The Californio Bridle Horse: The Art of Horsemanship by Stefanie Travers

by | Nov 4, 2014

by Stefanie Travers

There is a certain mystique to it. There is a definite misunderstanding of the use and design of the equipment . It’s about Balance. Feel. Centeredness.

What is this thing that I am speaking of? It is the years long development of a True Bridle Horse in the Traditional Californio Style. It requires the horses to be started in the Bosal/ Hackamore then into the two-rein and finally straight up in the bridle. Of course, it is the bit that causes the greatest degree of concern to those who may not understand how it works and why. While I don’t profess to be an expert on the evolution and execution of this fine method of being with and working with horses, I am nonetheless a keen student and a fine appreciator the philosophy, intent, grace and connection that it represents.

9386316187_c007b0efc5_bPurely a North American style, it was born in the lush valleys and hills of the Western Slope of California in the early 17th century where a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions allowed for its inception and growth. The Spanish conquers with their fine horses and horsemanship, blended with the natives of the area who lived in harmony with the land and its creatures in a place where the weather is always mild so there was never a rush, always ‘Manana’ and in a time where cattle and horses ruled. There was an enormous status attached to becoming a Vaquero, as it raised ones position in the social standings and therefore skills and knowledge necessary were carefully guarded and the rights to it earned by long hard diligence and dedication. This still occurs today to some extent and unraveling the mystery has been a journey in itself. Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley was and still remains the seat of this style of riding, although it has trickled North, traveling up along the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains and has been seen in pockets in our province for well over hundred years.
This is arguably the only “signal” based method of communication to the horse and the equipment is a reflection of that intent. It is interesting to note that essentially it truly is a big bluff. A finished horse is said to have a Velvet Mouth and everything that we do in the development of the horse (and ourselves) reflects this desire. It can take upwards of 7 years to ‘finish’ a horse, but time is not as large a factor as quality and softness. The great irony of this is that once a horse is truly “straight up” in the bridle….they can been ridden bridle-less.

There is a great beauty and grace inherent as the horses and humans become empowered and carry themselves with a posture and bearing. The tack and gear is entirely hand made by Artisans and craftsmen with time honored skills and care and is yet another aspect of this style that has art woven throughout .

In the most traditional Californio style, horses will not wear a bit until the spade, and they will begin their training in a rawhide and twisted mane hair mecate rope. Sizes typically start heavier and progress to finer as they become more adept at reading the signals from the sensitive rider. The fit and handling of the bosal is essential to utilizing this unique piece of equipment as a signal as opposed to pressure.

Horses will then transition into the almost lost art of the Two-Rein wherein the horse wears a small under bridle bosal and is now introduced to the spade bit. This allows the rider to continue refine, preform their job and yet introduce the bit so when all is optimal, the bit begins to be engaged. The under bridle bosal’s entire function is to provide a safety net for the rider and horse as the bit is progressively more engaged.

Once the horse is consistently being ridden with only the bridle reins and understanding of the slightest signal from the riders body and energy will the horse wear the spade bit alone. He will always wear a small bosilita, but now it only has a fine ‘get down’ rope attached for leading. He also wears it as a badge of honor for having accomplished a significant achievement in his training. To be around and ride a finished horse is like nothing else as they have a sense of self, pride and quiet authority that is truly remarkable.

This is an Art…not a Sport.
….and a beautiful journey of self discovery, where the horse is the greatest teacher.

Learn more at