A natural approach to Western riding

The Vaquero method

There is a common misconception that natural horsemanship and Western riding are essentially the same discipline. This is definitely not the case. Natural horsemanship focuses on basics that can improve both Western and English riding performances, whereas Western riding employs a number of approaches, with only one of those approaches having roots that are similar to those of natural horsemanship. This approach is based on the Vaquero tradition.

A bosal

The Vaquero method

The Vaquero method’s origins go all the way back to the 1700s. Vaquero, translated directly from Spanish, means ‘cowboy’. Unfortunately, the term has been incorrectly translated by many English speakers into ‘buckaroo’ but, thankfully, with the culture of the Vaquero growing in popularity, far fewer people are using the incorrect form.

The Vaquero method involved the vaqueros starting horses in rope jaquimas (translated as halters or hackamores). The horse would then continue training in this rope halter until he was responding well to cues from the halter, legs and seat. He would then progress from the jaquima to a rawhide bosal-based hackamore. When Western enthusiasts speak of a hackamore, they are referring to this bosal-based hackamore – not the mechanical hackamore associated with English riding. The horse would then be used as a work horse in the bosal-based hackamore for up to a year. He would herd cattle, cut cows and do many other similar tasks. Once the vaqueros felt that the horse had settled well into his work, the process of introducing a spade bit would start.

Initially, the bit would be introduced along with the bosal-based hackamore, giving this stage of training the title of ‘the two-rein’. During the ‘two-rein stage’ the horse starts out carrying the bit, but the rider will still predominantly use the reins attached to the bosal. As the horse gets accustomed to the feeling of the bit, the rider will start introducing the bit rein. Traditionally this stage took up to a year, with the horse eventually carrying the bosal and the rider mainly using the reins attached to the bit.

Once it was felt that a horse was responding lightly and calmly to the bit, the bosal would be removed and the horse would be formally known as a bridle horse. This stage brought great pride for the vaquero. Riding a bridle horse, especially when compared to riding horses trained with other methods, has been likened to driving a Rolls Royce. A bridle horse is ridden with one hand and can be used for all of the many functions of a ranch horse, including roping.

A horse being ridden in a bosal

Modern methods

Some modern riders and trainers have adapted the Vaquero method to include a snaffle bit before the bosal-based hackamore. Tom Dorrance, known as the ‘Grandfather of Natural Horsemanship’, based much of his early training on the Vaquero methods, but developed lighter aids, and focussed on ‘feel’ as the culmination of his training. Students of Tom Dorrance like Ray Hunt progressed these methods further, always focussing on building a better partnership between horse and rider. Ray Hunt taught these methods to the now well-known names of Buck Brannaman, Pat Parelli, Clinton Anderson and Martin Black. Each horseman who learned from Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt added their own flavour. Some focus more on relationship, other may focus more on performance. Some would argue better relationship leads to better performance.

Heartfelt Horsemanship

Heartfelt Horsemanship’s own adaptation of this method rarely progresses to a bit unless this is particularly desired by the rider. We start the horse in a rope halter, building connection and communication through refined groundwork. The groundwork is all related directly to riding, and by the time the first rider arrives the horse is already familiar with every cue they will need to understand throughout their ridden career.

Once the horse is responsive to these ground cues, we then begin introducing the saddle, and performing the groundwork with the saddle on. One of our guiding principles is that ‘the horse sets the timeline’, so each of these stages may vary in duration depending on the horse.

The first ride is done bareback, just getting the horse accustomed to the weight of a human on his back without a saddle. This is for the sake of introducing each individual stimulus separately, to build the horse’s confidence and avoid over-facing the horse. It also makes it easier for a rider to get off safely should the need arise. It is far easier to slide down off a bare back than from the trappings of a saddle.

The next ride will be done in a rope halter, with a saddle. This is seen as the first full ride. In this ride the horse will perform the building blocks for every manoeuvre he will ever do under saddle – the one-rein stop, hindquarter disengagement, backup and the direct rein. We call these basics the ‘four core movements’.

Much like in the Vaquero method, the horse will stay in the rope halter to learn a number of riding patterns and develop his outride skills. Once the horse is responding to the lightest of cues, he is deemed ready to move to the next stage.

At this point, the horse will be introduced to the bosal-based hackamore from the ground, and this will eventually progress to a period of use of the bosal-based hackamore under saddle. The introduction of collection occurs during the hackamore stage of development, and only once the horse is responding well and staying relaxed. Horses ultimately progress from this stage to performance training. If at any point a horse gets confused, we take the horse back to the rope halter to correct any issues.

It is at this stage that, should an owner of a horse in training with us require a bit be introduced, we would introduce a snaffle. If the horse’s anxiety levels increase, we would go back to the hackamore. If we feel the horse had regressed since the addition of the snaffle, we would go back to the rope halter.

There is a common misconception that calm horses are ridden bitless, where in fact horses are calm because they are ridden bitless. If we empathise with the horse’s position we can begin to understand why. During the sensitive stage in which communication is developed, the chances of a rider needing to be firm to convey a message are high. If this firmness comes with pain in the mouth from a bit, the horse associates riding with pain and we are left with an anxious horse. If we take every opportunity to develop clear, light communication without pain, by the time we introduce a bit (if ever) the horse already understands the communication, and firmness isn’t necessary.

Take-home message

The vaqueros took great pride in taking the time to develop intimate communication with their horses. The method has continued to be developed, with more and more focus being placed on feel and relationship. Some might argue they don’t have the time to develop this intimate relationship, feel and communication with their horse. This is when the old cliché comes to the fore: ‘nothing worthwhile is easy’.

By Gareth Mare

Gareth Mare is a trainer and instructor at Heartfelt Horsemanship. He has trained for six years under Heartfelt Horsemanship’s head Instructor, Jamie Lynn. He competes in the following disciplines:

Western Trail (2017 High Point Champion Intermediate Western Trail)

Cowboy dressage


Western Pleasure

Western Horsemanship

Working Cowhorse

Heartfelt Horsemanship’s guiding principles are based on the lineage of teachers beginning with Tom Dorrance. They are as follows:

  • Be as gentle as possible, but as firm as necessary.
  • Never release on a brace.
  • Reward the slightest try.
  • The horse sets the timeline.