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Not all horses do well on a bit. If you are into natural horsemanship, you may prefer to school your horse to accept a bitless bridle or ride in a horseman’s halter or rope halter. However, there is an in-between option, too—a hackamore.
Unlike other bitless bridles, a hackamore is similar to a bitted bridle. Online searches for hackamores will usually list these as a bit for horses, even though it doesn’t go in the horse’s mouth. The beauty of a hackamore is that a rider can use it in a similar way as a regular bit when it comes to how they ride with their hands, and a hackamore gives direct rein cues, while you can also neck rein with it.
With so many different types of hackamores available, it can be challenging to know what kind to try and which is best for your horse.
My journey to finding the perfect hackamore began with my horse Mihr who didn’t like bits at all. She ran away in every bit I fitted her with (and no, she didn’t have any dental issues). Then we found our way to an English hackamore, and it was a match made in heaven.
I’ve since learned a lot more about hackamores and what to look at when choosing one, and I’d love to help you find the best hackamore for your horse.
My Bottom Line Up Front
If you’re rushing for time and standing in the tack shop, looking at a wall of bits and hackamores, here’s a sneak peek of the market’s best hackamores and what you need for your horse.
- Best Western Hackamore: Mustang Harness Leather Breaking Hackamore
- Best S-Hackamore: Western SS Leather Nose Little S Hackamore
- Best Wheel Hackamore:- Challenger Tack Horse Western Fleece Padded Brown Leather Stainless Steel Adjustable Hackamore
- Best English Hackamore: Western CP Fleece Lined Hackamore with Curb Strap
- Best Mechanical Hackamore: Western CP Braided Latigo Leather Nose Hackamore
- Best Combination Hackamore: Tory Harness Leather Single Rope Half Breed
As to my personal winner? I’ll stick to the hackamore that I’ve grown to love, my English hackamore, though I’ll definitely consider opting for a performance bit like the combination bit for shows and more detailed training.
All You Ever Need to Know About Hackamores and More
What Is a Hackamore?
A hackamore is an alternative type of bit that fits over the horse’s nose instead of inside their mouth. Hackamore bits are usually a combination of a leather strap (which lays over the nose) and metal sides or shanks that the bridle and reins fit. A leather strap or chain that lays in the place of a curb chain under the horse’s jaw, balancing the rest of the mechanism.
Different Types of Hackamores
There are many different designs when it comes to bitless riding, and there are special bridles that work on nose pressure. Hackamores are not the same as a cross-over bridle, for example.
Bosal or Western Hackamores
Western hackamores or rope hackamores may have a rawhide strip or twine wrapped nose piece that is teardrop-shaped and is known as a bosal. The bosal is attached to a simple crown piece with extra-long rope reins, called McCarthy or mecate reins. This type of hackamore is most used by Western riders and those who work with ranch horses.
An S-hackamore is a bitless bridle with a leather strap over the nose with S-shaped shanks that leverage pressure on the horse’s nose. The bottom of the mechanism is a chain or leather strap. The top curve of the S-pieces fit onto the cheekpieces of a regular bridle.
The Wheel Hackamore
Another Western favorite is the wheel-shaped hackamore, where a leather strap is placed between two wheel-shaped metal sections that have sections in which the bridle and reins fit. A leather strap or a chain secures the bottom of the two wheels. Depending on where you attach the reins on the wheel, you can control the amount of leverage and pulling power the reins apply to the horse’s nose.
Like the wheel and S-hackamores, the English hackamore has a leather strap suspended between two metal shanks with connectors for reins at the bottom. A chain completes the mechanism, fitting into the horse’s chin groove like a curb chain. The power of the hackamore depends on the length of the shanks, and there are short shanked and longer shanked English hackamores available.
Since you ride identically to a snaffle bit with the English hackamore, it is often used in jumping and lower levels of dressage too.
Perhaps considered the wicked witch of the hackamore world, the mechanical hackamore is the most severe of hackamores.
