Sunday, July 26, 2009

Start From The Beginning ~ Snaffle Bits, Part 2

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)



  1. I really enjoy your posts.

    Back 20 years ago when I bought my first Walking horse, It was all about these Walking horse bits high ported, 7" shanks, top it off with a chain curb and you are good to go. "That's how ya make um gait".

    Fast forward 20 years and I would never put my boys in that set up. I ride them both in snaffles, they are youngsters yet. They are supple and will gait on a loose rein.

    Gone are my days of the stiff one sided walking horses, stumbling down the trail leaning on the bit like he's pulling a log.

    When you know better, you do better, and so does your horse. Keep posting the good stuff.

  2. Thanks! I greatly appreciate it! :)

    I definitely admit to not having a great deal of experience in the gaited horse world, though I have enjoyed the gaited horses I've had the opportunity to train and work with. Never shown one yet, but hopefully someday that will change. Love them as trail horses!!

    There still seems to be a train of thought with some gaited horse folks that you have to use special bits, more often than not with high ports and very long shanks plus a curb chain in order to get the horses to "gait" properly. I encountered this phenomenon when looking at gaited horses about a year and a half ago for a client. One of the farms had the Brenda Imus bits for every horse, and while I can appreciate a lot of what Brenda has to say (learned a lot from reading her works), I disagree entirely with her premise on what sort of bits work well for gaited horses. Those I have ridden have gone in just a plain, smooth snaffle or smooth French link snaffle, just fine.

    I would love to hear more from gaited horse folks, there is so much to learn!

  3. Apparently my comment did not go through

    As I said. I do not know of any trainers that start their young horses in a Tom Thumb. They all prefer snaffles. Preferably smoothe snaffles that are sweet iron. Anything else would cause resistance and no trainer wants that. And I can tell you I have met a lot of really good trainers over the past 55years.

  4. Thanks, BB.

    Back at the time when I first wrote that article (15 years ago), it was fairly common in my area to see young horses started in very short shanked tom thumb bits, marketed as "colt bits". Hence why I mentioned that in the article. :) It was one thing I could never figure out, and why I used the wording I did in part one ~ why put something in a horse's mouth that could potentially hurt them or at the very least frighten them, causing them to avoid contact by backing off the bit?

    I myself prefer a smooth snaffle, or a smooth French link snaffle for some horses and not just to start horses, but to regularly ride them in as well (schooling in the arena, out on the trail, wherever). Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Yeh.. BB

    I have to agree with you. We have never used anything more than a smooth snaffle in their mouths, be it a dogbone/frechlink or a regular snaffle. Sweet iron with copper inlay that has a lot of rust on it. I have a offset D snaffle that I have had since 1978 that is my absolute favorite. Other than that, I buy the $20 specials from Schneiders. Always the offset D though. All of the trainers that I worked under when I was younger did the same.I do not think I had ever seen a Tom Thumb until about 10 years ago. Sheltered life I suppose.

    As far a curbs go, we only use them when we are showing and as far as those go, I like a dogleg shank 6 inch grazing bit. That is the most I have ever used.

  6. SFTS,

    I enjoy your blog and posts. Thanks for sharing your wealth of information. This is timely as my fox trotter (starvation rescue) will be ready to start easing back into riding again soon. His previous owners were abusive and "ruined" his mouth. Though I have a trainer here to work with, I would still appreciate any suggestions as far as where to start with a bit on him. Gaited horses are new to me.

  7. You are so welcome trailblazer!!

    I've got to run, but I'll address your post when I get back in during the heat of the day.

    Thanks for stopping by. :)

  8. Hey SFTS, perhaps you can shed some light on a bit I saw when I was a teen (back in the early '70's)
    I was told it was a "first bit" for young horses. It looked sort of like a snaffle, but what I really remember about it was what my instructor call "dangling keys" from the joint. The keys looked like raindrops attached to a disk, hanging off the snaffle joint. The "keys" were to give the young horse "something to play with" and keep their mouth "fresh and alive" I have never seen a bit like that again. This stable was old, we even had a few old sidesaddles that had been used back in the '30's around. They were kept in good condition too.

  9. Haha, Kaede, I remember those "key" bits! Even considered using one after my boy chewed through his rubber snaffle years ago, but figured a better way to go would be just the plainest, gentlest bit possible, to discourage playing. Those old-school key bits--I could see them having a place with playful youngsters who are just beginning to longe with a bit.

