Traditional Bridle Horse Wither Marks
- April 19, 2017
- Jan Swan Wood
The old California tradition of the development of a horse from snaffle or hackamore to the classic bridle horse has spread over the west until one is liable to see the horse being ridden with a spade, half breed, or similar bit, rawhide reins and romal, and under-bosal and mecate lead most anywhere, from Oregon to South Dakota, Montana to Texas, and everywhere in between.
Learning all that is necessary to “make” a genuine, straight up in the spade, bridle horse, takes years and time and usually some good mentoring, just as it has for almost two centuries. One of the simple things, though, that one doesn’t see much of where this tradition is involved, is the marking of a horse on the withers to define what level of training the horse is at.
Regional terms for this differ, but for the purpose of this article, we will call it a wither mark. Aside from designating the horse’s progress, the practical side of the marking of the withers is that it clears the long hair off of the withers, thereby eliminating the possibility of a wad of mane hair causing a sore under the saddle and pad.
When a young horse is first started and is just beginning it’s journey toward being a finished horse, it will be ridden in either a snaffle or a hackamore. Those horses will have their withers shaved clean, for a length of approximately six inches.
The horse next moves into the double or two rein, which is when the bridle with a bit is added over the hackamore, though the horse is still ridden off the hackamore while it learns to carry the bit, and gradually transitions to being ridden off the bridle. At this time, the wither mark changes and two one inch long by one inch tall tufts, about one to one and a half inches apart, are left on the top third of the withers, while the rest of the withers is shaved clean.
When the horse achieves the ultimate distinction of being a straight up bridle horse, it means that it is ridden entirely off the bridle, with no hackamore with a mecate rein underneath. That is a finished horse and the further back tuft is shaved off, leaving the one, one inch wide by one inch tall tuft, on the withers.
Horses marked in this way simplified the process of big cavvies of horses being ridden by different people as hands came and went on the outfit. No one had to wonder if a horse was still in the hackamore or whether it was a two rein or bridle horse. The mark on the withers made that very clear.
About Jan Swan Wood
Born and raised on a ranch near Newell, South Dakota, I have spent my lifetime in the cattle and horse business. I've cowboyed in Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico, and South Dakota before settling down in my home country, where my husband and I bought a...