HORSE BITS - Snaffle Bits

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HORSE BIT DESIGNS

Both snaffle bits and curb bits can have cheeks or shanks attached. The beginner bits we will be discussing will be snaffle-type bits with no cheeks or very short cheeks.

Generally speaking the mildest bits are the ones with the thickest, smoothest bars - to a point. Eggbutt bits generally have thicker bars than most and some young horses object to so much metal in their mouth at first. Some snaffles have mouthpieces made of thinner materials such as twisted wire. These put much more concentrated pressure on a horse's mouth with less pressure from the rider's hands(the difference between sitting on a bleacher seat or sitting on a fence rail. Which is more uncomfortable?) and are not usually used as starter bits except by expert trainers.

Cheeks (shanks) also magnify the pressure from a rider's hands to the horse's mouth and face. They are usually not used as starter bits.

Simple snaffle-bits pressure the lips, bars, and tongue. They are used to teach the horse to come around left or right by simple 1:1 ratio of pull from the rider's hands turned into pressure to the horse's mouth and face. If you pull right with one pound of pressure on the reins, he feels one pound of pressure to his face. They are also used to bring the horse into the bit, lowering his head at the poll.

Pulling on one side of a direct-rein bit puts pressure on the opposite side as the off-side of the bit pressures the horse to come around into the turn. Pressure to both sides teaches him to stop. To much two-handed pressure or too much jerk will cause a horse to throw his head up in the stop.

Direct reining puts the weight and turn on the forehand. Snaffles are generally forehand bits, loading your horse primarily on his forehand.

Curb bits, neck reining and combo reining with turning pressure AND back pressure load the horse on his hindquarters as he turns on collected turns.

 

 

HORSE BIT MOUTHPIECE MATERIALS

Bit mouthpieces have several configurations and materials. As you browse the huge selection you will see stainless steel mouths, sweet iron mouths, copper mouths, and rubber mouths.

Stainless steel is, of course, the mainstay of English bits. It lasts a long time and is a generally all-round good material for such uses. Often used in Western riding, Sweet Iron is actually a cold-rolled "mild steel" or carbon steel that has been work hardened. It is often preferred by horses because the oxidation of the rusting or "seasoning" tastes sweet. It also seems to encourage salivation. Salivation is thought to be a "sensitivity enhancer" and many trainers believe their horses work best when their mouths are moist.

Copper also encourages salivation. A salivating horse is a more relaxed horse. The tongue is the gateway to the neck, shoulders, and front of the horse. When he is relaxing his tongue or moving his tongue, he is relaxing his lower jaw as well as his neck, poll and spine. Copper also warms up quickly in cold weather. However, many trainers report that copper can encourage a horse to chew the bit, and copper bits don't last as long. A popular combination is a sweet iron bit with copper inlay.

Rubber mouths are not found on very many bits, but they are, of course, softer than the other materials. Additionally new "happy mouth" bits have been developed. They have a softer plastic polymer coating on the bars of the bit.

 

HORSE BIT CONFIGURATIONS - Snaffle Mouths

A horse's tongue is a very thick muscle that fills most of his mouth cavity, pressing against his palate and the back of his incisors when at rest. (Sit with your mouth closed and notice the position of your tongue) The un-pressured bit sits comfortably across the tongue with the metal resting cradled in the muscle and held gently against the palate. If it is not too thick, the horse will not mind holding it there or "carrying" the bit.

Mouthpieces on broken-mouth bits can have one joint, two joints, or be flexible all the way round such as a chain bit, Waterford, or some of the precisely engineered Myler bits. The most frequently used (and the first bits for most horses) are the single-joint regular snaffle mouth (right). The mouthpiece has two bars with one joint in the middle. They can have straight bars or slightly curved bars. They can be made of different materials. They can be graduated thickness from center to cheek or straight across. They can be thin or thick.

Unless you are an expert trainer and rider, stay away from twisted wire or other thinner materials. They intensify the pressure on the bars or into the tongue and therefore magnify your mistakes. The thicker bars of a smooth-mouth snaffle spread the pressure over a larger area and are milder than thin-mouth or textured-mouth bits. Curved snaffles delay bar pressure (It takes a harder tug to engage the bar pressure) and are more desirable than straight-bar snaffle mouths.

Snaffles in general give excellent lateral pull for teaching your horse to turn, but they are not the best to teach him to stop. (Study one-rein stops. These bits teach the emergency one-rein stop like a champ.)

There are Western Dees and English Dees. Both have advantages over O-ring snaffles, which turn 360° through the bit butt. The rein rings of a D-ring snaffle swivel in and out, but the mouthpiece does not rotate on the ring. For that reason, D-ring snaffles have less tendency to pinch the lips. The Dee snaffle also gives you better lift to keep the horse's shoulders up. They also hold more pressure downward to bring him into the bit.

Think through the angles and stresses of your riding posture. They can have a significant effect on what you are trying to accomplish. Your horse will be trying to avoid the pressure you are imparting. Figure out which way the bit is pressing and which way he will be trying to move to avoid it so you can direct his movement with understanding.

The snaffle's ability to change shape under rein pressure allows it to contract into a nutcracker shape, digging down into the tongue or up into the palate. Also, when contracted, the bars of the bit immediately clamp the sides of the bars of the mouth. This is a severe consequence of a "mild" bit. The goal is to HARNESS the "V".

The angle of the horse's head relative to the ground and the position of the rider's hands are critical to controlling the "V". If the pressure is perpendicular to the face, the nutcracker will be engaged. The Myler brothers contend that the downward pressure on the tongue and vice-gripping the bars are the most prevalent action with standard two-piece snaffle bits in most normal riding postures. The angle of the rider above the horse's withers relative to the angle of the horse's face gives the pull-back the potential to press the point of the "V" into the tongue with considerable pressure and clamp the bars like a vice.

