Vaquero Lore – The Spanish Spade

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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.

Spade-Bit

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.

The Buckaroo Saga

BY ROD HONIG

Welcome to our new column on vaquero lore. In the future we’ll examine the impressive and functional gear and trappings of the vaquero and buckaroo, but first, a history lesson. The word “vaquero” conjures all sorts of images in one’s mind. But who were these skilled ropers and handlers of livestock?

By the 1760’s the trail of Spanish Missions on the El Camino Real was being established. That era heralded the booming livestock industry in California. With the establishment of trade based on hides and tallow to be shipped out of California the need arose for round-ups and the large scale tending to herds. The men tasked with this were the vaqueros. Originally, native Indians and the Spanish were of this class but with intermarriage came not only the Anglo influence but also from them, a new desire to learn the ways of the vaquero. The word vaquero was mutated to the English pronunciation of buckaroo, which many consider to be one and the same.

In later years, these cowboys were noted for riding saddles reminiscent of what we call the 3B or Visalia-style stock saddle. This contradicts the belief that the Wade saddle was part of their gear. (The Wade was popularized, although not created, by Ray Hunt at a much later date). Their ropes, fashioned of braided rawhide, were called La Reata, which the Anglos bastardized to the English word, lariat. The vaqueros were adept at swinging a big loop to rope cattle and dallying for leverage on their saddle horns. Even the word dally comes from the Spanish, dar la vuelta, which loosely translates to taking a turn. Horses were ridden using a braided rawhide bosal to establish communication through signal, coupled with a hand-twisted horsehair rein and lead called a mecate, now often called a McCarty.

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The training progression was to next take the horse into two-rein, meaning using a thinner under-bridle bosal and a spade bit or half-breed, which resembles a spade without a spoon on the mouthpiece staple. This was a transition stage. The final stage was referred to as straight up in bridle in which the horse was ridden solely in a bridle bit with a set of braided rawhide romal reins. As the bits had mouthpieces that were of great height the key, from the hackamore stage to the straight-up stage, was to use headgear predominantly as signal devices, not for leverage unlike many bits in other systems. The snaffle became an addition to the program for many in later years to speed up the progress of the training, but originally the method was all about time — time to develop finesse and exactness in both rider and horse.

Their gear was handmade by the very men that rode and roped daily. So, it needed to be fashioned of readily available material – rawhide, leather and simple iron for the bits. Today’s master gear makers take many of their cues from the older masters – Ortega, Mardueno, Visalia, Tapia and others. The cheeks pieces on today’s bits still remain very close to the original designs in the form of Santa Barbra, Santa Susanna and Las Cruces, along with other designs

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So the next time you see a rider with a flat hat, big loop and rawhide and silver adorning their gear, realize you are not seeing a new trend but homage to an old tradition brought forward to present day.