In February 1951, Luis B. Ortega wrote about the old traditions ranches carried on for their hired hands.

horse with hackamore
Hackamore set well on nose with chin clearance. Photo courtesy of Roy Watkins.

Some of the big ranches in early days had ways of treating their hired help that differed from the regular routine found on many spreads. Most of the ranches I worked for during my early years carried on the old tradition of consideration for their help. They showed it in different ways, such as on the table and in caring for family and personal needs. Although the working day was long, there were no holidays and wages were small, yet the buckaroo was a pretty contented sort of guy. He wasn’t running into town every Saturday night or groaning for two or three days off every month. If he had a good supply of clothes and his Climax or Bull Durham tobacco he was a satisfied creature.

The Casmalia Land & Cattle Co. had a wide reputation for the table it set for its buckaroos in the early 20’s when I was riding there. This company had many thousands of cattle and controlled a big territory in Mexico as well as in California. One of the delicacies the buckaroos looked forward to every few weeks was a fried chicken dinner.

The company would ship in about 500 baby chicks at a time to the ranch and, when big enough, these were fed to the help. This was varied with turkey feeds and quail that were raised in special pens right on the place. About three miles north of the home ranch there were some big lakes scattered through the sand dune country and during duck season the stable buck and roustabout would go after ducks and honkers. The job of cleaning the game often fell to them also and they didn’t like that part too well. Our cook was a lady and was kept busy preparing other things for feeding the 14 to 16 regular hands. Of course, our regular fare was plenty of range beef.

The San Julian ranch would throw on big barbecues for the boys several times a year. This same custom was followed on the Spade S ranch where my father was foreman. However, they spent more time with that sort of affair than was usually done for a feed. I recall another ranch I worked on that raised squabs by the hundreds just for their own use, and we had many a squab feed and barbecued chicken dinner. These feeds mentioned were not anything elaborate but were changes from the everyday menu.

Other ranches I have worked on such as the Newhall Land & Cattle Co.: would take the buckaroos into town to a hotel or restaurant and treat them to a big porterhouse steak feed. When the big bosses would come to the ranch in the roundup season, it was a common practice for them to come out and greet the boys. The older hands knew what was ahead for us.

When the heavy work was done and a short spell was taken out to rest the men and horses, we would be given notice to get ready for a good time in town. As soon, as the work was done, we buckaroos would head for town and take our baths, get a haircut and shave, and get our boots shined. Then we all dolled up with white shirts and clean Levi’s.

In those days every barber shop had a room in back of the parlor where you would find the bath tub and a mirror. Some charged 15¢ and others 25¢, depending upon how ritzy the joint was.

We would all meet at an appointed place and from there gather around the eating tables. At each plate there would usually be a cigar or two, a box of matches, or the tobacco for the “makings.” Most everybody would have a couple of rounds of drinks before taking on the steak feed, but there was no drunkenness or rowdiness allowed.

Later some of us would hit for the show house. Before we broke up each man was handed a gift in appreciation for his services. This might be a couple pairs of socks and a silk scarf. When the evening was over we would amble back to the bunk house.

Such treatment by a ranch gave an individual more incentive to fulfill his obligations for his boss and left a feeling of contentment among the buckaroos. In most ‘cases they would watch out for each other more like one big family. Of course, they had their fun now and then playing tricks on each other, but would come to the rescue if a fellow got into a pinch.

Again, I have punched cows on some tough outfits where the chuck three times a day, month in and month out, was nothing but meat, beans and potatoes cooked in heavy· grease. Conditions like this made many a cowpuncher a drifter because you’d strike out before too long to find something a little lighter for your stomach.

Young fellows of that time were just as eager to become good riders as they are today. Some riders were gifted with the ability to start a green colt in the hackamore and go on through with him until he was finished up in the bridle. Others would start a colt in the hackamore but could go only so far with him and a reinsman would take him on. Such men did not get their knowledge out of books or saddle shop catalogs nor in general conversation in barber shops. They got it from actual experience.

Hackamore set too low
Hackamore set too low. Photo courtesy of Kent Weaver.

