By Rod Honig
Much maligned, misunderstood and sometimes even feared, the spade bit has been in the hands of horsemen in one form or another for centuries. The current versions we are familiar with date back to the vaqueros of Old California. So what makes a spade bit and how was it really intended to work in a horse’s mouth?
Spade bits are made with many different cheek configurations, with varying height to the mouthpiece or spoon. The size of the mouth is a combination of the spoon height and the staple height (the staple being the inverted U-shaped piece rising about the solid bar joining the cheeks.) The spoon can be found in a simple teaspoon or a shape that resembles a violin, sometimes referred to as an alligator mouthpiece. The common parts of a spade bit are the solid cannon bar, the staple with a copper “cricket” roller in the middle, the spoon, and braces arching from the cheek just above the bar to each side of the spoon and wrapped in copper or with copper beads on them. Either slobber chains or a slobber bar join the two cheeks at the bottom and rein chains are attached to stirrups or loops at the bottom of the cheek pieces. Named very traditionally, cheek pieces can be of the Santa Paula, Santa Susanna, Las Cruces or even cavalry styled s-shanks variety. The most traditional and prevalent design is some variation of the Santa Barbra cheek. Bit makers speak of this cheek being the most balanced as the shape itself lends to the bit returning to a neutral position quickly and easily.
Many people question the form and function of the mouth of the spade bit. Before you jump to inhumane conclusions, perhaps consider a few facts. The intention always was and is for the horseman to first train the horse through signal via a hackamore and then transition to an under-bridle ‘bosalita’ in conjunction with a spade bit. It was all about teaching signal only, not the force of pull. To protect the mouth, the horse is able to pick up the bit with the tongue, therefore the solid bar (one that does not collapse like a nutcracker) and braces serve to give it more surface area. The horse could use the braces to hold the bit easily and receive signal clearly. By pure physics, the more surface are that comes in contact with the horses tongue, the more any weight or pressure would be distributed if deployed.
Then there is the physiology of the mouth. A human can fit their entire arm in a horse’s mouth, so at the point where the spoon could touch the palate, the horse’s mouth is quite tall in structure. With a properly adjusted curb strap to curb bit rotation, it is a system designed to protect not harm.
Lastly, an essential part to remember is that the educated bridle horse, at te stage that he is introduced to the spade, has developed a headset that is conductive to carrying the bit in a manner such that through balance, the spade points towards the inside of the mouth, not the roof.
As per the old saying, a bit is only as gentle as the hands using it and the classic spade bit was designed for skilled hands – hands with patience and time to develop a signal.