The opposite is true when reins exert pressure from below such as when you lead your horse. The reins pull forward and down, and the point of the "V" goes up (one of the few times that the nutcracker can reach the palate). A sharp downward jerk on the reins can cause a horse to throw his head up dramatically as his bit jabs his palate. (another good reason not to tie a horse with the reins)

The effect can be tested on yourself using your vertical forearm as the horse's mouth and wrapping your single-joint snaffle around it with the joint on the inside of your forearm. Have your friend "pull" on the reins. When he pulls back and up on both reins, the bit immediately snaps into the "V", dropping the point directly into the flesh if your wrist and digging into the soft sides of your arm on both sides with the straight, hard bars of the bit.

When you understand the nutcracker effect you understand that an inexperienced rider CAN cause harm and pain - a fact overlooked by traditional bitting advice that says this is the bit for all inexperienced riders.

Additionally, even if pain is not evident, a rider who does not adequately release the pressure of a two-piece snaffle inadvertently "traps" the horse's tongue, making it very hard for him to swallow. A horse whose tongue is trapped in this way will begin to show all of the signs of bit struggle and become a hard-to-handle mess.

If you can harness the "V" without engaging bar pressure or inhibiting the swallow reflex, you can teach a young horse to soften, turn, and bend using well-timed tongue "pressure" while "saving" the bars for a more finished horse.

 

All horses will learn quickly to give and bend when wearing the two-piece bit. They will be soft to the turn and move easily into the bit. Unfortunately for some, they wear the two-piece snaffle forever. An uncomfortable horse is distracted from learning and is not relaxed. He is neither the best pupil nor the best riding companion. Considering the earlier discussion, a two-piece snaffle may not be the most comfortable bit, and after your horse has understood the initial instruction to soften and bend, he may no longer need the two-piece snaffle with its potential tongue depression.

Because he is already sensitive to the request to turn, bend and come in to you, he can now use a bit with less DEMAND for those maneuvers and more REQUEST - a bit in which he can relax more. A requesting bit has more precise communication and less tongue pressure. To keep your reins from causing an immediate bar vice and to relieve the tongue of the sharp point, move to a bit with a three piece mouth (seen below). The center piece keeps the "V" from forming and stabbing into the muscle of the tongue or palate. If it has curved bars as well, the bar-vice-effect is also delayed.

 

Double-jointed (3-part) mouthpieces put pressure in the horse's mouth in a different way.

The double-jointed bit spreads the pressure throughout the mouth. It pressures the lips and bars and traps the tongue without the stabbing effect. It cannot gouge the palate or stab the tongue but it still applies some tongue pressure if needed. This is also a good starter bit - especially for a horse who seems to object to the shear mass of an Eggbutt D-ring snaffle - or a "next step" after the simple snaffle. A sensitive horse will benefit from the lower PSI of this configuration. It is a bit he can use for a considerably longer time than the single-joint bit.

In the case of the bits pictured above, there is a little more direct tongue pressure from the copper roller than a flat "dog bone" bit. But there is also more to "play" with as the roller rests on the tongue. Copper also helps relax a horse who is having a hard time settling and concentrating. It might also be a good bit for horses being used by less competent riders such as stable horses or horses used for physical therapy as long as they are quite "kid-broke" as far as their "stop".

These bits apply less tongue pressure than a single-joint snaffle but are just as good for turning and far superior for lifting one side of your colt or the other - ie: correcting a dropped shoulder - because the two sides move up independently (without catching at a center joint), giving more lift to one side of the face without disturbing the other.

Remember the statement above, "The tongue is the gateway to the neck, shoulders, and front of the horse." As his training progresses, the more comfortable we can make his mouth and tongue, the more relaxed and receptive he becomes. A single-joint bit has pin-point, deep tongue pressure. The wider the center of a three-piece bit, the wider the area of the tongue that is depressed with a two-handed pull and the more dispersed is the tongue depression. As the horse matures in his training, the center of the bit can become wider and wider, relieving the tongue more and more. At the same time we want to preserve the ability to pick up on either side of the bit independently. Resistance is curtailed. Performance is enhanced.

The next step for a young horse might be to go to a loose-cheek, shanked training bit with a double-jointed mouth

that offers tongue relief but adds the potential for poll and/or curb pressure.

The two Black Iron bits below have slightly different mouths. One has a double-jointed mouth with a straight-up bone-shaped middle and copper-wrapped center. When the rein is pulled back, the bone is pulled back in its vertical posture and has some bite to it as it slides up the tongue. The other has a "dog bone" French Link that is angled at 45 degrees to lay gently on the tongue. When the reins are pulled back with this mouth, the link slides more softly up the tongue.

Neither bit is a curb bit unless a curb strap is attached to the bridle ring. But both offer poll pressure without the curb strap. (When the reins are pulled back, the bridle loop is pulled forward and down pressuring the poll.) With a curb strap, the mild curb pressure enhances "rating back" (whoa).

They both have independent lateral movement for turning.

Or think about the Stainless Steel Kimberwick slotted Dee that keeps the direct rein and adds a small amount of curb (chin) and poll action using only one rein. The curb action is minimal to mild because the shanks have short purchase arms and no actual lever arms to speak of (see discussion of curb bits below). Lower rein slot for more leverage, upper slot for more direct rein.

However, this particular bit is still a 2-piece snaffle with tongue pressure as well as poll and curb pressure. (note: Kimberwick bits are illegal in dressage and show hunter classes. Due to the addition of curb action, they are commonly seen on ponies or where small riders need more control of strong horses.)