What Is A Bridle Horse? Everything You Need To Know

What Does “Bridle Horse” Mean?

There’s a horse bridle, and then there’s a bridle horse. What is the difference? You may understand the first term, but do you know what the second term means? A bridle horse is a horse that has been trained in a very specific and time-consuming manner.

What is a bridle horse? A bridle horse is a ranch horse that has spent years in specialized training, allowing the horse to be ridden with one hand and the slightest of cues. The result is a horse that is remarkably tuned in to its rider and a rider that is likewise tuned in to their mount. 

Keep reading to learn more about the history of bridle horses, the level of training they require, and the specialized tack that is used in both training and riding a bridle horse.

What Is A Bridle Horse?

A bridle horse is a horse that has undergone years of “vaquero” or bridle horse training to deeply connect with a rider and effectively understand the slightest of cues delivered with soft and experienced hands through specific tack. This allows a horse to be ridden with precision using only one hand, freeing the other hand for a rider to use in ranching duties such as roping.

Bridle horses are used as solid, all-around stock horses, and due to the length of training required, are not typically seen in Western shows or arenas. Brought to the United States in the 1500s, this training method is no longer considered a popular or widely-used art, but there are several dedicated and passionate bridle horse trainers in California and the rest of the Western United States who are still training beautiful and effective cow horses.

Which Horse Breeds Are Trained As Bridle Horses?

Any breed can be trained as a bridle horse, assuming it has the athleticism, temperament, and cow sense required to be a stock horse. By far, the most commonly used horse breed for the ranch and all Western disciplines is the American Quarter Horse. Other breeds that have been said to do well as bridle horses are American Paint Horses, Mustangs, and Appaloosas.

The History Of The Bridle Horse

In the 1500s Spanish cowboys brought their horses and herds into what is now Mexico and California. It is said that these cowboys would sit in their saddles at the top of the hills, keeping an eye on their cows, spending their wealth of free time finetuning their horses and trying out new techniques. This resulted in a training method, called “Vaquero horsemanship,” that evolved to turn these horses into the most effective ranch mounts that many had ever seen. 

These horses soon gained respect throughout North America, and ranchers from what is now the United States and Canada spent years learning Vaquero horsemanship and training their own horses. While once a popular method of training a ranch horse, Vaquero horsemanship has largely been replaced by faster methods of training due to increasing demands for increased productivity on modern ranches.

Bridle Horse Training

Bridle horse training is said to take three or more years and is completed in three steps. The horse is first trained in a bosal hackamore. This is ideally done as initial training, though some horsemen choose to first “break” a horse using a snaffle bit before moving to the bosal hackamore stage. Choosing where to start is a matter of preference, but the Vaquero method of training begins when the horse is put into a hackamore.

Once the horse is responsive and smooth in the hackamore at all gaits, the horse graduates to using two sets of reins. The hackamore is left on, and a second set of reins is used to further finish the horse. This requires soft and nimble fingers, as it can confuse the horse and affect his confidence if the reins are not handled clearly and concisely.

When the horse is comfortable, confident, and ready to progress from the two sets of reins, the last step will be graduating to a spade bit. While a spade bit can be harsh and even damaging in the wrong hands, the idea is that this specialized bit will communicate a cue through the smallest of movements. The spade bit should only ever be used by very experienced riders, and with gentleness and patience. 

Is the spade bit harsh on the horse?

If you are accustomed to typical snaffle bits, you may initially look at a spade bit with wide eyes – aren’t they painful for the horse? In truth, spade bits can be quite painful if used inappropriately. The idea behind the spade bit is the slightest communication can go straight to the horse’s palate, allowing the smallest of hand twitches to communicate effectively to the horse.

An inexperienced rider should never use a spade bit, but a spade bit used on a well-trained horse and by a well-trained rider shouldn’t result in any pain at all. Stefanie Travers, a bridle horse trainer in British Columbia, says “The horse’s head is in an almost vertical position and that’s because the horse is happy, engaged and its back and jaw are relaxed, and that’s been developed through sensitive hands that are aware of what is going on in them and a rider who is aware of what’s going on underneath them.”

At this stage, the horse has gone through years of finetuning and should not require any harsh, or even moderate, pulling on the spade bit to understand what the rider is asking.

At What Age Does Bridle Horse Training Begin?

Another difference between bridle horse training and traditional training is the age and maturity level a horse is started. Martin Black is a fifth–generation rancher in Idaho whose family has used the Vaquero method of training for the last 150 years. Black answers this question by saying “The goal [is] to make a good bridle horse… you work your young horses kind of like you send your kid to grade school, hoping that he’d eventually go to university and become a doctor, lawyer, or scientist.”

Black goes on to explain that he does not start his horses at three or four years of age like most stock horses. He looks for stand-out horses with minimal training who are five, six, or even seven years of age before starting. His family believes that a horse that has had prior training can become “close-minded” and hardened toward new training methods.

Stefanie Travers puts it another way: “The bridle horse tradition is the art of developing a horse to be the very best that it can be as a stock horse. This is a live creature. They’re not a program. The horse dictates the training timeline. They speak a completely different language and we’re trying to work together.” 

The key to Vaquero training is patience, patience, and still more patience. This is the reason that most stock horses today are trained using more modern methods. Not many cowboys can spend their time diligently training bridle horses, as there are so many other demands required of them.

What Are The Benefits Of A Bridle Horse?

There are many benefits of having a trained bridle horse, but likely the most significant is the relationship between horse and rider after years of horse-centered and precise training. Cowboys with bridle horses don’t worry about whether their mounts will respond appropriately; they have put in the time raising a horse from the ground up and building a relationship based on trust and patience.

Bridle horses are not rushed through training, which lowers the level of stress experienced by the horse. This in turn helps to deepen the bond between horse and rider. A well-known quote by an unknown author says of their work with bridle horses: “What I do is not a sport, it’s an art – and in the horse world, that’s a pretty big distinction.”

One tangible and obvious benefit of having a bridle horse is the freedom to ride with only one hand. This is an important consideration when on the ranch or on a cattle drive – driving, separating, and herding cattle is a complex process and the horse and rider must work in conjunction with one another while allowing the rider the freedom to use his other hand when needed.

Paying Respect To The Bridle Horse

In Western circles, great respect is given to the Vaquero method of training and to the horses and riders who persevere through it. Many bridle horses are traditionally outfitted with spade bits and tack adorned with silver to give them the distinction and honor that they deserve. It’s an art that is found infrequently in our modern age, and I’ve personally never ridden or even met, a trained bridle horse. I am, however, thankful that dedicated Vaquero trainers can still be found, as it’s an art that I hope is never fully lost.

This article was a look at the Vaquero methods of horse training. If you’d like to read up on traditional methods of horse training, check out my article How to Train a Horse: Step-By-Step Guide.

Having Trouble With Your Training?

Learn how to gain and maintain your horse’s respect in my latest course!

Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

Legal Information

This site is owned and operated by Wild Wire Media LLC.

Equinehelper.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

This site also participates in other affiliate programs and is compensated for referring traffic and business to these companies.