The Mystery of the "Two Rein"
The Philosophy Behind the Practice
By Gwynn Turnbull Weaver
I leaned on a fence rail of a weathered set of corrals late one afternoon,
standing in the slim blade of shade a gate brace reluctantly threw down. The
heat of the day was evaporating into the thin Nevada desert air. Just as soon as
the sweat dried, I would be needing a coat. I swilled the dust down my throat
with the last of a beer and settled in to watch the crew work off the last of a
truckload of dry cows.
Several of the buckaroos fiddled with their colts, correcting and directing
them in a snaffle bit. What drew my eye, however, was not the work on the colts
but two cowboys in the far pen. They were riding their horses in the "two rein",
holding to an age old tradition born of logic and sensitivity. Watching them was
a joy, as they expertly lead their horses into the next level of training. What
a shame it was, I thought, that this delicate practice had become so rare.
The "two rein" process is a practice developed to bridge the gap from
hackamore to bridle bit. Great basin buckaroos as well as traditional old school
California horsemen keep the practice alive. They have found, through trial and
error, that it is the most efficient, thorough method for moving up the training
ladder. The practice incorporates the use of a small underbridle bosal with an
equally small hair mecate (pronounced "McCarty") worn and used simultaneously
with a bridle.
The idea is simple and logical. In the first stages of the "two rein"
process, the horseman uses the mecate to ask and direct the horse in his various
maneuvers. The bit merely rests in the horses mouth while he learns the feel of
it, to pick it up and carry it, slowly finding comfort in it. Over time, the
horseman will gradually ask for the same maneuver with the reins of the bridle
while concurrently supporting the message with the more familiar mecate and
bosal. As the process progresses, the horse will begin to associate the maneuver
with both signals and then finally will need only one, the bridle.
Though the buckaroos I watched were both riding their horses in the "two
rein" each used there equipment differently. One of the horses had just been
introduced to the "two rein", this was only his third trip in it. The cowboy had
adjusted the handful of reins in such a way that the mecate engaged first when
he picked up on it, with bridle reins hanging balanced below it.
The other horseman was close to putting his horse "in the bridle." The mecate
hung limply as the majority of signals came directly down the bridle reins to
the bit. The mecate was only picked up now and then when a cue went unnoticed of
the horse became muddled or confused.
The buckaroos worked their hands over the two sets of reins quietly and
deliberately. Small movements, asking and suggesting while other movements
backed up the first and clarified the signal.
It is very similar to the process of, say, an English speaking person
learning a foreign language. An English word is spoken then the foreign word is
presented. At first, both words will have to be repeated quite frequently,
always appearing together. Gradually the foreign word is learned and used. The
"two rein" process of transforming the hackamore horse into a finished bridle
horse is no different.
I relaxed in the shade and marveled at the process. The transition from
hackamore to bridle could be as clear as the crisp Nevada air if we only took
the time to learn the "two reining" process and use it.
Understanding how it is designed to function dispels some of the confusion.
It is not a difficult process but does require time and effort to learn, thought
and patience to practice. As always, knowledge is power. Spending some energy in
an effort to understand the elements involved breaths life back into the
The Hackamore: The Bosal
The traditional rawhide hackamore and bosal are similar in design and
function with the only marked difference being their size, weight-diameter and
subsequent flexibility. The hackamore is to be used alone, is larger in diameter
and generally firmer, though not stiff. The bosal is considerably smaller and is
used with the bridle, worn discreetly under it. It should lay nicely beneath it
without interfering with the potential signals from the bridle bit.
Knowing how to use the "two rein" is no less challenging than understanding
when to use it. A horse should be responding softly and consistently in the
hackamore before advancing to the next level. Problems that exist in the
hackamore will not magically disappear in the "two rein".
There are times when a bridle horseman will drop back down into a "two rein"
to fix what he considers to be missed information. The "two rein" horseman
should also drop back down into the hackamore if loop holes in a horses
knowledge present themselves.
Dropping back down the ladder of training is not a shameful thing. Often the
next level of training helps to expose and isolate problems that went unnoticed
in the previous level. All things that expose a deficiency should be welcomed,
for they offer a good horseman the opportunity to work through the problem and
present a more solid, "finished" horse in the end.
A Bit of Knowledge
The "two rein outfit" includes the selection of a suitable bit. "Two rein"
bits are often slightly smaller or lighter in their make up with more a delicate
cheek or design. Though some horsemen simply use a standard bridle bit, others
suggest that a more delicately crafted, balanced bit will help to keep the
horse’s mouth sensitive during the time it takes him to learn to carry and feel
A "loose jawed" bit, one that is hinged slightly at the end of the bar were
it joins the cheek is preferred as some believe a horse is less likely to brace
against the feel of a loose jawed bit. A delicate spade, San Joaquin or half
breed are commonly used with plenty of copper to promote saliva to form. A
horse’s mouth should remain wet to ensure the bit is comfortable and free in
Special care should be taken to find a bit that each individual horse likes,
especially in the beginning of the bridling process. Old timers felt that a
horse should roll the bit immediately after the horseman picks it up and
releases, keeping his mouth closed and comfortable. They claimed a horse that
responds in this way likes the bit selection.