The long shanks increase leverage power, making this a potentially harsh bit. The leather strap is suspended over the horse’s nose by two elongated shanks with a lever between them at the bottom to prevent the shanks from pinching the horse’s nose.
Typically, this is a hackamore that requires careful riding where the horse is ridden “on the buckle,” as any sudden pressure can seriously injure the horse.
Pros and Cons of a Hackamore Bit
New riders at our stable yard are always amazed to see me ride my mare with nothing in her mouth when I ride her with a hackamore. They believe there’s no control and often ask how I stop her. There are several pros to a hackamore, but there are also severe cons to consider.
- A hackamore can improve a horse’s ridden work if they hate a bit.
- Since there is nothing in the mouth, it’s a good option for horses with dental issues.
- Horses seem to enjoy a hackamore and may respond by becoming calmer when ridden.
- A hackamore can increase the conversation between horse and rider, offering the transition to riding in a neck strap when both horse and rider are ready.
- It makes a sensitive rider more conscious of the pressure their hands are exerting.
- A hackamore can potentially be harsh if used aggressively.
- When pulled with force, a hackamore can cause nerve damage to the horse’s nose and potentially even break their nose or crush the soft cartilage.
- Riders with irregular rein control can cause a horse to become uneven in their stride and skew.
Best Hackamore Bits According to Type
Depending on the style of riding you do, which hackamore is legal in that discipline, and your personal preference, you can choose any of the following hackamore bits for your horse.
Best Western Hackamore or Bosal Bit
Keeping it simple, the Mustang Harness Leather Breaking Hackamore offers the best-simplified features of a Western hackamore. This hackamore, made from quality leather, is suited to pleasure riding, ranch work, roping, and trick riding.
- ¾-inch harness
- Soft leather with leather poppers
- Braided rawhide bosal
- 7-foot mecate reins
- Double-stitched browband
- Reasonable price at less than $90 (since it has a full bridle too)
- The braided rawhide bosal can be somewhat stiff
- Some reviewers complain the reins are too long
Fitting mecate reins correctly can be a challenge to the uninformed rider, and since the bridle, bosal, and reins are all separate when delivered, this can explain some of the common issues regarding the rein length.
A popular choice is the Western SS Leather Nose Little S Hackamore, which features curved S-shaped shanks for the hackamore and a balancing cable to prevent pinching.
- Stainless steel shanks
- S-shaped curved shanks, size small
- Curb chain (S and snap hook)
- Vegetable-tanned leather to avoid harmful chemicals
- Fair price at less than $30
- No padding on the leather strap
The S-shaped hackamore is reasonably soft and gentle to the horse, providing accurate guidance without being cruel or inflicting pain.
Best Wheel Hackamore
The wheel hackamore features an adjustable wheel where the reins’ placement on the wheels increases or decreases pressure on the horse’s nose. The Challenger Tack Horse Western Fleece Padded Brown Leather Stainless Steel Adjustable Hackamore is an excellent example of quality craftsmanship and ergonomic design.
- Double-stitched leatherwork on the noseband and chin strap
- The noseband is fleece-lined for comfort
- The wheel or flower cheek pieces are 4¼ inches across
- Stainless steel hardware
- Relatively expensive (at just under $40) given that the price is for only the hackamore and not a bridle
- Fine-boned horses with delicate nose areas will find the side wheels too big
While I’m not personally a big fan of the wheel or flower hackamore design, it is a soft and kind riding instrument when used wisely on a quiet horse. However, if the horse becomes “strong,” the lack of leverage can lead to problems.
Best English Hackamore
I’ve had my English hackamore for many years, so trying out a new one was thrilling, and the Western CP Fleece Lined Hackamore with Curb Strap didn’t disappoint. With the English hackamore, the softer noseband combined with the precision shanks allows for a gentle give-and-take to ask for collection while still remaining soft on the horse’s nose.
