a herd, you’re going to be just sitting on him for a while, and you can practice picking up slowly on one rein – feeling of him, for him and then with him – to get him to give his head. I feel like giving a horse a job is the best way to get him broke.

In the spring of a colt’s 3-year-old year, we’ll start roping a little off of him. You have to be real careful not to get him in a jam or get a rope under his tail. Just like everything else, if you’re slow and are careful not to give the horse a bad experience, he’ll pick it right up. After about 10 calves, he’ll do whatever you want. We’ll keep the horse in a snaffle bit for a couple of years, until he can do just about everything. We expect him to guide, slide and work a cow – everything that is needed from a good ranch horse.

It’s important that he have a good foundation in the snaffle bit, because we’ll be building on that. When the horse is solid in the snaffle, I move him into the hackamore.

Hackamores are a lot like bits; different horses like different types. I like to have anywhere from five to 10 of them around so I can find a good fit, one the horse feels comfortable with. What we call hackamores in buckaroo country are simply rawhide or leather nosebands – not the metal “mechanical” hackamores.

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I like soft kangaroo hide or leather hackamores, personally, because a softer hackamore will give you more feel. A horse will usually be as stiff as the hackamore you put on him.

It’s important to have it fitted correctly. We like our hackamores to fit like a good hat would on the sides, so that when you pick up on the reins, the horse feels it and can respond lightly. In the hackamore, I don’t try to teach the horse any more than what he already knows. It’s just getting him used to a different way of doing things.

If you direct rein with a hackamore, it puts pressure on the opposite of the horse’s face, just like a bridle. He’ll stay in the hackamore for about a year, and we’ll just put some miles on him and help him gain confidence. By then, he’ll be dragging calves to the fire and preparing for his transition into the two-rein bridle.