The general topic of conversation among the buckaroos of my time of 35 to 40 years ago was riding and roping, and, of course, the discussion often centered around the hackamore and bridle horse. Horses were well reined and broke or trained for their work. A fat chance a rider would have of roping a cow, steer or calf in timber, brush or rocky country with a high-headed hard-mouthed, head-tossing bridle or hackamore horse as is so commonly seen in the shows and other places today. Tie-downs were taboo, and any rider who has done this kind of cowboying will agree that it is one of the most dangerous pieces of equipment to use on a saddle horse. However, nowadays it is a common sight to see tie-downs, even to using an iron noseband for a bosal on a horse. I never saw this kind of a contraption in my mingling with the vaqueros.

When I was buckarooing along the Pacific slope country, the larger percentage of saddle stock was the Morgan crossed with the Thoroughbred. This gave a horse with good withers that kept your saddle in place, a horse that had plenty of stamina and endurance, and plenty of speed and life but of a calm disposition so he didn’t blow up on you.

Like all youngsters of this age, the cowboy bug stung me and there was nothing else but that I must be one. There was not much cooperation between my folks because my mother wanted me to go through college, but my father figured that being a buckaroo was as good a way as any to make a living. Consequently, I was left pretty much on my own as to what my future was going to be. By observing in my association with men who followed the horse and cattle business, I soon made up my mind that to get anywhere in that game I had to be a real top all around hand, which was going to require the better part of my early life. Therefore, I left home pretty young and started to ride on big cattle outfits, all the time being around older and experienced hands. Oftentimes my learning came the hard way, and again by waiting and taking a little more time and observing the older men I saved myself many hard bumps.

It was in my late teens and into the twenties that I really picked up a wealth of knowledge in the use of the hackamore and the making of it. A rider meets up with many conditions and many times he would have to build himself a bosal to suit a certain horse, or if he needed another size he would have to make it. I learned to build them for all kinds of horses because not all of them can use the same style. Furthermore, there is a balance between the four parts of the hackamore and a reason why each part has to be made to fit if you are going to get the most out of your colt.

One of the most common troubles horse owners write me about today has to do with the hard-mouthed head tosser that has, or is becoming unmanageable. Many recognize the symptoms and want to put their horse into the hackamore before bad habits develop that must be broken later.

Then again there are people who become sour to the use of the hackamore because they don’t know or are not able to get the right kind of help to get started out properly. They may get a poorly made, flabby bosal, or one that is too stiff and rough or heavy. There are many who make hackamores commercially who have never been on a hackamore horse, let alone ever having fitted one to know how to get the required results out of the colt. They have done much to put the equipment in an unfair situation, so discouraging many who would like to learn how to use it.

Breaking or training a potro, or unbroken horse, with a good hackamore is the most humane way to start his training. Over a period of years I have written numerous articles dealing with the hackamore to instruct those interested in using it. In spite of my efforts there seems to be a general feeling among many horse owners today that if the hackamore is to be used to break out a colt, it must be a big, heavy, rough piece of equipment that will peel him up and keep him that way so he will learn fast.

I have always maintained that there is absolutely no need of skinning up a green colt when he is first put through his early training, or for that matter at any time. I have proved this with actual photographs taken of mature, range-raised colts. In all my years of experience we never used lime cured hides, or any steel or iron cable for core. The hide was cured with a simple method so it kept the natural color and texture. The stiffness of the bosal was made according to the breed and tenderness of the colt and also the amount of riding and under what conditions he would be trained.

For starting the average colt, a 5/8” bosal is plenty large enough, but care should be taken to select one with proper stiffness and balance for your horse. Building a hackamore for an individual’s horse requires much more skill than the average person realizes. This knowledge is not acquired from books or by word of mouth. There are several features to consider in building a bosal. For example, the Arabian horse owner who follows line breeding will find the average hackamore too big and too heavy. His horse has an exceptionally small muzzle and is very tender skinned, as are all Arabians. Each breed and type of horse, generally speaking, has its own characteristics that need to be taken into account when making equipment. I have specialized in made-to-order equipment for the rider for many years but have never had anyone out on the road selling my merchandise. I mention this for the protection of my customers because I have had many articles of rawhide brought and mailed to me that were purchased under the impression it was of my manufacture.

A further discussion on the various sizes of hackamores to use on different type horses will follow.

(Editor’s Note: Much of the above and many other useful phases of horsemanship are outlined in Luis Ortega’s book entitled California Stock Horse, a companion volume to his California Hackamore.)

This article was originally published in the February 1951 issue of Western Horseman.


  1. Margie Smith Reply

    Wish had time to read this and hope I can find a bit later….

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