Some Thoughts on the Spade Bit
The Philosophy, Art and Practice
By Gwynn Turnbull Weaver
I stood at the corner of one of the hundreds of booths that checker boarded a
huge asphalt parking lot. Iíd ridden along with my friendís parents to the
sprawling Los Angeles swap meet. Leaning lazily on a folding table covered with
cheap trinkets, I glanced down into an old milk crate. The sun slanted in past a
crack in the booth and glinted on its contents. The crate was full, of what I
now know to be an assortment of old California spade bits, misused and
misunderstood, tossed aside as junk. The year was 1969; I was seven years old.
I had just begun the journey of my life, riding horses and studying them. I
remember my impression of the bits then. Their silver work and design enthralled
me, even at that age, but the mouthpieces, keen old spades, frightened me. With
my limited knowledge I concluded they looked intimidating and severe.
It would be many years before I would meet "the spade" again: before I would
painfully learn that the contents of that crate, so long ago, would have been
worth enough to buy my house.
Just as I was new to the horse scene back then, so are many other people of
different ages just discovering it now. Their response to the spade bit is very
similar to my initial reaction.
The spade is not a bit for the beginner, either human or equine. It does not
come with a set of instructions. Only the passing on from one generation to the
next, the subtle verbal mention of what it is and how it is best used. There are
no books that truly explain the delicate use of the spade bit. I think perhaps,
it cannot be put into words. It is an illusive world of "feel" and sensitivity.
If one of the old vaqueros were alive today their responses to questions
about the spade would probably be vague and unassuming. A subtle nod or the
slightest of hand movements might be offered. I sometimes wonder if the old
vaqueros designed it that way, building it intimidating enough to scare off the
novice. Many of the arts around the globe intrigue us but, cannot be taught in
an easy step by step model.
Those who are drawn to the spade bit and its use find themselves enveloped in
a unique world. As information is difficult to obtain, the student of the spade
will find himself moving ever deeper into a vast and complicated culture. Many
of the horsemen who have dedicated their lives to knowing the discipline are
hard to find and even harder to get to know. Theirs is a world unruled by the
clock. They take the time it takes to "make" their horses according to the
horsesí time table. Each step of training determined by the horsesí response and
mastery of the steps leading up to true bridle horse distinction. The road is
long but the riches are great for the student of the spade.
Leverage? No, But Thank You
To understand the spade you must first understand what it is not. Most other
shanked bits are what are known as "leverage" bits. The standard curb, the Texas
born grazing bits, the Buster Welches and the new flexing "broken ports" are but
a few examples of the low port leverage bits of our modern day.
A leverage bit works predominantly off of pressure on the curb strap. This is
supported by the fact that leverage bits typically have a low port and are often
coupled with a chain curb strap to increase the intensity of the pressure when
needed. Since it is the pulling or in some cases yanking on the reins that
immediately engages the curb strap or chain pressure, a port of any size is of
The horse trained and ridden in a leverage bit is not taught to carry
the bit or have any sensitivity to its shape or configuration. They most often
just respond to the curb strap pressure. A riderís goal when using a leverage
bit is to engage the curb strap as quickly as possible to achieve the expected
results, that is to stop or at least slow down.
The vast majority of horse owners use leverage bits. The leverage bits are
simple to understand; pull until they stop, and if that doesnít work, pull
harder. For those who only want to dabble in horse ownership, those who do not
want to completely submerge themselves in the unplumbed depths of horsemanship,
the leverage bits are probably the best answer. They will require more effort
and energy to operate but require less preparation, sensitivity and knowledge to
In order to understand the spade bit and the effortless manner in which it is
used, a horseman first needs to understand the difference in how the vaquero of
old and now the buckaroo of today uses his mount.
