Continuing my previous message, the best tool a horseman can use in his horse's mouth is the smooth mouthed snaffle bit with a smaller round or Dee ring. Many horses, when originally trained under saddle, are started with an inconspicuous device commonly called a “colt bit” or “training bit”, which resembles a short shanked curb, except for the broken mouthpiece (which is technically what a snaffle is). This type of bit is also otherwise referred to in Western circles as a "tom thumb" bit.
What an awful lot of people don’t realize is, curb bits and snaffle bits, by their very design, are made to work differently in a horse’s mouth. The curb, with it’s side pieces (called shanks), works by using leverage against the animal’s jawbone, assisted by the curb strap which buckles under his chin. This is often erroneously referred to as a chin strap. When you pull back on the reins, the bit rotates forward and downward in your horse’s mouth and tightens up on him, creating pressure on his jawbone which results in him dropping his head -- to relieve the pressure. Ideally, a horse should always respond by lowering his head when “bumped” by his rider with a curb bit. That’s the correct response, a well trained horse should not throw his head or show other signs of distress when ridden properly in a curb.
On the other hand, a snaffle bit is made to work on the corners of a horse’s mouth. By creating pressure on each side of the mouth, the snaffle is a much more direct way to communicate what you want from your horse. Don’t fool yourself -- there are some incredibly severe types of snaffles out there used by many trainers for a variety of purposes (some not so honorable) which, in the wrong hands, could cause serious injury to the horse. Of course, that goes for virtually ANY bit, however, there is far less danger of that happening with a regular medium-to-large diameter smooth mouthed snaffle bit.
With the “colt bit” mentioned in the first paragraph, when pressure is applied to the curb shanks via the reins, not only do you have the leverage which comes from a traditional curb, you also have the snaffle-like mouthpiece closing in on the corners of your horse’s mouth. The result is an effect we used to refer to as the “jawbreaker”. Not exactly the best first impression to make on a young horse...or any horse for that matter!
Another point to consider in fitting your horse with a suitable bit is the height of his palate. Some horses simply cannot handle a higher port in a solid mouthpiece (such as with a curb bit) or even a mild standard snaffle. In this case, a French-link type of bit can be extremely helpful. This bit, unlike traditional snaffles, has a mouthpiece divided in three parts rather than just two, and it tends to fit those horses with lower palates.
Probably the best way to judge the suitability of a certain bit to your own needs -- and those of your beloved horse -- is if he strongly objects to the thing itself. In other words, if he tosses his head, chomps on the bit constantly, gaps his mouth excessively or worse, doesn’t want to accept the bit at all, there is more than likely a good reason behind it. Try to listen to your horse rather than forcing him to accept something because you think it’s right for him or because someone told you it’s right for him. He’s probably the one with all the right answers. Trust HIS judgment!
(this is part two of a pair of articles from 1994 written for an equestrian publication, the companion piece to yesterday's post topic)