Most young Western pleasure horses often show in snaffle bits. Others, however, already perform in bosal and mecate — a thick, braided noseband and three ropes tied together into a knot under the chin.
The look may appeal to you aesthetically and as a milder option for a young horse, but there’s a lot to consider and a lot to learn before you throw one on your horse. It’s not easy, and it’s not simple.
A bosal is a rigid or semi-rigid noseband of braided rawhide or, sometimes, leather. They come in various thicknesses. A mecate (meh-kah-tee), a 22- or 24-foot rope made of nylon or horsehair, is wrapped around the bottom of the bosal to create a 10-foot loop for reins and about a 12-foot long lead rope. When riding, the lead rope portion is wrapped around the saddle horn or tucked in the belt.
If you’ve got an old puller with a mouth deadened by previous riders with heavy hands, you can’t just throw a bosal on his head and go. You need to learn how a bosal works first and then spend time getting your horse to understand and become responsive to it.
A bosal isn’t just something to drag a horse around by the nose with. It is carefully balanced around the nose, and the rider uses light hands to change the position of the bosal to turn or slow the horse. Steady, hard pulling can quickly build up a callus on the bridge of the horse’s nose and scrape the skin from the bars of the jaw. Gentle pulls and releases are necessary to keep the horse sensitive and responsive. It’s not something a novice rider quickly masters.
When And Why
A bosal is not a substitute for a bit so that an inexperienced, heavy-handed rider won’t hurt the horse’s mouth. Bosals don’t have good “brakes” and a bosal in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use one — or on the head of a horse that isn’t used to one — can give the green light to a horse with a tendency to run off.
Bosals are sometimes used on young pleasure horses being shown in the ring. While some breed rules require show horses to be out of a bosal by the time they are six years old, a horse could continue to be ridden in one at home the rest of his riding years. Some horses are comfortable in them, some never get used to them. They can be an option for a horse with mouth problems or one that had a cut tongue from a previous encounter with someone who fancied himself to be a trainer.
They can also be useful when a young horse in training is shedding its baby teeth and a bit could hurt and cause problems. Switching to a bosal can also wake up an older, made horse and get you a different response. And if you live in a part of the country where there are cold winters, you don’t have to warm up a bosal on a freezing day the way you do a bit.
Not For Beginners
Whether a horse should be started in a bosal or snaffle bit is often a matter of training philosophy. There are strong opinions on both sides. Starting a horse in a bosal can preserve the horse’s mouth, but it can also bang up the nose and scar the bars of the jaw. Horses have to learn to bend and give to pressure before they can understand what is wanted of them when they are in a bosal.
Many trainers starting two-year-olds for the big Western pleasure futurities start with a sidepull, a type of bitless bridle with the reins attached to the noseband (see September 1999), then progress to the snaffle bit. Only after the colt is responsive in the snaffle do they consider trying him in a bosal.
Both the snaffle bit and the bosal are “lateral” control devices — meaning the horse is ridden with two hands and you use a direct rein to change the direction the horse is going. But unlike the clear pull of a snaffle rein, the bosal works when the lower part of it leans against the cheek or jaw bone on the opposite side from the direction the trainer wants the horse to go. The horse learns to move away from the pressure and is rewarded with an immediate release when he does so.
In the beginning, the rider usually holds the hand with the leading rein out a little to help the horse understand what is wanted. If the bosal is introduced correctly, and applied and released properly, the horse quickly learns it can stay comfortable if it puts its head where the rider wants it. The thick mecate rein laid against the opposite side of the neck also encourages the horse to move away from it, laying the groundwork for learning to neckrein.
If the rider is rough-handed or doesn’t take the time to teach the horse what is wanted, a bosal can easily rub raw wounds, as there is not much padding between the skin and jawbones. Unbroke horses have had nose bones broken and their air cut off by a bosal in the hands of short-tempered or trainers in a hurry to get results.
Function Or Fashion
You might wonder why trainers show Western pleasure horses in bosals. A bosal and mecate look “western.” They also come in various colors and patterns and can be a fancy, eye-catching piece of show equipment at a time when what a horse wears in the show ring has become as important as what the rider wears.
They also make the statement that this is a young horse just starting out. And they can dress up the head of a not-so-pretty-headed horse. Or the young horse might just be cutting teeth. At major breed horse shows they are usually seen only on two- and three-year-old pleasure horses.
To look attractive and balanced the mecate, or “McCarty” as cowboys sometimes call it, should be about the same thickness as the bosal. Mecates have a knot on one end with a tassel hanging from it and a leather popper on the other end. The knot and tassel can just be a continuation of the material the mecate is made from, or they might have a decorative, braided rawhide knot with a horsehair tassel.
When tying the mecate to the bosal, the tassel is at the bottom of the bosal adding a decorative touch. The knot is more than decorative, however. It keeps the mecate firmly attached to the bosal (see sidebar on how to attach the mecate). At the other end of the mecate is usually a leather “popper,” a narrow strip of leather folded in half and braided into the end of the mecate.
Mecates can also be attached to snaffle bits by using “slobber straps,” wide pieces of leather that fold in half through the rings of the bit. The mecate is tied through holes in the other end of the strap.
While classic horsehair mecates are still used, synthetic materials are rapidly taking over in the show ring. They present a trim, smooth look and do not feel prickly in the hands. For showing, most bosals are hung on a silver-mounted “hanger,” a slim, one-ear, no-ear or browband bridle — whatever the current fashion in the show ring dictates. At home, a fiador, a thin knotted rope that steadies the bosal and serves as a throatlatch, is almost a necessity. It’s easy for a horse to lose a bosal with the toss of a head or slip out of it when tied up with the lead rope end of the mecate.
If you decide you want to try riding with a bosal, be sure you know the ropes. And be sure your horse is already listening to your legs and seat and gives willingly to pressure before you give this old, Mexican form of b itless riding a try.
Based on the products we tried, we found a number of options for different situations. For those just wanting to see if they like a bosal and mecate without spending a lot of money, we suggest Pard’s $29.95 polyester mecate, which was comfortable and kept its shape well once it was tied, combined with Country Supply’s WC-B59 bosal for $34.95, provided it will fit your horse well.
For serious riders, Douglas D. Krause’s horsehair mecate is traditional, beautiful and comfortable. If you want polyester, try the mecate from Sagebrush Saddlery.
The decision on bosals is tougher due to the diversity of the products we tried and the horses’ individual needs. Cowboy Tack’s complete outfit at $140 is a good choice, especially for training. Otherwise, we suggest you determine if you need a soft touch, like Sagebrush’s rawhide bosal, or more bite, as you’ll find in Pard’s QT nylon bosal.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Proper Bosal Function.”
Click here to view “Mecate Products.”
Click here to view “How To Attach A Mecate.”
Click here to view “Bosal Products.”
Click here to view “Maybe A Softer, Working Hackamore Is Your Best Bet.”