WESTERN is a style of riding, which evolved from the ranching and warfare traditions brought to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors. The equipment and style have changed slightly over time to meet the needs of the cowboy, but are still similar to the Spanish style of riding and Classical Dressage.
It is a disciplined, relaxed way of going, in order to make hours in the saddle as comfortable as possible for both the horse and the rider. The horse is not ridden ‘on the bit’ with a tight rein, but is encouraged to carry itself in balance and is guided by small rein, leg and body movements.
This method of reining was developed by those who needed one hand free of the reins to rope cattle, open gates and clear through brush, among other things. Today, most western riders ‘neck rein’.
Western style of riding and competing calls for a different bit other than the usual snaffle that we are used to riding in. One of the popular bits used is the larger twisted wire version with dog bones (French link) in the middle. These are not so severe in the horse’s mouth, but do give lift and control. Different lengths are used on the shanks, depending on how strong the horse is, and very little gag when used with soft hands can give immediate response when the rein is picked up.
It is important to constantly work to keep Western horses in the least amount of bit needed to get the job done, whether it is barrel racing or roping. Sometimes, instead of going to a more severe bit, Western riders will bit a horse up in the round pen using a snaffle or short-shank bar bit and allow them to work against themselves to lighten up. They also use draw reins quite a bit on the young horses. The whole aim with their programme is to have a horse that immediately positions into the task they are asked to complete.
One of the most common western bits in use is the Grazing Bit. The shanks were originally angled back, so the horse could graze with the bit in its mouth. There was a time when it might have been desirable for a horse to graze fully bridled and saddled, such as when riders were working all day with cattle. They wouldn’t want their horse to graze in a curb bit at all any more, since there is a danger it could step on or catch the shank and hurt itself.
This style of bit is very popular and suits many horses. You’ll often see them with more decorative shanks and with various types of tongue releases and ports. You’ll also see this used on ponies ridden western-style.