Have you ever wondered how to use a hackamore?
I did when my four-year-old horse started objecting to carrying a snaffle bit.
Horses’ teeth go through a lot of changes between four and five years old, which can make biting uncomfortable for them.
Not every hackamore will be suited for every horse, or for every purpose, but let’s talk about how you can use this type of bridle…
Table of Contents
- Western hackamores and mechanical hackamores are very different pieces of tack.
- The Western hackamore uses direct contact, while the mechanical hackamore has leverage action.
- Both require plenty of time and skill to train, and neither suits a rider with heavy hands.
- They can help some horses, and, with careful riding, they offer a useful bitless alternative.
READ MORE: Loping Hackamore vs Bosal
Western vs. Mechanical Hackamores
Wondering about how to use a hackamore? Here’s what you need to know…
First of all, you will need to decide which type of hackamore is appropriate for your horse. I did an in-depth article describing the ones you’re most likely to encounter, which you can read on Horsevills.
Also, training your youngster in a bitless bridle is one way to continue their education while giving their mouth a break.
The Western hackamore and the mechanical hackamore have very little in common, besides being bitless. They act on the horse’s face in different ways.
The Western hackamore, or bosal, consists of a teardrop-shaped braided rawhide noseband and heavy mecate reins. It puts direct pressure on the horse’s nose and jaw.
Using the mecate and the bosal requires different techniques than riding with a snaffle bit, so riders who want to try this piece of equipment will have a learning curve.
The mechanical hackamore has a noseband that can be made out of a range of materials, from a hard rope to soft leather padding or sheepskin, and either a curb strap or a curb chain.
It has metal shanks, which work like a curb bit, applying indirect pressure on the horse’s nose, poll, and chin groove. This makes it a leverage device.
RELATED: How to Fit a Hackamore
Using the Western Hackamore
First, watch this video from trainer Larry Trocha explaining how he introduces the hackamore to a young horse.
As you can see, he does not use constant pressure. That would only encourage the horse to pull against you.
The University of Missouri’s equine program explains, “A hackamore, like a bridle, has a “direct rein” and a “bearing rein.”
Using both reins, the rider must teach the horse to respond to three different pressures. One of these is direct pressure on the nose and chin caused by an even pull on both reins.
The second is a lateral pressure applied to the nose by the direct rein. And the third pressure is the bearing rein against the neck.” (1)
These pressures should be taught individually. Expert hackamore trainers Al Dunning and Benny Guitron recommend that you start on the ground, first standing still, then on the lunge line.
Ask your horse to soften laterally by using an opening rein and bumping his nose while keeping your fingers soft. The moment he flexes his head and neck, immediately give the rein.
Then ask him to soften vertically by bringing both reins backward, either together or individually, but using the same bumping motions.
Again, when the horse drops his nose and puts his head roughly on the vertical, you soften.
When you are on board, you begin with exercises to encourage softness and flexion. Al Dunning advises, “Using the soft open fingers previously described, start moving your horse forward at a walk.
Follow the sequence of closing your grip, sliding your hand down the rein, and finally engaging the hackamore to communicate the desired lateral flexion to your horse and shape him on the circle.”
When the horse can maintain the lateral bend in walking without taking away the slack, he’s ready to progress to trot and canter.
Trainers will also teach the green hackamore horse to double – that means following the rider’s feet in a tight turn while breaking over with his hindquarters.
This teaches flexion at the poll, a shifting of the weight to the hindquarters, and it’s also your emergency brakes.
Here’s video a from Al Dunning explaining doubling:
Dunning emphasizes the importance of taking your time in the early stages of training.
It’s a lot of walking, which may seem slow and boring, but it is critical to developing the hackamore horse. “If your horse learns he can escape you in the hackamore, he never unlearns that.” (2)
As the horse advances in his hackamore training, you will teach him to neck rein by combining the type of direct reining I discussed above with laying the opposite rein against the side of his neck.
If he is light and responsive on the direct rein, he should pick up neck reining easily.
