What is a Hackamore Bridle? [Types and Purposes]

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What is a hackamore bridle? The word refers to two very different types of bridles, and the only thing they have in common is that they are both bitless.

The mechanical hackamore has shanks attached to the noseband and essentially acts like a curb bit, but without the bit. It exerts indirect pressure on the nose, poll, and chin groove.

The Western hackamore, or bosal, is a thick rigid noseband, usually made out of rawhide, with reins attached to the bottom, just under the horse’s chin. It doesn’t provide any leverage and works under direct pressure.

Read on to learn about these bitless bridles.

Mechanical Hackamores

The first thing that I will emphasize about mechanical hackamores is that they are potentially one of the most severe types of bitless bridles you can buy.

To ride in them, you need light, gentle hands.

The shanks act on the nose, poll, and chin groove. Because it’s a leverage bridle, the levels of pressure will be magnified. How much is determined by the length and shape of the shanks?

You should not ride with it on constant contact, as you would with a snaffle bit or a bitless bridle like a sidepull.

Mechanical hackamores will release pressure instantly, which is why they are useful training aids in the right hands, but the horse should be ridden on a loose rein unless you need to engage the bridle.

Researchers studying horses’ responses to various types of bridles say, “However, lateral communication for turning and steering is limited in hackamore bridles (Cook and Strasser, 2003) without supplemental training to teach the horse to respond to an indirect or neck rein.” (1)

In other words, they should be used by a skilled rider on a well-educated horse who understands neck reining or the seat and leg steering aids. If you’re using one of these, your reins should not be your primary steering aid.

They are popular amongst riders who have strong horses, trail riders and endurance riders who don’t use a contact all the time, and people who ride in speed events, like jumping or barrel racing.

Not every horse likes or accepts a bit, so a hackamore is a good option in situations where the horse might get excitable and you need the extra control.

Nonetheless, some hackamore for horses are much harsher and less versatile than others.

Watch these two videos and keep reading to learn about different kinds of shanks and how mechanical hackamore works:

Classic (English or German) Hackamore

These are one of the most severe hackamores you can use because they have long shanks, which range from slightly curved to almost straight.

The English hackamore is the milder of the two. It has flat shanks, a leather curb strap or chain, and a wide leather or sheepskin noseband.

The German hackamore has a rubber-covered chain noseband, thin, straight shanks up to 20cm long, and a curb chain.

Both these bridles exert large amounts of leverage on the nose and curb groove. They are not for beginners. Nor should they be used on green horses because they won’t help the horse learn softness or lateral flexion.

The shanks will dig into the horses’ faces if you try to direct rein, so they are most effective (and at their least harmful) when used on horses who know how to neck rein.

Academic or Music Hackamore

This is a mid-length shank, about 14cm long, shaped a little like a treble clef, hence the name.

Because of the curved shanks, it is milder than the English or German hackamores but works on the same principles. It has a well-padded noseband and a leather chin strap.

The shape of the shank allows for slight movement before it puts nose pressure on your horse, so your horse knows he’s been cued and can respond quickly, to a light aid.

They also don’t twist into the horse’s face like the shanks on an English hackamore.

My Highland pony, who isn’t a great fan of bits, uses one of these when we go on trail rides. Neither of us is Western-trained, so it allows for a bit of direct reining, but you still need to ride on a loose rein most of the time and primarily rely on seat and leg aids.

CHECK: Best Bitless Bridle English

Love Hackamore

Short, curved shanks, around 10cm long. It’s similar in its function to the music hackamore, but with less leverage. 

This is a very gentle hackamore.

Flower, star, or Wheel Hackamore

Probably the gentlest mechanical hackamore you can buy (2). The shanks are in the shape of a wheel or a flower and they have multiple points for attaching the reins, which alter the amount of leverage you can exert on your horse.

Because the shanks are not long, 12 cm at most (wheels and stars offer up to circa 4cm), they apply significantly less pressure than the other types of hackamores I’ve mentioned.

On the mildest setting, the bridle works like a sidepull more than a hackamore. There is virtually no leverage at all.

Little S hackamore

It has narrow metal shanks in the shape of an “S” and comes with either a waxed rope noseband, a leather noseband, or a biothane noseband.

They are more prevalent amongst Western riders, but, like the baroque-style hackamores, they are relatively mild due to their curved shanks.

Here’s a video describing how it works and how riders use them.

Western Hackamore/Bosal

Though they share a word and are both bitless, the western hackamore or bosal is a completely different bridle – nothing like a mechanical hackamore.

It consists of a rawhide noseband (the bosal), which comes in various sizes – depending on the education level of the horse – and mecate reins. The mecate is tied onto the bottom of the bosal, called the heel butt, with a special knot.

It does not exert any leverage or poll pressure. Instead, it leans against the cheek and jawbone, releasing immediately when the rider lets go of the rein.

The weight of the rawhide allows it to be used as a signal device, which means that once the horse is trained, it will respond to the lightest cue.

Trainer Richard Winters explains how he trains in a Western hackamore.

The bosal is part of the California vaquero tradition of horsemanship, which goes all the way back to medieval Spain. When the Spanish settled in the New World, they brought their horsemanship and cattle handling skills with them.