    SFTS (continuing my own bitting issues on this new post) I didn't get that the "humans are inhumane, etc." statement was a quote from a 15yo old article. Many of us have come a long way since then. Certainly my own instinct is, if a horse is not going well in a certain bit, to find a gentler bit. NOT tiedowns, tongue ties, dropped nosebands (though I did try that one, briefly), tighter curb straps, longer shanks, etc.

    I'm going to take your advice and just (how simple!) try some different snaffles. But before I even do that, I'm going to get a full lameness exam.

    Like you described, doing lots of different directions and transitions while varying the contact does get my horse away from playing with the bit. I believe it's because it gives him other things to engage his busy half-Arab mind. I'm starting to get a clue that he reverts back to the old "oral fixation" as a way to distract himself from discomfort. Back in his youth when he chewed through his rubber snaffle, new experiences were sometimes stressful (my fault) but at this point (age 15 with a decent longtime show record), I'm thinking he is having some sort of physical discomfort and reverting back to chewing on stuff (only while being ridden, he doesn't chew wood or crib in his stall) to distract himself. His attitude is so different from day to day--Friday, he wanted to jump really bad and was a star. Saturday, he was crabby about longeing. Today, he tried his best in the arena, gave a nice relaxed forward trot, and took the canter lead in whatever direction I asked him to, but he was unbalanced, stumbling in the rear, and quickly got crabby--- Thus, it's definitely time for a full lameness exam.
    Whatever decisions I make about bits, whether we can get back into competing this year, etc. will be after we hear what the vet says! Wish us luck...

  10. Kaede, I remember those too, and actually I used to have one. Don't think I ever used it, because I generally like to discourage excessive playing with the bit. Seems to me they are still available in some catalogs, but I can't remember where I have seen them in recent years.

    WOW on those sidesaddles...what incredibly neat conversation pieces! :) My old English sidesaddle has been retired to my mother's den to live among her other antiques. It was from the 40's, and I just couldn't bear to ride in it any longer, because of it's value!! Way cool!

  11. Littledog, I'm glad someone else remembers these bits. I was beginning to thing I had blended to bits in my memory.

  12. You are so right littledog, about coming a long ways. :) Most of us have!! But some have not, and really (aside from the informational value those older articles do hold) that's why I am posting them. I have always felt that using the most gentle bit possible was the best way to go, and I never understood the idea of putting harsher and harsher bits in a horse's mouth in order to get what you want out of a horse. Thus the idea that humans can be inhumane. Case in point, a trainer who happens to be a good friend of mine, highly successful on both our local circuits as well as Nationally in PtHA shows as well as APHA ~ she has several World Champions over the year, and her students brought home four or five Top Tens from the Pinto World this year. Pretty much every bit in her tack room is either a very thin snaffle (most are extremely thin twisted wire, she has a few thin slow twists and a couple of thin slow twist Dr Bristol's), high ported, long shanked correction bits and Western-style tom thumbs. Every horse ridden in a shanked bit also has a curb chain as opposed to a basic curb strap. Sure, she gets "results", but at what cost to the horse's mouth?

    On your horse, I think getting a lameness exam would be a good idea, perhaps having an equine chiropractor look him over, too. Wishing you the best of luck with him, keep us posted!!

  13. Thanks guys, that's what I'm going to do. My vet's office has a new vet who's also an equine chiropractor, so that's who I requested, as my instinct is the soreness is in his back.

    On a more fun note, check this out:

    click here for a short sidesaddle video

    This rider was my mentor while I was getting my Pony Club Horse Management Judge endorsement. I guess there's still a few people who can ride sidesaddle?!

  14. Apparently the link didn't work, so cut&paste this:

    It's short, and worth it for the fun factor!

  15. Awesome video, wish it were longer! :) I have only jumped sidesaddle once, and it was a real rush.

    There are a number of folks who participate in the American Sidesaddle Association (, the NEA Sidesaddle Association ( and the International Sidesaddle Organization ( and their events are generally ridden in period costume, like the video you linked.

    In the Arabian breed, we still have a very strong Sidesaddle division, both English and Western.

    Patience Prine-Carr, a Dressage trainer specializing in Arabians, competes in Sidesaddle events, including jumping sidesaddle. I think it was last year or the year before she won a big Sidesaddle competition at the Cow Palace in San Francisco...can't recall the details, but I remember hearing about it. :) It was very cool, and she did it on an Arabian!


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