With the correct basics, the Western hackamore horse can go on to be a working cow horse, a reining horse, a safe and happy trail horse, or continue on with his bridle horse development.
Get a balanced perspective on the pros and cons of using a hackamore for horse riding in our informative article!
Using the Mechanical Hackamore
To reiterate what I’ve said, this is a leverage device. It puts pressure on the nose, poll, and chin, which can be magnified by long shanks, narrow nosebands, and curb chains.
A hackamore with wheel shanks, a padded noseband, and a padded chin strap will be a mild bridle, while one with a rope noseband, 20cm shanks, and a curb chain will be very severe.
The amount of nose pressure could interfere with the horse’s breathing and damage its nose cartilage if used harshly and wrongly placed.
They are not ‘gentle’ options unless you have soft hands.
Nonetheless, there may be good reasons for using one, like riding in speed events such as barrel racing or show jumping with a horse who objects to bits or can’t wear a bit.
Trainer Bernie Traurig shows the correct placement of the hackamore and explains why they can be useful.
I use an academic or baroque mechanical hackamore on my Highland because he gets stressed by bits, but I occasionally need a little more control than a bosal or sidepull can offer.
With the mechanical hack, you ride with your hands more or less in the position that you would have them in a bitted bridle, but you always keep slack in the rein when the horse is going in the right direction.
They are not designed for constant contacts, like a snaffle bit.
You only engage the rein when you want the horse to stop or turn. It takes a little direct contact, but you must release immediately or the horse will easily lean on the rein or ignore it.
Some of the milder types, like baroque, flower, or pinwheel hackamores, are soft enough to allow you to encourage the horse into an outline, but if your hands are too heavy, the horse will become dull and heavier.
Therefore, he has to maintain it himself on a loose rein, more like a Western-trained horse, rather than relying on firm contact to hold himself together.
You see this with many English-trained horses using snaffles.
CHECK: Best English Hackamore Bridle
1. Can Mechanical hacks be used on green horses?
Mechanical hacks should not be used on green horses, since the horse should be fully trained in responding to seat and leg aids before being ridden in one.
2. Is a hackamore harsh?
Yes, they can be.
Mechanical hackamores, especially those with long shanks, have the potential to be quite harsh in inexperienced hands.
Now that you know the answer to how to use a hackamore, let me wrap it all up:
Using both Western and mechanical hackamores requires a skilled, tactful rider.
The facial nerves on the horse can be as sensitive as the mouth, so the wrong hands on a hackamore, a bitless bridle, are no better than the wrong hands on a bit.
However, some horses (like mine) prefer the hackamore over the bit. In his case, it improves the communication between the horse and rider because he is not worried by a bit.
The Western hackamore is milder than the mechanical hackamore, but it takes a skillful rider to train up a horse in one.
If you have the hands, seat, and knowledge to do it, you can develop a beautifully light, responsive horse.
“I prefer to start a horse in the hackamore, rather than a snaffle bit because it protects the horse’s mouth as its teeth are changing, and the horse is learning to accept a rider and move its feet.” (3)
1. Bradley M. Pre-Bit Hackamore Training [Internet]. extension.missouri.edu. [cited 2023 Jan 10]. Available from: https://extension.missouri.edu/publications/g2864
2. Denison J. Training with a Hackamore [Internet]. Western Horseman. 2019 [cited 2023 Jan 10]. Available from: https://westernhorseman.com/horsemanship/how-to/training-with-a-hackamore/
Emily is a native of Colorado, currently living in Glasgow, Scotland, working as a freelance writer. She is a long-time horsewoman, having started riding at the age of 6, then competing in dressage around Colorado and Massachusetts, where she finished her undergraduate degree in psychology.
Following a move to the UK and a PhD, she worked for a few years as a freelance horse trainer in Central Scotland. She’s interested in holistic horsemanship, fostering better communication and understanding between horses and humans, riding with lightness and softness, and she’s forever seeking out the newest research into equine behavior and psychology. When not writing, she can be found at the barn with her two equine partners, Foinavon, an ex-feral Highland pony, and Hermosa, a young Andalusian.
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