Different riding competitions today require various levels of training. In
the vast majority of them, the rider need only concentrate on the riding of his
horse. Riders sit in the middle of their mount preferable and focus their
attentions on their horse and his way of going. What usually adds difficulty to
an event is the inclusion of other things a rider must handle or consider while
riding his horse. Jumping over fences, working a cow or going down the fence are
a few examples of this. The buckaroo has another element to contend with; his
A buckaroo must ride his horse with quality and simultaneously be able to use
him as a platform from which to throw. Polo players can appreciate this dynamic.
The greater the horseís ability to maneuver and position quickly, the greater
the chances of landing a truly great shot. A horseman who could make all of the
adjustments needed with very little hand movement was a gifted horseman indeed.
Small hand movements allow the buckaroo to keep his coils in order, his swing
smooth and delivery accurate. Small hand movements cannot make a horse respond.
He must be taught to listen and feel for the slightest of signals.
The spade is what is known as a "signal" bit. The long tapering port,
complete with spoon, cricket and copper covered braces is configured in such a
way as to encourage and allow the horse to "pick up" the bit in his mouth and
Ironically, horses trained in this discipline are not to be yanked on. Their
mouths are respected and protected; saved at all costs. The sensitivity of the
spade bit horse is prized. That sensitivity would not remain if the process of
making a spade bit horse was severe. The truly great "velvet mouthed" spade bit
horses have benefited from a long intricate series of training steps that have
prepared them to carry the spade.
The old vaqueros started their horses in hackamores, then moved on to the two
rein process involving a small hackamore known as a bosal that fits under the
bridle and is used in conjunction with the bridle and then finally into the
bridle alone. Modern horsemen have added a snaffle bit to the beginning training
of a young horse and then move on through the traditional stages from there.
Horses are suppled and softened, trained in all maneuvers and movements that
they will later be asked to perform in the spade. By the time a horse carries
the spade, the bitís only purpose is to receive the subtle signals sent by the
riderís hands. Note the soft thin leather curb strap used on the spade. It has
little or no function. Messages are delicately telegraphed down the reins and to
the shank of the bit where its slightest movement equally moves the long
intricate port. The horse feels and responds to a message, not to pressure.
While the many leverage bit userís hands scream their instructions, the spade
bit horsemanís hands softly suggest their requests.
Spade bits are no different than any product. There are good ones and there
are bad ones. Horsemen sift through them in search of the bits that have the
qualities horses respond comfortably to. A bit maker must make a bit not only
beautifully crafted but it must be a bit horses like. The greatest of bit
makers can do both.
Balance is something often talked about and it encompasses many things. Many
think that means left to right, that is one side of the bit is the same or in
balance with the other. Though this is obviously important, real balance is
speaking to the design of the bit and how it balances in a horseís mouth.
This is really a front to back balance.
Many things influence whether or not a bit will be one horses like. Are the
length and thickness of the cheeks complimentary to the size, shape, placement,
and angle of the mouth piece. Is the shape of the cheek (i.e. where in its
design does the majority of the weight of the iron lay) suitably placed. The old
makers, back before the automobile, hand forged and hammered the cheeks to
differing thicknesses in different places loading the weight exactly where they
wanted it. Some claim that horsemen lucky enough to have access to the older
models made in this way will notice a difference in the softness and vertical
flexion of their bridle horses. The same horse ridden in a newer model with
cheeks of uniform thickness (originally stamped out of newly available car
frames) will feel heavier and duller in their hands.
Another point to note is the placement of the braces; specifically where they
tie into the cheek. The length, width and angle of the mouthpiece helps to
determine whether or not a horse will pick it up and carry it. Braces should tie
into the cheek not just above but slightly behind the bar of the mouthpiece,
thus increasing the surface area of the bit and making it more easily carried.
Braces set this way will come into contact with the tongue independently but
simultaneously from the bar. Surface area distributed in this way helps to
disperse the weight of the bit more evenly across the tongue. Even disbursement
of the weight means that no area of the mouth will receive a concentrated dose
of pressure. Remember that the spade is a signal bit not a leverage bit.
