It astounds me how little I know about the horse world.

I have been involved with horses my whole life, though almost entirely on the English side of things and that is where much of my knowledge resides. There was a time, however, in my 20s when I found myself hanging around rodeos a lot because of, well, cowboys. So, I know a smidge about that scene.

The point I’m trying to make is that I’m constantly learning something new about horses and all the different aspects that make this niche world of ours go around.

How I Learn Things

A friend of mine in Florida sent me a video of a cowboy cutting a chunk of hair out of a horse’s mane whilst saying, “Straight up in the bridle, man. Straight up in the bridle.”

I hadn’t a clue what was going on and instead of reading the caption I texted my friend back and said, “What on earth is this about?”

“Read the caption thing,” she said.

And so, I did and here we are.

Ranching life. This is a world I know nothing about and, of course, it’s full of interesting words that I will get to next week because so far, I haven’t made it past the word cavvy.


What the gentleman in the video was doing was making a cavvy mark. A few months ago, I wrote about shavetail and three-bell mules, a method for army officers to quickly deduce a mule’s level of experience. Cavvy marks denote the same thing only in the ranch life.

A cavvy, I should point out, is a group of working ranch horses and the word comes from the Spanish word cavvietta, which, apparently means the same thing, though I cannot find a true definition. Other sources say cavvy stems from the Spanish word caballada meaning horse, which makes sense.

Cavvy marks (or wither marks) take place within the manes of working ranch horses. Much like shavetail mules, the greenest of the bunch, a cavvy horse with approximately six inches of the mane from the withers forward shaved is green broke and ridden in a snaffle or a hackamore.

As the training progresses the mane grows out and the horse moves into the second stage of education. The withers are once again given a shave but this time leaving two tufts of blunt cut hair, indicating he is a two-rein horse.

Illustration by Jan Swan Wood / Cavvy Savvy

A Two-Rein Horse

The art of two-rein training is all but lost. It requires time, which in today’s world often equals money, therefore the two-rein process has been jettisoned out of many training programs. But for some, the old tradition of vaqueros lives on.

A two-rein horse is ridden with a bosal and a mecate as well as a bit. It’s unclear what kind of bit but judging by the pictures I’d say a shanked bit but used as a signal bit—that is, used with a light feel or adjustment on the reins to signal the horse as to what to do rather than tell or demand the horse

Bosals are similar to a hackamore but also quite different. A hackamore, as we know, is a bitless bridle that applies pressure to the horse’s nose, poll and chin.

A bosal is a tear-shaped, rawhide noseband of sorts that is attached to a headstall. The bosal applies pressure to a horse’s nose, cheeks and chin. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that the words bosal and hackamore may be used interchangeably in the ranching world. Please correct me if I am wrong.

The mecate is the rein portion of a bosal and/or hackamore, though these reins are more of a rope, often made of horsehair, and can also be used for leading and tying. The word mecate is Spanish for rope, which isn’t surprising given the vaquero context.

Bosal and mecate. @Shutterstock

This two-rein process is a kind way to introduce a horse to this style of bit. It’s also the best time to teach the horses about the jobs that will be required by him such as herding, sorting and roping cattle either out in the vast grazing lands or within the confines of a sorting pen.

However, within these jobs, a horse must learn to ground tie, stand patiently while mounted, drag things such as fence posts, remain calm in crowded or dangerous situations, traverse rough terrain, go through rivers, duck under branches, jump over logs and perform sliding stops, rollbacks and lead changes. And the best and kindest way to learn all that and likely more is in a bozal.

In the beginning, the horse is ridden off the mecate while the curb rein is left. This gives the horse time to get used to the feel of the bit in his mouth while learning the cues asked with the mecate. As the training progresses the mecate and curb rein are used simultaneously until eventually, the mecate gives way to the curb rein altogether. However, the horseman may go back to the mecate if they feel the horse needs a little more time.  

Bridle Horse

As the two-rein training continues, the mane grows. Once the horse has graduated from the mecate to the curb rein, he is considered a bridle horse or “Straight up in the bridle, man.” The mane on the withers is again roached this time leaving only one tuft of hair indicating the highest level of ranch horse training. 

Another Thing Learned

I just didn’t realize how much work was required from our dear old friend the horse. I do realize some ranches have turned to a more motorized way of life as I can see that’s likely more cost-effective but far less romantic.

I can also see how ranching was the grandfather of rodeo, cutting, reining, penning, trail and a host of other offshoot disciplines.

Ranching is an under-appreciated art.