What bit should I use? I think we’ve all heard that before… It seems there are as many questions on bits as there are types of bits!
Often the snaffle is said to be the mildest bit. But what is a snaffle? There are bit walls and catalogs with every kind of snaffle you can imagine! In fact some are labeled “western snaffles”. What’s that?!
First of all, the term snaffle is in reality a term meaning the bit is in a direct line from the hands to the horse’s mouth. To be a true snaffle, there can be no shanks or curb chains. The snaffle bit may be jointed or not. It is generally felt the jointed snaffle is more comfortable than non-jointed as it lays easier in the horses mouth. To gain a better understanding of how severe or not a bit is, one needs to understand the structure of the horse’s mouth, and how the bit acts in the mouth.
A snaffle is what most horses are started in. They are condiered to be a mild bit, and many horses, both english and western, never need wear another bit. In the higher level competitions, horses of both disciplines will be required to wear a shanked bit, though. These are finished horses, but may need to be brought back to the snaffle for schooling periodically.
The snaffle acts on the corners of the mouth, the tongue, the “bars” of the lower jaw and if the palate (roof of the mouth) is low enough, it works even on the palate. The “bars” of the mouth are essentially the toothless area of the horse’s gums between the molars and the incisors. The goal with most bits is to work on these bars. When first starting a horse out with a bit, often the head is elevated in avoidance of the metal in its mouth. When this occurs, the pressure from the rider’s hands will be more on the corners of the horse’s mouth. It is rare for a “green” horse to initially give to the bit in the way we have come to expect an older more seasoned animal. In these instances the chunky, thick metal snaffles are often the kindest since they distribute the pressure of the rider’s hands over a wider area. However, a REALLY thick mouthpeice will be uncomfortable if your horse is unable to hold it easily in his mouth. So, again, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of the conformation of your horse’s mouth when judging the actions of the bit. If your horse has a narrow jaw and also has bars that are narrow, the chunky steel of some of the snaffles may be uncomfortable to the horse with this type of mouth and you may need to go to a bit narrower snaffle.
Once the horse starts to learn to “give” to the pressure of the bit and drops its head, then the bars of the mouth will become the area the bit affects more.
There are various terms describing bits. I will try to de-code a few of the more commonly used ones. A “hollow mouth snaffle” is usually a very thick snaffle made of steel around a hollow or foam core with makes it a light-weight bit and because it’s a thick bit, it’s mild on most horses.
The “loose ring snaffle” means the mouthpeice is attached to the rings of the bit “loosely” or in other words, the rings that the reins attach to slide through the mouthpeice. I have had good experiences with this type of bit as I find the horse is able to carry it wherever is most comfortable for him/her.
The “D ring snaffle” is a fixed ring that attaches to the mouthpiece. The reins attach to the “D” and it is still a direct contact from the mouth to the rider’s hands. The “D ring” can have several variations in the type of mouthpiece. This can be smooth, or twisted, or a three piece unit called a “french link”. A twisted snaffle can be a mild twist that is just a bit of a bump on the horse’s bars or a sharp twist which can actually be fairly painful to the bars. The “french link” is a good modification for a horse with a very low palate, as the center of the link in most snaffles may come up and hit this horse in the palate. This is alleviated with the “french link”. As the metal of the snaffle’s mouthpiece becomes narrower it generally increases the severity. In describing the more severe snaffles, the twisted wire would be commonly assumed as being the most severe as it is narrow and has various twists that would rub on the bars of the mouth.
There are snaffles which have a straight bar or a slightly curved bar for the mouthpiece, but these are rare and most riders don’t use them. The straight bar would be the most severe here as there is no room for the tongue when pressure is applied.
The next step up the line in severity would be the curb bit. There are probably as many shapes, styles, and severity of curb bits as there are riding styles! It would be impossible to identify all of them here. However, it is important to get an idea of how they work when deciding which to use.
The curb will act on the bars of the mouth, the tongue, the area under the chin and the poll of the horse. A curb bit is attached to the bridle, has a curb chain under the chin and has various lengths of shanks to which the reins are attached. Probably two of the most common curbs used in western riding are the “grazing” curb and the “tom thumb snaffle” (which is really a nut-cracker).
The Grazing Curb is called such because the shanks are generally curved back toward the horse’s chest. This was supposed to allow the horse to graze while wearing this bit.
The Tom Thumb is actually a curb bit with a jointed mouthpiece and short shanks (the short shanks are the reason it’s called “Tom Thumb”)and a curb chain.
Due to the shanks all these bits will apply pressure to the poll or top of the horse’s head when pressure is applied to the reins. The length and straightness of the shanks from the mouthpiece to the reins and the length of the shank from where it attaches to the headstall to the mouthpiece all affect the amount of pressure on the poll. There is also pressure under the chin due to the curb strap. And of course there is the type and severity of the style of mouthpiece. The jointed mouthpiece which is considered mild as a snaffle may not be as mild when the shanks and curbstrap are added. Often you tend to get an effect similar to a nutcracker! Often, the milder curb bits tend to have a nice upward curve of the mouthpiece without being extreme. This allows room for the tongue without moving up into the palate as pressure is applied by the reins. The longer and straighter the shanks, the less pressure it takes from the rider to apply a lot of pressure to the various areas of the mouth and head.
To give you an idea of what a leverage bit does, I’ll explain just one. With a 5 shank, and a 1 inch shank above the mouthpeice, if you apply 3 pounds of pressure to your reins, you are applying 12 pounds of pressure to the bars of his mouth, 4 pounds to his poll, 6 pounds to his chin, and about 3 pounds to each corner of his mouth. That’s a total of four cues, and 28 pounds of pressure on his head!
Now onto gag-bits. These are creatures of much controversy. However, you will not find them used by many people who professionally train horses. A gag bit is not a snaffle even though it may have no shanks and may have a jointed mouthpiece. It works on the lips by pulling up in the horse’s mouth. A gag with shanks works as a curb as well as a gag, pulling up on the lips and putting pressure on the jaw and bars. Gags all work to raise a horse’s head and often hollow his neck and back. Classical horsemanship rejects the use of gag bits. For myself, they hang on my wall display of Bad News, along with my cowboy snaffle, my twitch, and various other scary little beasts…
Contributed By: www.UltimateHorseSite.com