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Spade Bit ~ friend or foe?

A while back we were at a show for versatile horses and I was with my friend who was riding with a spade bit. The horse he was riding had been rescued from an unhappy life and had been retrained by Stuart Powell to accept western cues. But one of the main problems with her was that her previous owners had abused a snaffle bit to such an extent that the bars in her mouth were ruined and she was completely headstrong – unstoppable.

Stuart had solved the problem by fitting the horse with a spade bit and she had settled down nicely to the point where she was performing well in versatility and picking up a handy collection of rosettes. But, on this day, she had done really well in the Reining class and another competitor had complained about the spade bit. A heated discussion ensued about whether this was a “training aid” (and therefore to be disallowed) or whether, in fact, it was the ultimate finesse in western bits.

So, what is a spade bit? Its origins are credited historically to vaquero design. The vaquero process of training a horse begins with a bosal (a heavy rawhide noseband which works on the trigeminal nerve in the horse’s cheek) used in conjunction with a mecate (a horsehair rope that forms the reins) and, progressing through lighter and lighter bosals to a “half breed” bit (a curb bit used in conjunction with a bosal and two sets of reins), the finished horse graduates to a spade bit.

That process can take up to five years and so the spade bit is comparatively rare due to the time and consistency of application needed to get to that stage.

The spade bit is quite a complicated piece of hardware. To the casual observer, once fitted in the horse’s mouth, it appears to be nothing more than an ordinary western, curb bit. A giveaway may be the fitting of some small chains between the end of the reins and the bit although it’s in the horse’s mouth where the real differences arise. It has a straight bar, a narrow port with a “cricket” and a “spoon” – a partly rounded plate fitted above the port - which may be supported by braces out to the cheek pieces of the bit.

In repose, the spade rests between the horse’s tongue and the roof of its mouth. It doesn’t take very much imagination to understand that, used sensitively, the spade will give the horse very subtle cues in the roof of its mouth but, used insensitively, it can cause serious damage.

It is the ultimate in finesse on a fully trained western horse because that horse is getting its cues in the merest hint from a gentle hand and the rest comes from rein contact on the horse’s neck, contact from the rider’s legs and so on. There are some that will say that the spade bit shouldn’t be used other than on a horse with a higher neck set and it’s certainly the case that the horse needs to carry its head in a nicely vertical position – but that’s our aim anyway, isn’t it?

So: foe? Definitely not provided the horse and rider have the training to use it properly. You won’t see many horses in a spade bit but, if you do it’s 10 to 1 that horse will be a picture of elegance. Enjoy it.

Comment from David @ Wed 14 Mar 1108: 57:41 +0000;

A half breed is a type of bit. It is not specifically the bit used for the transition between hackamore and Spade. A bridle horse is made from a progression of hackamores starting most commonly in a 5/8 inch hackamore then graduating to a 1/2 inch, and then a 3/8. Somewhere between the 1/2' and the 3/8' bosal the rider will introduce a bit. Traditionally it will be a spade. For various reasons, right and wrong, horseman have altered the system to what they felt was best. So the inclusion of a halfbreed, which is a spade bit with the spoon portion removed, have been added into this process. The purpose of the TWO REIN stage (bosal (smaller hackamore) and bit) is to gradually shift from communication through the bosal to the bit. It is to preserve the mouth, its sensitivity, and subtle responses to signals. Over the two rein period the length of reins are changed until the bridle reins become the predominant rein. Eventually the horse is consistent in all circumstances to be straight up in the bridle. The spade is a leverage bit like all curb bits but its design also provides several signals that allow the rider to avoid the use of leverage that is commonly practiced in other bits. If the curb strap is properly adjusted then the spade does not damage the roof of the mouth. An ignorant person uses a spade to hurt or inflict pressure to train the horse.. true bridle horsemen focus on the use of the signals offered by the loose cheeks, the rein chains, the braces in the bit, and the spade leaving contact with the tongue and finally and possibly lightly touching the palette, then the curb strap activates and creates leverage the cannon is drawn against the tongue rather than the sensitive bars and then the bars so there is no tongue relief in the spade bit. Tongue relief is a fallacy it really means more pressure against the sensitive bars and is more severe... If you use a spade with the same mentality that people use other leverage bits then you have defeated the whole purpose and time honored tradition of making a bridle horse... it requires the utmost respect for the horse to make a true bridle horse... force of any kind is frowned on.. Putting a spade in a horse’s mouth does not make a bridle horse. It is the whole process. A well trained bridle horse should be able to be ridden by tying a few tail hairs between the reins and bit and never break the hairs. I hope this helps you have a better understanding of the bridle horse and the spade bit...

Loping Bill @ Fri, 16 Mar 1118:08: 47 +0000:

Thanks, David, I think we're on the same page aren’t we? You've provided a lot more detail about the operation of the spade bit and that reinforces my point that it's the ultimate in finesse rather than the correctional bit that the misguided souls who protested my friend were trying to suggest. Of course, the judge knew the true position and dismissed the protest.

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