by Terrell Williams
Ag Weekly Newspaper, Twin Falls, Idaho
When push comes to shove, horses would rather be pushed than pulled.
"So neck reining with a solid bit is more enjoyable for a horse than the direct pull of a snaffle bit," trainer Wil Howe said at a recent demonstration in Boise. "It's so much easier to push them," he said, as his champion cutting horse spun in a blur at the touch of a neck rein.
In his trademark leather vest and jeans tucked into high-top red boots, Howe worked his sleek stallion first in a snaffle and then in a spade bit to show how the advanced bit can bring out a more advanced performance." It's OK to be in a snaffle bit, but it's a lot easier if you let your horse go up the ladder of education. Some people get their horses working fine in a snaffle bit and that's where they stay," Howe said. "But when the horse will stop easily, back and turn on his hind and front end, it's time to move onto a curb bit."
"I think people ride their horses the way they're teaching their children nowadays, which is they won't let them grow up. They should be kind and let their horses advance to the curb. Get your horse out of a snaffle bit as soon as you can. If left in the snaffle too long, the horse will resent the direct pull and will begin to pull back more and more, forcing the rider to pull increasingly hard."
From the snaffle, Howe proceeds to a short shank bit with a jointed (swivel) mouthpiece. This, with a curb strap under the chin, introduces leverage. The horse learns to neck rein with a rein against the neck, followed by a light direct pull from the inside rein until only the neck rein is needed. As the horse continues to respond to a light touch, the bits can progress to solid mouthpieces, higher ports and longs shanks for a touch-control rid.
Afraid of a Spade?
"A bit is only as harsh as the hands that hold the reins," Howe said. "In the old days, cowboys had big stiff bits, but they did not pull on them. Those high ports just laid against the top of the horse's mouth. Chains hang from the bit shanks, and the reins merely shift the weight of the chains to produce anything from a spin to a sliding stop."
The spade bit with its high port acts on the roof as well as on the bars of the mouth, so with a good rider, the horse is kept correctly bent by these two opposing but extremely light pressures. The port is often fitted with copper rollers, called crickets, that help the horse feel contented because he can play with them as he goes along. The cricket also encourages a horse to flex at the poll and carry the bit in a correct, comfortable position.
"If a horse cannot be guided by a light touch, return to the snaffle for a review of basic instruction," Howe advised. "The rider should be able to guide his horse with a gentle, light hand. I've never known a hard-mouthed horse, just a hard-minded horse. If he is soft in the mind, he's soft in the mouth."
In 1987, Howe's wife, Beverly, gave him a unique birthday gift: an orphan Brazilian Gihr calf. Hand-fed with a bottle and raised as a family pet, Blue Boy has grown to weigh 2,200 pounds and stand 6 feet tall at the shoulder. Because of his size and maturity, the big steer is classed as an ox. Howe said Blue will continue to grow all his life and may live well into his 20's.
"I started training him when he was two," Howe said, explaining how he used the same bits, saddle, and techniques on the ox as he uses on horses. "He has a little bit higher I.Q. than a horse . . . he walks, trots, takes his leads, backs, and neck reins. I use a high port horse bit on him."
As Howe, 52, travels throughout the northwest giving clinics on how to produce a finished horse, he hauls Blue along as a novelty attraction. The ox has been in dozens of parades and fairs, where more than 400 people have had their picture taken on his back.
Howe said Blue spooks at nothing, is naturally docile, loves apples and is more reliable than a horse. "He enjoys being ridden," Howe said. "He's never been with cattle. He thinks he's a horse."