Chris Littlefield keeps his colts going in the right direction with a rope hackamore.
The first 30 days under saddle are critical to a young horse’s future. Texas trainer Chris Littlefield starts 2-year-old prospects in a rope hackamore instead of a snaffle bit because he believes the hackamore more effectively ties the movement of a horse’s head to a reaction in its feet.
“If I ride a horse in a snaffle from day one, I can get that horse to where it bends its head so far that it can stick its nose on my boot, and that is like riding a rubber band—like riding Gumby,” he explains. “But if I ride in a rope hackamore, I can let the horse yield to pressure and come to a certain point, then get its feet coming. I’ve got to get the horse’s feet tied to its head.”
Here, Littlefield describes why and how he uses a rope hackamore to prepare a performance prospect for long-term training.
Littlefield’s first 30 days with a horse emphasize the fundamentals—walk, trot, lope, stop and back. He sizes the hackamore precisely so that it applies pressure to the cheeks in the same place as snaffle rings—at the corners of the mouth.
“I am using this as a building block to go into the snaffle,” he says. “With a rope hackamore, I want it to rest a little on the bottom side of the bridge of the nose, but not in the soft tissue.”
Also, with the hackamore Littlefield does not have to worry he is going to scare the horse or injure its mouth if sharp teeth are an issue. Littlefield is adamant about having a young horse’s teeth worked on prior to riding in a snaffle. This is because if the teeth have sharp edges, the horse’s mouth may be cut when the snaffle ring puts pressure on the mouth.
“Where the cheek piece is going to pull is almost the same as where a ring on a snaffle bit is going to push on the side of the mouth,” Littlefield says. “But with a hackamore, we aren’t running into the horse’s teeth.”
The rope hackamore hangs flatter than the angle of a traditional rawhide hackamore, and that is why Littlefield places it lower on the nose. The angle of the rope hackamore also helps prepare the horse to be moved into a bridle.
“A hackamore is a vertical bridle, while a snaffle is a lateral bridle,” says Littlefield. “The one thing a hackamore does that a snaffle will never do is bump on the horse’s chin and jaw bones, which teaches pressure and release. When I step up to a curb bridle of any kind, the horse is a lot less resistant to the curb strap pressure because he has already felt it.
“I’ve also introduced them to nose pressure,” he says. “Some of these horses are going to be rope horses, and I’m going to put a tie-down on them. I don’t want a horse bracing or pushing against that tie-down. By starting a horse in the hackamore, it understands the end to nose pressure is release.”
Littlefield does not start working a horse in the hackamore from the saddle; rather, he starts on the ground. From there, he begins to build the horse’s understanding that release comes only by giving to pressure.
“The first week, I spend as much or more time on the ground than I do on its back, teaching the horse to yield to the bridle,” Littlefield says. “I will ask the horse to yield to the bridle more strongly on the ground because when I get on them, I want to be nice to them.”
By pulling the horse side to side on the ground, and by pushing it in circles and pulling it forward and back, Littlefield teaches the horse to yield to different pressures. Whether on the ground or in the saddle, Littlefield wants to connect the horse’s nose to its feet— both in action and thinking.
“The rope hackamore works for me because everything I want my horses to do in the performance horse industry—operate on their hind end with their front end mobile— ties their head to their front feet,” says Littlefield. “When I take the horse’s head one way, its front feet have to come with it. I want to feel the back feet lock down, then it looks somewhere, and then the horse moves its front feet.
“On the ground and in the saddle, I need the same reaction—nose, head, front feet. If I’ve broken the neck loose to the point where I see the back of the horse’s eye and the neck is slightly bent, then the feet should come.”
Directing the Motion
Once mounted, Littlefield’s first goal is to create forward motion. Instead of forcing the horse’s movements, he wants to be able to redirect its forward motion without losing momentum, thus teaching pressure and release. To do that, the horse must be supple at the neck and able to respond to pressure from the rope hackamore.
“The train has to move and you set the tracks,” he says. “You want that train to stay centered on the track so it doesn’t derail. A horse’s head should stay in the center of the hackamore.
“When I take its head one way, the front feet have to move with it. If at any point the feet aren’t moving, I can bump the hackamore to get the horse’s attention, and that puts more pressure on one side. If I do my job right, wherever that rope hackamore goes, the horse is going to try to find the center of it.”
As fundamental as “forward, back and side to side” sound, Littlefield says it is not a concept all horses grasp. While it may seem easier to use brute force to teach a horse to move where directed, riding in a rope hackamore does not allow that method.
Littlefield describes the rope hackamore as a simple piece of equipment that allows a rider to learn to feel the horse, and forces the rider to figure out how to think like the horse.
“I tell people that if they think they can overpower the horse in a rope hackamore, go right ahead,” he says. “If that horse gets scared and runs off, you can’t stop it. The rider has to learn to work with the horse and direct its motion. You cannot overpower them; you cannot get away with ‘tricks’ training.”
Littlefield says that no bridle is more rough or lazy than the hands that use it, and if the rider allows it, a horse will learn to abuse the rope hackamore and pull its way around.
“You have to learn to get along and build one brick at a time to build up the horse,” Littlefield says. “It is like building a house; you have to lay the foundation and then the bricks one at a time. If you put the roof on before the concrete’s dry, it will fall down.”
Riding in the rope hackamore prepares the horse for a long career in Western performance events, and can enable the rider to better understand the horse.
“Like most things, done right it’s an art and done wrong it’s a disaster,” Littlefield says. “It can be just as unhandy as it is handy. For the most part, starting one in a rope hackamore makes people learn how to feel their horse and set things up to make it easy for the horse to do the right thing.”
This article was originally in the September 2011 issue of Western Horseman.