- 7½-inch shanks
- The fleece-lined, adjustable nose piece
- Leather keepers for comfort that fit the heavy curb chain
- Convenient fitment for English and Western bridles
- Suitable for large horses
- Reasonable price at less than $25
- The longer length shanks can hook on things if you leave your horse bridled
The English hackamore has a great design, allowing the rider to ride with confidence. There is enough leverage to apply appropriate pressure to stop a horse while still being gentle enough to allow the horse to enjoy their ridden work.
Best Mechanical Hackamore
The mechanical hackamore can be somewhat intimidating to a rider who’s never ridden in such a visually large bit setup before. My main concern was that the more brutal nose rope and very long shanks would be harsh on my horse’s nose, but I was pleasantly surprised with the results.
The Western CP Braided Latigo Leather Nose Hackamore provided substantially more control than the English hackamore. Was it going to be my new favorite hackamore or not?
- Braided leather nosepiece (10 inches)
- 7¾-inch shanks
- Chrome-plated steel hardware
- Affordable at less than $35
- It does not come with the curb chain
- A simple solid wire spacer between the two shanks is not flexible
- It can be harsh if applied with excessive force
I thoroughly enjoyed my ride with the mechanical hackamore, but I was ultra conscious of how much pressure my hands applied to the reins. Yet, my horse thrived and performed so well with the slightly increased pressure from the shorter English hackamore. However, I have some concerns about what this hackamore could do in a hard rider’s hands.
Best Combination Hackamore
Riders realized the potential to correct and improve a horse’s obedience in a hackamore. However, they wanted the finer collection power of a snaffle, so the combination hackamore bit has revolutionized the riding world. The hackamore combination has grown in popularity from Sprenger to other huge bit brand names.
I love the Tory Harness Leather Single Rope Half Breed for precisely this purpose. It combines the best of both worlds with a side-pull hackamore type section and an iron snaffle. This bit is excellent for introducing a previously bitless horse to a snaffle bit. It offers the best of both worlds with softness and collection.
- Soft leather harness for bridle section
- Stainless steel hardware
- Built-in joiners to keep the rope and snaffle sections together at the correct spacing
- Leather chin strap to balance the bit and rope hackamore sections
- Potentially a severe bit if used by an untrained rider
- Not all horses happily go on a single jointed snaffle, limiting riding options
How to Correctly Fit a Hackamore According to Type
As with all horse bits and bridles, a hackamore needs to be correctly fitted to be effective and not cause the horse any pain. Each type of hackamore has slightly different fitment guides. The hackamores with metal shanks or side pieces usually have a similar fitment guide, while the bosal hackamore has a different fitment guide.
Shanked Hackamore Fitment
For an English hackamore, mechanical hackamore, S-hackamore, wheel hackamore, or combination hackamore, ensure the hackamore strap rests across the horse’s nose. It should lie halfway between the bottom corner of the horse’s eye and the corner of their mouth. I like to have at least two finger widths clearance from the bottom of the hackamore to the horse’s nostril edge.
Each horse will have their sweet spot where they are nicely responsive, but if you go lower down their nose than this spot, they become agitated as it causes pain.
The chain or leather strap below the horse’s jaw should fit comfortably, allowing at least two fingers to pass between the chain and the horse’s jawbone. This chain will usually fit higher than the chin groove, typically where a curb chain lies.
If you are using a hackamore and find that the cheekpieces of the bridle slip into the horse’s eye when the reins are engaged, you can opt for a specialized set of cheek pieces with a secondary throat latch that is located halfway down the cheekpieces. By tightening this strap, you can keep the cheek pieces where they belong.
Fitting a bosal to a crown piece and cheek pieces creates a Western hackamore. Ensure the reins you use with the Western hackamore allow enough length to provide a full release of the reins when the horse is acting correctly. Mecate reins are the favorite way to use a bosal bridle; however, be sure these are correctly fitted to the bosal to provide even pressure.
