I often get the question about riding horses in the hackamore or the snaffle bit—when and why. With my personal experience, as well as my observation of other riders, I’ve seen situations where either one can work best, and situations where either one has been worse. And, basically, to a great extent what it comes down to is that it’s not the equipment—it’s the hands using the equipment.
A lot of times people do things because it’s what Grandpa told them. If they learn something from one mentor and are afraid to look outside the box or if they’ve been told not to look elsewhere for direction, they are going to do things one way—and one way only. Personally, the horse is my teacher. If anyone from any discipline can guide me to a better way to communicate with my horse, I am all ears.
Obviously, there are plenty of people that believe a snaffle bit is the better tool because more people ride in the snaffle bit on young horses. I believe that the general population, as well as the average horseman, should ride with the snaffle bit for a variety of reasons. But, I do believe that riding a horse in a hackamore makes a better horseman out of you because it puts more responsibility on developing good hands and less responsibility on the horse submitting to the pressure of the snaffle.
The hackamore has more weight, which allows for more signal before direct contact. This allows the horse a greater opportunity to prepare. With a snaffle bit, you can do as much as it takes to get the job done, whereas the hackamore helps you can learn how little as it takes to get the job done.
The snaffle bit can inflict more pain to the horse on the bars of the horse’s mouth, which is much easier to damage than the outside of the lower jaw where the hackamore makes contact. Regardless, people don’t see, or even look for, the bruising that might be caused when the horse has had a bad experience in the snaffle bit. However, if there’s a blister or any hair rubbed off of the jaw from the hackamore, they’ll be sure to notice.
What’s interesting to me is how many horses are started in a halter and then transitioned to the snaffle bit for further training. Then, at some point in their training, the transition to the hackamore is made. What generally happens is the horse gets a minimal foundation with a halter then, for more control, they are moved to the snaffle bit. When enough control is established, then the transition to the hackamore is made.
With a halter or hackamore, we have to use our hands in a way that’s more fitting for the horse. On the other hand, with the snaffle bit, we use our hands in a way that’s more fitting for us.
For the halter or hackamore, we might need to have our hands out to the side more. For the snaffle bit, the hands are brought more toward the horse’s hip. Most people can put steady pressure on the snaffle bit rein, and the horse will likely give to it at some point. Conversely, if you put steady pressure on a hackamore, the horse is likely to learn to push on it. With the hackamore you must have more life in your hands, which allows you to find more timing and feel with a horse.
This is why harness horses are worked in snaffle bits. Harnesses require a direct pull back on the lines with very little opportunity for life in the reins. The constant drag on the lines is the “feel” that many horses are ridden with, so the snaffle is more effective on them.
If you can learn the feel and timing necessary to guide a horse through all the maneuvers in a hackamore, it will develop your hands where you ride a horse even better in a snaffle bit. I find the hackamore helps the person adjust to fit the horse rather than the snaffle bit getting the horse to adjust to fit the person. The principal is definitely not for everyone, a person’s goals and objectives, as well as their ability, are going to determine what is the most effective and safest for the person.