Over time, the vaquero style of riding developed into an advanced school of horsemanship. At its highest levels, you find the bridle horse, the cattle-herding, or the Western equivalent of the grand Prix dressage horse.

It takes years to make a bridle horse, and the bosal is the first step.

Vaquero trainer Jeff Sanders explains,

“California was unique in both climate and culture during the birth and growth of the California Vaquero tradition. The mild climate meant that the Californio could spend more days in the saddle than the cowboys of other regions.’

The relaxed culture allowed the Californio the freedom of taking their time making a horse. California was the land of “many mananas” or many tomorrows.

For the Californio it took as long as it took to get the job done. If that meant that the job didn’t get done until manana, that was no problem.

The California Vaquero was free to take all the time needed to make the best horse possible. As a result the California bridle horse evolved to the point that a top hand could ride his horse with just a light string or a few tail hairs attaching his rein chains to the bit. (3)

When to Use the Bosal

Western trainers often use bosals to start green horses. The horses can be backed and ridden away in a bosal, then graduate to a snaffle bit or the other way around.

For riders who know how to train with a bosal, it is a tactful way to start a youngster on their journey to lightness.

It depends on the horse, the trainer, and also their plans since some show classes require you to use a bit, while others require a hackamore.

If you’re trail riding or doing your own thing, it’s up to you and your horse.

This won’t apply to the majority of riders, but if you’re making a bridle horse, you progress to a thinner bosal, called a bosalito, then the two rein, a bridle with a bosal and a bit, and finally, the finished horse goes ‘straight up’ in a spade bit.

But like I said, that is the Grand Prix of vaquero riding. Most of us won’t get there. Still, we can enjoy riding our horses in bosals. With some caveats.

Although the bosal is soft and gentle, it can still cause damage in the wrong hands, and it isn’t for beginner riders, since you need an independent seat and hands to use one correctly.

The noseband has to be shaped to fit the horse, and a heavy-handed rider could rub the horse’s nose raw.

An unskilled rider might inadvertently teach the horse to run through the bosal since it doesn’t have the sharp (or somewhat painful) brakes of other types of bridles.

It works from the release. You, therefore, need good timing and a good feel.

You should not ride with constant pressure, since that will make the horse dull to the signals.

Loping Hackamore

Another traditional bridle you might find Western trainers using, especially to start colts, is the loping hackamore.

It looks similar to a bosal – with the reins coming out of a knot underneath the horse’s chin, but the noseband is made out of a soft rope (or modern materials, like nylon) instead of hard rawhide.

The loping hackamore communicates lateral cues and encouraged vertical flexion, but it is not as sophisticated as a bosal. You won’t get as much collection or lightness with one.

However, it’s a much more forgiving bridle, so it can be used by inexperienced riders.

It’s also a kind, of bridle for green horses. I just bought one (as I write this) for my mare, who I’m in the process of backing.

FAQs

Is a hackamore better than a bitless bridle?

a horse with best hackamore fitted on it

The hackamore is a type of bitless bridle. Whether it’s better than other types of bitless bridles depends on you and your horse.

Is a hackamore more gentle than a bit?

It depends on the hands using it and the type of hackamore. Loping hackamores and wheel hackamores are gentler than many bits, while German and English hackamores should only be used by experienced riders because they are harsher than a snaffle.

Why would you use a hackamore?

Sometimes, riders use mechanical hackamores because they provide a lot of control for disciplines like jumping, barrel racing, or even trail riding when their horse isn’t happy a bit.
The bosal and loping hackamore, in the right hands, offer a gentle alternative to a bit. As I’ve discussed, training up a horse using a bosal is its own equestrian art form.

Can you start a horse in a hackamore?

If you are using a mechanical hackamore, no, you should not start a horse in one. To be used correctly, the horse should be well trained to seat and leg aids before he goes in the hackamore.
If you are using a bosal or loping hackamore, you can definitely start a horse in it. There is a long tradition of starting youngsters in these types of bridles.

Conclusion

The hackamore isn’t just one type of bitless bridle. As you can see, they range from the most severe German hackamores to the mildest loping hackamores.

Western or English, they require an independent seat, soft hands, and that elusive sense of feel.

It’s a rabbit hole – one I’ve been down. I own four types of hackamore: a music hackamore, a love hackamore, a bosal, and a loping hackamore. They all do different things for different horses.

Hopefully, I’ve given you enough information to jump-start your own foray into the world of hackamores. Used correctly, they can refine your horsemanship, but you should always be mindful that many of them are no gentler than a curb bit.

brown horse wearing a Hackamore bridle

Resources

1. Quick JS, Warren-Smith AK. Preliminary investigations of horses’ (Equus caballus) responses to different bridles during foundation training. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 2009;4:169–76.

2. https://www.dmws.nl. Blog – The Hackamore [Internet]. Art of Riding. [cited 2023 Jan 11]. Available from: https://www.artofriding.nl/en/blogs/blog/the-hackamore/

3. History – California Bridle Horse [Internet]. [cited 2023 Jan 11]. Available from: https://californiabridlehorse.com/history/

Emily Donoho
Emily Donoho

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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