HORSE BITS - Curb Bits


Now In: Horse Bits Curb Bits


Cheeks (shanks) magnify the pressure from a rider's hands to the horse's mouth and face.

Bits with shanks are not usually used as starter bits. Your horse needs plenty of ground training and lots of hours in the arena wearing his advanced snaffle before using leveraged shanks.

Shanks add pressure by use of a curb strap that traps the lower jaw between the bit bars in his mouth and the curb (chin) strap under his chin. This vice-like action magnifies the pressure down onto the bars as well as adding pressure to the sensitive chin groove under the jaw. The reins (via the curb strap and bit grip) also leverage the headstall down against the nerve-rich poll area of the head just behind the ears. All in all, shanks are meant to bring the point home with less effort from the rider.

Shanks add the Whoa! to the turn. If you remember, we said that the simple O or Dee snaffle was strong in turns but weak in the stop. Adding shanks adds the stop you are looking for.

However, adding shanks to a two-piece snaffle bit (such as the Tom Thumb-style snaffle bit left) increases the action of the "joint" of the bars, making it even more intense than a simple Dee snaffle. The "V" shape changes dramatically when the curb strap is engaged. The "nutcracker" action rotates down on the tongue and the bars with the V causing intense depression to the tongue. As popular as it is, it can be a very severe bit. Even intermediate riders should not use shanks (lever) longer than about 4-1/2" and it requires very soft hands.

The double-jointed shanked snaffle (right) helps avoid the tongue pressure. However, it adds bar pressure that was not formerly highlighted with the Dee three-piece snaffle, and it adds curb pressure.

No one bit can offer everything. What the loose-cheek snaffle bit gains in the stop it loses in the direct turn because the rein loop is usually too far down the shank for efficient pull-through to get direct pressure to both sides of the face. When one rein is pulled, the bit begins to twist and engage the chin strap with a muddied signal to the other side of the face that your horse has previously understood from his simple snaffle bit but now finds slightly confusing. This up-and-out type of pull from the rein loop also causes the upper part of the cheek to dig into the horse's face and press the skin against the upper molars.

There is a better way. Some curb-snaffle bits offer two rein loops so that you can use one rein as a simple Dee snaffle (with direct 1:1 pressure) and the other as a curb snaffle (with leverage). With the Pelham bit pictured at right, the top rein is for better heads-down turning. The bottom rein engages the curb strap and is for stopping. The top rein will help to remind your horse to keep his head down, collecting in an appropriate fashion and turning without throwing his head out. The lower rein is good for bringing his head up into position if necessary. The combination makes a very powerful tool. (For dressage work, this type of bit is considered a must by many trainers.)

However, remember that in the end the Pelham is a simple two-piece snaffle, while the bit to the right has a three-piece mouthpiece with the same abilities as the Pelham and fewer disadvantages to the tongue.

Loose-cheek snaffles are often used as the bridge from a two-handed snaffle to a one-handed curb bit. You can use a connecting bar on your shanks where the rein loops are attached to hold the bit together and make it act more like a stiff bit (restricting its direct side-pull action) before actually shifting to a curb bit with solid cheeks.

Side-pull hackamores are also a good bridge toward neck reining. They are without the scope of this current discussion but will be added later.

And the most impressive NEW piece of equipment is the Neck-training hackamore developed specifically to teach a horse to neck rein and to stop without dishing his back.


Curb Bits frequently have solid mouthpieces with solid (non-rotating) shanks.

The mouthpieces are made of the same materials we have discussed above. The port can be very low (or non-existent such as in a straight mullen-mouth bit) to very high such as in a spoon-shaped correction bit. Generally speaking, until you enter the correction bits, the height of the port is to provide relief to the horse's tongue, not to pressure the palate.

Solid-shank curb bits are one-handed bits. They are weak for teaching turning, but strong for the stop.

Most are at least a LEVEL THREE bit. That is the horse has progressed from his simple snaffle through his loose-cheek snaffle to this bit. The shanks add a great deal of leverage to your reins. That is: the pressure exerted by your rein movements are no longer simply one pound of pressure for one pound of rein. Depending on how long the shanks are and the ratio between the upper shank (purchase) and the lower (lever), the pressure is greatly magnified. The longer the shanks are (specifically the Lever) the more leverage they impart. The bits (below right) have both purchase and lever. The Kimberwick imparts far less leverage than the solid-mouth curb bit below it.

If the curb strap is placed properly, the shanks should rotate about 45 degrees back toward the horse's chest before the curb strap is engaged. In the case of swept-back shanks such as grazing bits, the shanks are already half way through the 45 degrees just by virtue of their swept-back configuration. Therefore, there is less movement of the rein before the bit starts to work on the horse's mouth (less signal time for the horse to realize that the reins are about to request something)

Curb bits also pressure more areas more intensely than simple snaffles. Pressure is magnified to the bars of the mouth, the chin area, and the poll. Curb bits can make a horse high headed. It is hard to teach a horse to turn and slow down (rate back) at the same time using a curb bit because the bars are pressured equally on the pull-back, slowing the pace, but they lack the one-sided-pressure signal needed to cue which way to turn.

Curb Bits are for horses who will be neck reining (one-handed reining) and whose training has progressed well into this level. They are rarely used on horses of less than about 5-6 years of age. Both horse and trainer should be getting much more experienced before this bit is suitable.

Some curb bits have fancier mouthpieces such as the black bit that has a copper roller (cricket). Copper enhances salivation and will help to relax a nervous horse - keep him more relaxed in his head, neck, poll and spine. The roller gives a nervous horse something in his mouth to "play with" to distract him from his fears. The roller also helps to roll the bit over the tongue as it is pulled back. However, the roller also lessens the tongue relief usually afforded by the raised port of medium-high port bit.

Some horses appear to be "claustrophobic" when this large piece of iron is put into their mouths. If your horse has trouble with a low port bit, try a little higher port to give his tongue more room. However, a port over 2" high can actually reach the palate of some shallow-mouth horses, so don't get too dramatic. A high-port gives more tongue relief, but it also reaches the bars more quickly (because it might actually be practically sitting on bars instead of the tongue) and pressures them more intensely. It has a stronger signal. Heavy-handed reining in a high-port bit can turn it into a correction bit.

When asking a horse to turn using a snaffle bit, the snaffle puts pressure on both sides of the mouth - pulling the ring on the opposite cheek into the face as well as pressure on the pulling side. Training with a snaffle and then moving quickly to a stiff curb bit used with one hand can "reverse" a horse and give him a tendency to go the wrong way on rein pressure. If you are trying to neck rein, the neck-side rein is shortened to press against the neck and it feels like the pulling side to the horse, sending him in the wrong direction.

It is very important that a curb bit be well balanced. It should be heavier on the bottom or designed so that the shanks are forward of the center of balance of the bit so that it hangs in a neutral position when the rider is not on the reins. Proper balance keeps the curb chain off the lower jaw and keeps the port lying flat on the tongue instead of tilted up to the palate. Remember that it is the stark contrast between bit pressure and bit neutrality that teaches the lesson: Pressure until performance. No pressure when compliance is achieved.