Leverage bit makers came up with a design they called "tongue relief." This
is really a misnomer. The novice would assume that the word "relief" implies a
certain lessening of the pressure or severity of a bit. The opposite is really
true. Tongue relief amounts to a gap left in the bar of the mouth piece. That
gap rests on the tongue and makes it more difficult for a horse to use his
tongue, or "brace" with his tongue, to keep the pressure from reaching the
sensitive bars of his mouth. The true spade has a strait bar in the mouthpiece
with no tongue "relief."
The spade bit horseman is not overly concerned about a horse bracing against
it. He does not advance his horse into the spade until all the brace and
resistance has been worked through and solved during the long preparatory
training steps taken on the way to the spade.
Brace or resistance in the spade is a red flag to the bridle horseman. It
serves as an indicator that inconsistencies exist. A review of the training
steps is required to find out where the deficiencies lie. A bridle horseman will
often step back down into the two rein or hackamore to check, fix and double
check the thoroughness of his training practices.
The disbursement or diffusion of pressure is what helps the spade bit horse
find the correct place to carry himself. When the horse is carrying himself in a
balanced relaxed fashion, no matter the speed, the spade will feel good to him
if it is designed properly and all the angles are right. If the horse leaves
that zone and falls apart or loses its correct way of going, the spade will be
less comfortable to carry.
Good bridle horses will search for that comfort zone and in so doing correct
their way of going and enjoy the ease with which they can travel and work in
that way. It is not unlike the ballerina who walks with a book on her head. The
book is not painful, it merely reminds her to maintain a posture required for
The Bit Makerís Responsibility
There are many things that go into the making of a spade bit. Bit makers who
tackle the spade have their work cut out for them. There will be thousands of
tiny decisions they will make on every bit. They hope that each one leads them
to a finished product that is both elegant and functional. It must be beautiful
to fully distinguish and pay tribute to the level of training achieved by its
bearer; and yet it must be functional to allow that bearer to realize and
express his full potential as an athlete.
From choices made in the forging process that determine the flavor of the
iron, to the intricate silver inlay that adorns the finished product, making a
spade bit of quality is an accomplishment. A functional memorial to the time and
patience required in these disciplines.
The Horsemanís Responsibility
It is no surprise that in the age recently passed, when social trends seemed
bent on dodging responsibility, that the spade bit and its use would fall from
The use of the spade bit brings with it a measure of responsibility. Users
must handle their mount in a manner that protects and preserves their horseís
mouth. Romal reins with accompanying rein chains for balance and presentation
are needed. Horses should be managed in a way when bridled to prevent bumping
the bit into objects or hanging a portion of the bit on a fence or similar snag.
There are some tasks in a buckarooís work when the spade may not be the best
choice. Teeth need to be maintained to allow horses to carry the spade with
All souls criticize that which they do not understand. These notes are not an
effort to get everyone to jump on the spade bit band wagon. The spade bit is not
for everyone or for every situation. The band wagon is not very big; but oh what
beautiful music it plays.
The spade bit is not a piece of equipment, it is a philosophy. To use it and
use it well an entire school of thought must be sought and explored. For those
interested in doing just that; welcome to the journey of a lifetime. A human
life can barely encompass all there is to know about the mysteries of the
Yes, there are many who use the spade with little or no understanding or
appreciation for it. But then, you can kill cockroaches with a violin - yet that
is not how the violin might best serve us.
A truly great ride on a finished bridle horse is regarded as a precious gift
from above; but the rider must be made as equally sensitive to the spade bit as
the horse is for both things to work together. The numb or heavy handed have no
business on a fine bridle horse and some would argue that they would have no
business on any horse.
So while the leverage bit user only wants to get from point A to point B; to
the spade bit horseman itís all about the ride. Itís the difference
between jumping into the pool and climbing to the highest cliff and executing
the perfect swan dive. Both ways get you wet, itís just about what you want to
experience on the way.
To engage in a discipline that requires and promotes feeling and sensitivity
is a noble thing. To feel deeply is to live fully; a goal we would all do well
to achieve before the last song is sung.