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Use of a Bosal for training the Western Horse

The bosal itself (again, a Spanish word, meaning “muzzle”) is the nose band which is made of a braided rawhide covering over a composition core which comes in varying degrees of thickness and flexibility. The “reins” with a bosal are supplied by a mecate which is a rope made of horse hair (mane for a softer touch and tail for a bit more spike) and is about 25 feet long. This spikiness is there to encourage the horse to move away from its touch on his neck . It’s not severe and you will often see a soft rope being used instead. Fitting the mecate to the bosal is an art in itself and, unfortunately, space does not allow for a description here.

Although the bosal may be used to apply direct pressure to the horse’s nose, its finesse lies in its ability to stroke the trigeminal nerve in the horse’s cheek (and thus encourage the horse to move its head away from the touch). Because of that, the bosal has to be placed precisely on the horse’s nose, with the top of the hoop resting on the end of the nasal bone and the knot sitting in the chin groove. The wrap of the mecate has to be adjusted so that you can easily fit the flat of a hand between the bosal and the horse. All this is kept in place with a simple headstall.The number of “wraps” of the mecate around the bosal are used to adjust the size of the hoop to the horse’s nose.

The real facility of a bosal is, of course, the means of controlling the position of a young horse’s head without putting a bit in a sensitive mouth. It promotes softness in flexion of the horse’s neck and gets the horse to understand that it’s expected to move away from the touch of the rein on its neck. Properly used, the rider takes the mecate across the horse’s neck, keeping the hands in the same related position as if you’re also holding a pole between them. You do not ask for the head by pulling back on that side. The horse gets used to seeing one of your hands out to the side in the direction where he’s being asked to move as he feels the touch of the mecate on his neck on the other side.

The whole point of a bosal is to get the horse working on a light touch. You should never get into a tug of war (which, let’s face it, is our first reaction when we feel the horse resisting us) but it’s because you have to put some weight into the mecate from time to time that bosals come in a range of thicknesses and flexibilities: you start thick/stiff and move on to thin/flexible.

And, speaking of tugs of war, it is of course a two way street. You pull too hard and the horse will pull harder in the opposite direction. It’s a battle you can’t win. Some believe that is why we have curb bits in western riding.  Absolutely not true (read blog on spade bits) and it’s the job of a properly used bosal to avoid the need to apply undue pressure to a horse’s mouth. Do that even with a snaffle and you’ll hurt the horse in ways that he’ll take a long time to forget.

The bosal is another piece of kit that you rarely find on anything other than a western trained horse. In fact it’s a key stage in getting the western horse to work the way it does – particularly in having it give you its head and respond to neck reining which is the feature that most “English” trained riders first notice (once they’ve realised that there’s more to it than a big saddle and a cowboy hat!).

And it’s a another device that has a vaquero origin. They call it a jaquima. It’s the original “hackamore” (“J” pronounced “h” in Spanish) but whilst that has refined into something rather different, the bosal we use today is pretty much the same as you would have seen in use a hundred years ago. For it to have survived as a first class training aid for all that time speaks volumes for its effectiveness. Provided it’s used properly - and that’s a big proviso…

If he’s being headstrong when he’s in a bosal (and, needless to say, he will try his luck from time to time), you take  the slack out of the  mecate and give a good hard tug in the direction you’re asking for – but (and it’s a critical “but”) then, instantly, release and go to a light touch. It’s called “doubling” and it relies on getting what you want before he has a chance to start a tugging match. And with the light touch immediately replacing the hard, he gets the message quite quickly that it’s easier to react to the light touch in the first place.

It’s a great way of going and the real joy of it is that your horse is never too old to be introduced to a bosal for the first time. Even after you have finished bosal training and moved on to a snaffle and then a curb bit, he’ll always be glad to go back into a bosal to tune him up.

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22nd July 2012