California Riding Magazine • January, 2008

Ask Charles Wilhelm
Hackamore or snaffle:
It’s not what’s on a horse’s head that matters.

Reader: Can someone offer some insights into some of the various hackamores/bosals or loping bridles that are available? Are any of them suitable for direct reining? Before we got him, our horse had been worked for 30 days on a snaffle to a bit that was too severe. Now he never seems relaxed when he is bitted, but he responds well when my daughter rides him in a hackamore. However, I am not comfortable with the long shanks and would like something in his mouth that, if possible, can be used with direct reining.

Charles: You have mentioned two distinct pieces of equipment. A hackamore is used with a mecate rein and a head piece. A bosal is just a piece of equipment that goes around the nose. It is a separate piece of equipment and it doesn’t include the assembly.

A hackamore includes the assembly which is the hanger and a 23-foot mecate. Back in the old days the mecate was made from horse hair. Nowadays, most people use yacht rope which is a little more comfortable; however the more traditionalists continue to use the mane hair.

The bosal comes in different sizes. Generally, most horses are started in a bosal that is 9/16 in diameter, with a 24-pleat on the nose. It must be flexible and not rigid. You don’t want to use a bosal that is not flexible or has a steel cable core.

A hackamore can also be quite abusive if not used with the right hands, and can have quite a bite to it. It also takes time for a horse to get used to the configuration because it actually works in a rocking motion, front to rear. It also takes a while for a horse to become accustomed to the lateral motion; in other words, when you pick up the left rein, the horse yields to it.

It is good your horse was started with a snaffle bit. Most horses are started working right to left and not front to rear -- we call that plow reining. What you are talking about is direct or indirect reining working with a snaffle bit. As I said, it is called plow reining because you take the right hand and the nose moves right and we ask the horse to follow the nose.

Most of my clients ride their horses in a snaffle bit, which most often is a nice, comfortable piece of equipment. But as you have learned, in the wrong hands it can be a severe piece of equipment.

The snaffle provides a very clear-cut line of communication. The hackamore is not as clear, or as specific in what it is communicating to your horse, so it takes more time for a horse to adjust to it.

The Right Amount of Pressure

Your other concern is related to the long shank on a snaffle mouthpiece. Most shank bits usually work on a three-to-one-ratio, which means they work from front to rear. Any time one pound of pressure is applied, you actually exert three pounds of pressure. The pressure is applied to the horse’s chin (because with a leverage bit a chin strap is used), the bars of the horse’s mouth (which is the gap between the front and the rear teeth) and the leather bridle that goes behind the ears also applies pressure.

The significant point is the distance from the mouthpiece to the center of the ring which is attached to the head gear. The shorter the distance, the less leverage. The farther the distance, the more leverage. Most are one inch to one and one half inches. If you have more than an inch and a half, say two inches, you add quite a bit more leverage. It works from front to rear; a totally different configuration from a snaffle.

If your horse has just started working in a leverage bit, he is most likely nervous because he hasn’t learned to accept it, be comfortable with it and your hands have not been trained to use it. It is not necessarily a harsh piece of equipment, but it is not what’s on the horse’s head that is going to control the horse, it is what we do with our hands. A hackamore can be a nice gentle piece of equipment.

You also mentioned a loping hackamore. This type has a more lateral direction to it. With a hackamore everything comes from the center, just below the chin. With a loping hackamore the rope that goes from right to left and is farther up on the cheek piece. This gives you more directional control.

Either type of hackamore would be fine if you are comfortable with it, and the horse is listening to it, stopping with it and you understand how to use it. A snaffle is also a nice piece of equipment. With either one, you have to learn how to use it.

The key is to release the rein when the horse performs the desired action. If you are backing the horse and he backs up his feet, then you release. When you ask the horse to go left and he gives his head to the left, then you release. If you continue pulling, then you are going to confuse the horse. If you are hanging on to the horse or you release when he is stiff or non responsive, you will end up with a stiff and non-responsive horse.

I hope that helps you and the best of luck. If you have any other questions, please visit me online at

God Bless,

Charles Wilhelm
It’s Never Ever the Horse’s Fault