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What are the pros and cons of using a hackamore?
I started using a hackamore when my horse acted unhappy about the bit.
They are controversial pieces of tack, requiring different methods of riding, and they are not necessarily gentler than a bit. Mechanical hackamores, in particular, can be harsh in the wrong hands and are not appropriate for beginner riders.
Would the hackamore suit your horse? Read on and find out.
Table of Contents
- The mechanical and Western hackamore are both bitless but work very differently.
- You should be an experienced rider, comfortable with seat and leg aids since neither is designed for pulling a horse around.
- If used with rough hands, they can cause the horse to become dull and heavy in the bridle.
- Used correctly, they can encourage the horse to become lighter.
The Mechanical Hackamore
The mechanical hackamore has shanks attached to a noseband. The shanks can be long, which makes it a severe piece of equipment, or short, which makes it a little harsher than a sidepull.
This video talks about different kinds of shanks:
The hackamore uses leverage to amplify pressure on the poll, nose, and curb groove. It has a curb chain or strap, acting just like the one on a curb bit.
The width of the noseband also determines the severity. A wider or padded noseband will be gentler than a narrower one.
Unlike a snaffle bridle, the rider should ride with loose reins. Otherwise, the horse will learn to ignore the aids. The rider should release the contact as soon as the horse responds to the gentle pressure of the rein aid.
Pros of the Mechanical Hackamore
The mechanical hackamore gives the rider stronger brakes than other types of bitless bridles, such as crossunders and sidepulls.
They can be used in speed events such as cross-country, showjumping, gymkhanas, barrel racing, and competitive trail riding.
Check our list of the best hackamore for barrel racing.
If you have a strong horse or participate in the above equestrian sports, they are a useful bitless alternative if your horse can’t or won’t accept a bit.
Indeed, some horses prefer hackamores to bits and go much better in the former.
If you are a trail rider or an endurance rider, it’s easier for your horse to eat and drink on the trail with a hackamore than it is with a bit.
Cons of the Mechanical Hackamore
It demands a skilled rider and a well-schooled horse.
While the hackamore provides a strong stopping aid, it doesn’t transmit turning aids very well, so both the rider and the horse need to be educated enough to steer primarily off the seat and leg.
If you ride in it with a heavy hand, the horse will soon become dull to the reins.
Hackamores with long shanks, such as English and German hacks, cause a considerable amount of pressure across the delicate nasal bones. They can injure the horse if you have rough hands.
While they are a good bitless alternative for some horses, they are not necessarily the kinder option. A recent study found little difference in the forces exhibited by a bitted bridle and a mechanical hackamore. (1)
They are also not legal in dressage.
ALSO READ: Horse Bosal vs Hackamore
The Western Hackamore
The western hackamore, or bosal, is a completely different beast. It is mostly used by Western riders, coming from the vaquero tradition. (2)
Nowadays, most people aren’t training bridle horses who will go ‘straight up’ in the spade bit but simply using the bosal as a bitless alternative.
That includes me. I’m not even a Western rider, but I am transitioning my just-backed youngster from the halter to the bosal. I like how soft the bosal can be and how much refinement you can eventually get out of it.
Many Western trainers start green horses in the bosal, then transition to the snaffle (and many others do it the other way around).
It consists of a (usually) rawhide noseband with a rawhide core that hangs loosely around the horse’s face. The reins, called the mecate, attach to the bottom of the noseband.
This point of attachment is called the heel knot. The reins add weight to it, which helps cue the horse,
The horse feels nose pressure, as well as pressure on the sides of his face and where the heel knot makes contact with his chin. But there is no leverage or poll pressure. It works completely on direct pressure.
Check out this paper for diagrams and more detailed explanations of how the parts of the bosal work together. (2)
Trainer Larry Trocha explains how you ride in one:
Used correctly, it can enhance your partnership with your horse, enabling light riding and the subtlest of cues.
Pros of the Western Hackamore
It does not use pain or leverage to control the horse.
In the words of Martin Black, a renowned Western trainer of bridle horses,
“The Spanish type hackamore and bridle are both traditionally designed to operate from feel, not force. When they become a forceful tool, the outcome will be reversed from the original intent.” (4)
Bosals can be fantastic tack for refining your aids, improving your horsemanship, and developing a responsive, educated horse.
Additionally, it comes with an in-built lead rope that’s part of the mecate reins.
As with any bitless bridle, your horse can easily eat or drink in it.
They are useful for developing vertical flexion at the poll and correct head carriage. You can train a horse to flex laterally in a bosal, but it takes good hands and skillful technique. The aid is more of a pulse than a pull.
You can also train a horse-to-neck rein. The weight of the mecate reins gives him a clear signal when combined with the direct pressure on his nose.
Some trainers like starting youngsters in the bosal. There is no risk of injuring the soft, delicate tissues inside the horse’s mouth if they have a ‘baby moment.’
Cons of the Western Hackamore
You can’t ride on a steady contact, as you would with a snaffle bit. If you are used to riding with constant contact, you will have to relearn some riding skills and think about your hands.
The width and weight of the bosal mean that the horse will become dull and numb if you’re in his face all the time. You only take up contact when you want the horse to do something, then release it as soon as he does it.
It’s easy for horses to learn how to run through the bosal or lean on it. Training them to work well in it requires you to be careful and precise.
They aren’t that useful for the English disciplines like dressage or jumping, where steady contact is required and expected.
In my experience (yours may vary), the in-built lead rope can get in the way, especially if you are riding in an English saddle with no horn to loop it around.
There are techniques for looping it in your belt or tying it around your horse’s neck. Regardless of what kind of tack you use, it’s a thing you need to keep track of, otherwise; you or your horse can potentially get tangled in it.
This video shows you how to secure the mecate around your horse’s neck.
Why ride a horse in a hackamore?
Your horse might need a break from the bit or might not like bits for whatever reason. They’re also useful on trail rides so your horse can freely eat or drink.
Can you train a horse in a hackamore?
You train a horse every time you ride. The Western hackamore can be used to train green horses, whereas the mechanical hackamore is better for a fairly educated horse since it does not offer the clearest steering cues.
Can a hackamore break a horse’s nose?
A mechanical hackamore with long shanks, such as the German hackamore, could potentially damage the delicate nasal bones if the rider really hauls on it. The risk is greater if it’s placed too low on the horse’s nose.
As you can see, there are pros and cons to both Western and English hackamores. They are both incredibly useful pieces of tack, but they have their drawbacks as well.
Both are far more effective (and safer) in the hands of experienced riders.
If you want to try one and it’s the right piece of tack for your horse, you can have a lot of fun with it.
The hackamore will tell you the truth about your riding.
1. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Tracy-Bye-4/publication/313847493_A_preliminary_investigation_comparing_rein_tension_between_bitted_and_bitless_bridles/links/58aae741a6fdcc0e079a20bc/A-preliminary-investigation-comparing-rein-tension-between-bitted-and-bitless-bridles.pd
2. Jaquima to Freno: The History & Practice of Traditional Vaquero Horsemanship – J.M. Capriola [Internet]. [cited 2023 Jan 15]. Available from: https://capriolas.com/jaquima-to-freno-the-history-practice-of-traditional-vaquero-horsemanship/
3. Available from: https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/69440/g2864-1975.pdf?sequence=1
4. Black M. Preparing your horse for the Hackamore and Bridle [Internet]. Martin Black Horsemanship. [cited 2023 Jan 15]. Available from: https://martinblack.net/martin-black-articles/preparing-your-horse-for-the-hackamore-and-bridle.html
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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