(© John Richard Young. Article first published June 10, 1991, Arabian Horse Express. Thank you to Yvonne Welz at https://www.thehorseshoof.com for this article via her John Richard Young archives. Painting, detail, Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige, Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427 ).
One of the most skilled horsemen I have ever known schooled every horse that passed through his hands in a double bridle from the very first lesson under saddle. It made no difference whether he was starting a green colt or reforming a spoiled horse, or what the horse’s ultimate specialty was to be. He started and finished the training in a Weymouth bridle.
I was impressed by this horseman’s tact and delicacy of touch. His hands were always quiet; he never pulled on a horse’s mouth. Most of the time he rode with barely stretched, floating reins, so that I could hardly tell whether he actually used the curb at all.
“Of course I use it,” he replied to my question. “But only if the nose comes up. Then I finger the curb rein to lower it.”
In time, I learned to school this way myself. However, I believe that the great majority of amateur riders of limited experience get better results in early training if they school in a mild snaffle and stay with that until the horse’s progress clearly indicates he is ready for a curb bit.
I say this because of all the problems and stumbling blocks that most young trainers and would-be trainers have to cope with is the widespread ignorance of bits and their varied effects on a horse’s mouth, and hence his disposition, this looms largest. The old saying that there is a key to every horse’s mouth is deceptively misleading. There is indeed such a key, but it is not to be found hanging with a score of other “keys” on any tack room wall.
An amazing number of amateur riders and would-be trainers have only a vague understanding of how the bits they use function. Often they cannot tell whether a bit fits their horse’s mouth comfortably. Nor do they understand how a schooled horse should react to the bit. They tend to forget that there are different levels of training and that a horse cannot be rushed from one level to the next. Above all, they fail to realize that changing to a more severe bit is not going to speed up his education.
A trainer who resorts to severe bits admits his own failure. Putting a severe bit into the mouth of a horse that seems indifferent to a mild bit is not training; it is strong-arming. At a clinic I once got into a mild argument with a student rider whose young horse was, in my opinion, over-bitted. To prove my point, I challenged the rider to show me what her horse could do in a mild jointed-snaffle. We changed bridles—and the horse promptly ran away with the young lady. He raced about five circuits of the large arena before several people got him cornered and stopped. The rider was completely helpless.
That horse’s training had been rushed. With an unmade mouth, the poor beast was an emotional wreck from being tight-reined in a heavy curb bit.
I have seen many such unfortunate horses, victims of their owners’ or trainers’ ignorance about bits.
The marketplace is overloaded with a huge assortment of bits, many of them guaranteed to get miraculous results. Most of them, in my opinion, are virtually useless, designed chiefly to separate frustrated riders from their money.
Bits may be divided into two general types…those used with a curb strap or chain that exerts leverage on the lower jaw when the reins are applied, and non-leverage bits, snaffles.
We commonly think of a snaffle as having a smooth, broken mouthpiece; however, the mouthpiece may be straight, solid bar, or curved as in the Mullen mouth. The mouthpiece may be plain steel, or it may be covered with copper, hard or soft rubber, or nylon. One type of snaffle, designed to encourage a wet mouth, has the jointed mouthpiece covered with alternate copper and iron rollers.
As a general rule, the thicker the mouthpiece, the milder is the effect of the snaffle. This is a boon for riders with clumsy, heavy hands; they can’t damage the mouth too badly. But, contradictory as it may seem, some snaffles are quite severe. These have thin, triangular mouthpieces, mouthpieces formed of twisted wires. I have seen snaffles with a mouthpiece that was simply a length of bicycle chain, sharp edges and all. The Springsteen snaffle, which has a nutcracker effect, is anything but mild.
I believe that such severe snaffles defeat their purpose and delude riders who use them. Unless handled with great finesse, they can be harsher on a horse’s mouth than most curb bits.
Pelhams are leverage bits that, in theory, combine the actions of the snaffle and the curb bit. They are designed to be used with two pairs of reins, one acting as a snaffle rein and the other as a curb rein. This idea is effective if you use only one pair of reins at a time, but if you try to use the Pelham as a true double bridle, using all reins at the same time, you get perverted results. The snaffle reins lift the bit too high in the mouth for correct curb action, or the curb reins lower the bit out of position for correct snaffle action. The Pelham’s usefulness depends on which rider intends to be dominant. He cannot have both effects equal and precise, as is possible with a bit and bradoon in a Weymouth bridle. Pelhams with jointed mouthpieces, unless used strictly as snaffles, are the worst. Like the so-called “cowboy snaffle,” which is really a curb it, they have a pinching effect on the horse’s jaw when the curb reins are used.
It is obvious that the length of the shanks below the mouthpiece directly influences the potential severity of a curb bit, but the height of the port is also a factor. With a low port or a Mullen mouthpiece, a horse can cushion the effect of the bit with his tongue. This is one reason why riders with poor hands often develop restless mouths. The horse tries to protect his mouth from abuse.
A surprising number of horsemen, including some with a good deal of experience, do not realize the critical importance of the cheeks above the mouthpiece; or, more precisely, the distance between the mouthpiece and the curb strap or chain loop. If this distance is too short, a curb bit can be a real instrument of torture.
For a pony or a small-headed horse, this dimension, measured from the center of the mouthpiece to the center of the loops to which the curb strap or chain is attached, should not be less than 1-3/4” inches. For a large horse such as a hunter or jumper the length above the mouthpiece she be about 2-1/2” inches. For an average horse a dimension of 2” inches is close to ideal.
The reason why this dimension above the mouthpiece is critical is because it determines the correct fit of the curb strap or chain in the chin groove. If too short or too long, the horse will be uncomfortable when the curb takes effect, and will probably end up as a confirmed head-tosser.
Every well-designed curb bit has the headstall loops bent slightly outward so as to clear the horse’s jawbones when the reins are used. If you have a bit with straight cheeks above the mouthpiece, place the bit in a vise and bend each loop outward from a quarter to a half-inch. This small adjustment can make a tremendous difference in your schooling results.
A lot of young riders are in a complete fog when faced with the questions…how should a bit fit? When is it too large or too small for a horse’s mouth? How high in the mouth should the bit be adjusted?
Years ago a certain trainer attempted to answer these questions at a seminar by stating that a bit should be the exact width of the horse’s mouth measured from lip corner to lip corner, and that a correctly adjusted snaffle should be high enough in the mouth “to raise a half-wrinkle at each corner.” He saw nothing funny when some joker n the audience asked, “When is a wrinkle a half-wrinkle but not a full wrinkle?”
I would disagree with this professional on both counts. I want a bit to be at least a quarter-inch wider than the horse’s mouth measured from the outside of the lips. With either a snaffle or a curb, I do not want any wrinkle at all. And I want two pairs of separate loops—one pair to attach the headstall and a lower pair for the cub strap. Western bits not so designed are usually faulty in other details also.
When should a colt, or a horse whose mouth has been spoiled, graduate from one type of bit to another? Only, in my opinion, when he works almost perfectly in a smooth, mild snaffle. It makes no difference what his eventual special work is to be. If he can’t do the job in a plain snaffle, he is not ready to try it in a bit that will give the rider more so-called “control.”
For the true key to a horse’s mouth is not a piece of hardware selected from a catalog. The key is hidden in the rider’s sensitive hands.