Tack & Gear

Bit Basics: The Spade Bit

Richard Winters talks about how to ride in a spade bit.

This oft-misunderstood bit is revered by horsemen who appreciate a finished bridle horse.

To some, the spade can look like an intimidating device for a horse. However, horseman and clinician Richard Winters explains that the bit is actually not as severe as some might assume. But that doesn’t mean that it is designed for young or inexperienced horses.

“There’s no way to use this successfully unless you have really invested the time to get your horse broke,” says Winters, who is based in Weatherford, Texas. “He’s got to have a good understanding of how the bit connects his face, through his body and down to his feet. It is designed to be used strictly one-handed.”

For those who follow the West Coast, vaquero tradition of training horses, the spade bit represents the crowing achievement of a finished bridle horse, one that knows how to pack his head, neck-rein and respond to the slightest of cues. The spade is often referred to as a signal bit because its tall port, roller, braces and multiple joints send messages to the horse and give the horse time to respond before pressure is applied.

“As you pick up the reins, the horse feels this spade move away from his tongue, and if you keep pulling it’s going to contact his palate,” Winters says. “The braces give the horse a little more surface area on his tongue. It’s a big ol’ heavy bit, so you want him to be able to hold it so it’s not bouncing around in his mouth.”

Winters adds that the roller helps encourage the horse to salivate and keep his mouth supple. And considering the mouthpiece design, with a bar, braces and spade, the many points of contact lessen the pressure of any one part, making it less likely to inflict pain than many bits with a simpler design.

“Riding in this bit means that you have not taken any shortcuts and you have developed a horse with all the time it takes to carry this sophisticated piece of equipment,” Winters says. “It demonstrates that you have created something of great value—a true bridle horse.”

Richard Winters shares his insight on bits in Western Horseman magazine, in a series titled “Bit Basics.” He discusses the spade in the May 2020 issue.

1 thought on “Bit Basics: The Spade Bit”

  1. Like most brief summaries, this overview leaves out so much critical information I understand space is limited. However, I’m afraid that someone may say “yes, I’m a good rider and yes, I neck rein, and yes my horse is good at ground work so I’ll try a spade bit.” That would be a disaster. The part “you have not taken any shortcuts.” Should be in bold text, underlined and in red. It takes time…years, to produce a spade bit horse. One to one and a half years, just to get straight up in the reins. The horse has to be “hung” in the bit for months before he is taken out (with no reins attached) just to get used to it. Even adjustment of the curb strap is critical, although your horse should rarely feel it. There are few riders, less than 1 in 100, that I have met, that are capable of using this most sophisticated, balanced, and eloquent of bits. Neck reining is not the method to use for lateral movement of the horse with these bits. One must be using one’s seat and legs before using a spade bit (or leveraged bit for that matter). One also needs to be proficient with the braded hackamore before attempting the spade as well. One needs to know how to ride with two reins before attempting introducing a horse to a spade. These techniques are not learned from an hour (or sixty hours) of videos or reading books. Find a good instructor (that is getting harder and harder to do). The spade bit is designed for headset (out on the range) and headset and collection (especially lifting the base of the neck) when in the branding pen. The horse will find the neutral position, the rider only knows what is coming next. Ideally, these bits should be custom made for the horse. Headset is dependent upon the breed and the individual horse conformation. A spade bit horse and rider is the ultimate achievement of western riding. A path worth perusing with great rewards and performance. But it is not the path for a weekend warrior.

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