The bosal noseband should fit the horse’s face comfortably, meaning the bottom of the teardrop should hang lower than the teardrop curve that rests on the horse’s nose.
The attachment point of the bosal to the cheek pieces should be about two finger widths above the corners of the horse’s mouth. When the reins are applied, the curve of the bosal should drop down to apply pressure about four finger-widths above the horse’s transition point from nose to mouth.
How to Ride With a Hackamore
Riding with a hackamore is different from riding with a snaffle bit or other in-mouth bit. The rider would ride with a lot less pressure on the horse’s face than a rider applies with a bit. The horse is not ridden “in contact” like a snaffle or double bridle. Instead, the horse is trained to carry themselves in balance. The reins are only applied to get a swift stop or signal that something will happen.
To ride effectively with a hackamore, you need to ride with soft hands, holding the reins between your thumbs and index fingers. Be slow to pull and fast to release. This concept of soft hands becomes even more critical with a hackamore than with a snaffle or other bit.
When starting a horse on a hackamore, you should first start with a simple rope halter. Ensure the horse understands the concept of pressure and release, that they come toward pressure instead of pulling away from it.
Top Tip: When I began training my mare for her hackamore, I fitted the English hackamore on a second crown piece over the existing snaffle bridle with a second set of reins.
By fitting both bridles, I could signal with the hackamore, and when my horse got confused, I could back up my signal with a quick flick of the snaffle reins. Within a few rides, I felt confident enough to handle her in the hackamore alone, and we bid goodbye to the snaffle bridle.
Answer: Firstly, always look at the quality of the leather nose piece of the hackamore. High-quality leather will be soft and flexible, but it will snap back when released. If the leather is of poor quality, it may soften and not offer any tension over the horse’s nose.
Secondly, consider the metal parts of the shanks of the hackamore. If the metal is of poor quality, it will quickly rust and can cause skin problems for your horse, and rusted metal is weak and may snap. Stainless steel shanks or high-quality aluminum shanks are the best kinds to get.
Answer: A hackamore allows more refined signals to pass through the leather strap to the horse’s face and nose. With a hackamore, the idea is to ride with a “less is more” maxim, as you should do as little as possible to get a response from the horse.
Therefore, a hackamore is a sophisticated tool in the right hands, but it can also be a harsh and unforgiving instrument in the wrong hands.
Answer: A hackamore works differently from an in-mouth bit, where the pressure is applied to a horse’s mouth, cheeks, and jaws. A hackamore applies pressure to specific nerve tissue along the sides of the horse’s face, along their cheeks, and up their poll.
Answer: A hackamore is usually a standard size, with adjustable straps to better fit the horse’s face. The real fitment challenge is finding the middle space between the horse’s eye and the top of their nostril. Too high, and the pressure will not be sufficient for precision riding, and if the hackamore sits too low, it can lead to severe nose damage and even broken nose cartilage.
Answer: Transitioning a horse to a hackamore requires that you teach the concept of pressure and release to the horse. A horse obedient to a rope halter will have a pretty good background to go to a hackamore bridle next. Always reward the horse’s right action with a quick release of all pressure.
The Final Hackamore
Deciding to ride in a hackamore is about refining your riding ability and communicating better with your horse. It is a transition in horsemanship where you “up” your game and connect with your horse on a new level.
From my personal experience, I found that my horse became unbelievably responsive, seemed to anticipate what I would ask before I asked it, and enjoyed being ridden so much more. For that simple reason, I will always prefer the English hackamore as the best hackamore type available, and I adore the Western CP Fleece Lined Hackamore with Curb Strap.
With my hackamore, I went from clinging to the reins for dear life to riding on the buckle and completely trusting my horse. However, take the time to prepare your horse effectively before fitting a hackamore and expecting a perfect outcome. Your hackamore will remain a soft method of riding in your kind hands.