A horse’s first experiences with the bridle bit should be positive ones, with
comfort and balance tended to by the horseman.
Though the process is easy to understand and logical, executing it correctly
is another matter. Herein lies the confusion and mystery of the "two rein." The
reins of the bridle and the mecate are in a constant state of flux. The
experienced "two rein" hand knows when and how to ask what.
All four "reins" are held in one hand, their length adjusted as needed. The
factors that determine what signals to send and how to support them can be
complicated. There are times when a signal is initiated with the bridle reins
and, if not heeded, supported with the mecate, while other times a signal will
be initiated with the mecate and immediately supported with the bridle reins.
The task at hand, the speed with which it needs done, the level of the horses
training, and the maneuvers being asked for all effect the decisions made by the
horseman. Watching a good hand manipulate the "two Rein" correctly is like
watching a master flutist’s fingers fluttering over the valves of his
instrument. Hundreds of tiny adjustments are made.
Where a horse is in his "two rein" progression determines the kind of message
a buckaroo will send to him. Horses that are new to the process will be ridden
predominantly in the small bosal with the bridle bit and reins touched little if
at all. Gradually, as the horse begins to learn the language of the bridle, he
will receive more and more of his signals directly from it with little or no
message from the mecate.
Good hands listen to their mounts and try to ride them close to the edge of
the horses abilities without exceeding them. Riding close to them puts the horse
in an almost constant state of advancement; not exceeding them allows the horse
to build confidence and comfort in those abilities. The envelope will widen as
the horse’s knowledge grows.
The Task, The Speed, The Maneuvers
The job a horse will be asked to do often determines what signal comes from
where. Slow, easy maneuvers might be good opportunities to suggest first with
the bridle reins, then supporting with the mecate. Low pressure tasks like
moving cows from field to field, or easing up to a gate are a few example of
jobs a horse has time to work through. The horse need not respond quickly,
giving him enough time to search through the messages and try different
It is here that a green rider makes the mistake of advancing his horse to
"strait up in the bridle", falsely thinking that a horse responding well in a
slow situation will hold together in a fast one.
Seasoned horsemen continue with the "two rein" for a time longer as they
understand the diversity of work on the ranch. There may yet be situations that
have not been explored. The horse may find himself in a situation where
excitement or pressure require the rider to again rely on the familiar signals
of the hackamore.
Jobs that require lightning speed, like working animals in an alley, hard
moves cutting animals out of the rodear or turning a cow down the fence are jobs
best initiated with the more direct, familiar pressure of the mecate, then
followed with the bridle rein signal. It takes an experienced, patient hand to
determine what to use first and how.
The function of the "two rein" is to preserve a horse’s mouth through his
transition into the bridle. It is this option of returning to the original
signals of the hackamore in times of confusion that helps to maintain this.
Remembering that the bits used in these disciplines are signal bits, not
leverage bits. Signals must be introduced and learned by the horse.
Once a horse has proven himself to be comfortable and responsive in a myriad
of situations, over a period of time, he will be ready to advance into the
buckaroo’s pinnacle of achievement, "straight up in the bridle." The subtle
shadings and adjustments constantly made with the "two rein" are what pave the
way for the horse’s eventual solo voyage. The transition, if done right, appears
The Vanishing "Two Rein"
Why has something so logical and precise fallen from favor? The majority of
average horsemen have never seen a "two rein" in use and if they have they have
very little knowledge of its function. Outside of the buckaroo and old
California horseman’s circles, the "two rein" is practically nonexistent. Some
shows have a token class here and there but there is no substantial purse to be
one, no accolades to claim.
The modern day horse trainer is in a hurry. Most of their clients made them
that way. As training bills mounted, owners wanted results - the quicker the
better. Trainers responded by trying to get more done, faster. They focused on
the big, easily recognizable advancements. Something a novice owner could see
and understand. Small, subtle improvements were hard to prove and even harder to
show when the owners came calling. Progress in the "two rein" fell into this
category. Only the best of horsemen could appreciate the tiny changes that built
a solid bridle horse. Trainers dumped the "two rein" for quicker fixes. It did
not matter that the quick fix didn’t last, or created other problems in the
horse. Time, unfortunately, was money.
The buckaroos continued the age old practice. They had already confronted and
made the choice of life-style and experience over money. They wouldn’t be out on
the ranches working for a cowboy’s wage if they hadn’t. Time belonged to them
when it came to their horses, and the good ones spent it happily.
As with all things subtle, they often go unnoticed. So it is with the mastery
of the "two rein". The "two rein" is the melody and the harmony of the bridle
horseman - the blending of unlike elements to create a solid, pleasing, balanced
result. Though its execution takes time to learn, the resulting music is worth