To trace back California Vaquero horsemanship as we know it today, we have to return all the way to medieval Europe.
The war horses of medieval and renaissance Europe were finally tuned, highly trained combat athletes. They had to be as skilled as their riders or both would be easily killed in battle. Think of the highly trained Special Forces of today, that is what the knights of old where and the horses were the equine equivalent.
Love it or hate it, bullfighting was also an important influence on the horsemanship skills of the old California Vaquero. Bullfighting was used as training for war and the Spanish brought all of those skills with them to the new world.
The old California horses possessed all of the defensive and offensive movement skills of the war/ bull fighting horses. These are the same skills that we read about in the works of the old war riding masters. Some would argue against this but historical documentation proves them wrong. When the Spanish got on the ships to come to the new world they did not leave all their knowledge and skill on the shores of Spain. They not only brought with them the skills but also the horses, gear and weapons from Spain. All theses things were of course adapted to the unique situation in California and evolved into something very special but the root of it all is in the old Spanish war riding.
A quick side note: the practice of branding cattle and horses comes directly from the knights of Spain. The traditional family coat of arms was adapted and used to permanently mark livestock for identification. Those who find the practice cruel and archaic should note that in many states in the US it is the law. California, the birth place of this style of horsemanship, is one of those states that requires cattle be branded for identification.
As the California missions began to spread from San Diego to Sonoma, so did the Spanish style of handling horses. As time passed, the California Vaquero began to refine their methods of training horses and working cattle.
California was unique in both climate and culture during the birth and growth of the California Vaquero tradition. The mild climate meant that the Californio could spend more days in the saddle than the cowboys of other regions. The relaxed culture allowed the Californio the freedom of taking their time making a horse. California was the land of “many mananas” or many tomorrows. For the Californio it took as long as it took to get the job done. If that meant that the job didn’t get done until manana, that was no problem. The California Vaquero was free to take all the time needed to make the best horse possible. As a result the California bridle horse evolved to the point that a top hand could ride his horse with just a light string or a few tail hairs attaching his rein chains to the bit. Or if he was really good, he would spend the entire day branding calves using only the alamar knot around the horses neck.
For the California Vaquero, it has never been just about getting the job done; doing it with style and class has always been just as important. The tradition of old California horsemanship has always been seen as an art form, a working art form but an art form non the less. The Vaqueros have always prided themselves on being able to work their cattle and horses with the greatest finesse, and fortunately that tradition is still alive and well today.
What is an old style California bridle horse?
The old California style bridle horse is the elite of the horse world. A true bridle horse is the 1%. He is a graceful athlete, a brave partner in dangerous situations and a loyal companion during long days on the trail.
There is a big difference in how horses are “made”, “trained”, “started”, or “finished” in the California tradition compared to both the Texas and Buckaroo traditions. Many horse people are quick to take a horse from a snaffle to a bridle, maybe taking a short time in the hackamore and two rein and then they call the horses a trained bridle horse.
These may be perfectly fine riding or ranch horses but most are a long way from the refinement of a true bridle horse. Not all horses will make a bridle horse, just as not all humans will be an Olympic athlete. It might also take a longer for some horses then others. But there is no time limit and it is constant patients and practice. The old California horseman would say that no horse is ever completely finished. As with humans, none of us are perfect, we all need an adjustment from time to time and their is always something new we can learn. So the whole idea of the “finished” bridle horse that so many talk about is actually a bit of a foreign concept to those who have kept the traditions alive within their families for many generations.
The goal of the California Vaquero was to get a horse that worked one-handed (since they needed to rope) with the lightest of cues. The spade bit that is traditionally associated with the California Vaqueros was intended not to be harsh (despite their appearance) but, to communicate very subtle cues from the rider to the horse. A working bridle horse will look very similar to a horse trained in the old baroque traditions in that it operates in a very collected manner.
The difference is that a bridle horse does this with very little rein input. The cues to collect are mainly seat and legs with only a minuscule input from the reins. The traditional California Vaquero training procedure was to start a young horse (about 4-5 years old) in the hackamore and start teaching it to work off a direct rein. Then, still in a hackamore, they start using more neck reining. After the horse is going good in the hackamore they will switch to the two rein.
The two-rein is where the bosal and spade bit are used simultaneously. You start out with the horse just carrying the bit and the bosal providing the cues and end up with the bit providing the cues.
Finally the horse goes “straight up” in the bridle, meaning that he no longer requires the bosal to help in the signaling and he completely understands the signals given by the bit.
The Vaquero tradition obviously started via Spaniards who came up through Mexico. However, it evolved differently because both the California climate and the unique culture. An example of this can be seen in the Texas style of riding. The Texas style was completely different and more like the rest of the Anglo riders in America than the California Vaquero despite the fact that many of the riders in Texas also immigrated from Mexico.
The buckaroo is also quite different from the California Vaquero even though they share many similarities as well. Even the word “Buckaroo” is the anglicized version of “Vaquero” and was primarily used by those in the are who could not speak Spanish. Just like “McCarty” reins are not named after anyone but are the English language miss pronunciation of “Mecate.” For many of the buckaroos it was difficult, if not impossible to get any of the old Californios to even teach them anything unless they were a part of the family and many of them would only teach in Spanish.
When we study closely the different traditions we can see clearly that because of climate, train, and culture the Texas cowboy, Great Basin Buckaroo and California Vaquero are each separate and unique horse cultures.
In the modern age we are beginning to see a resurgence of interest in the traditions of old California and perhaps with this resurgence will come a chance the those traditions will not be lost.