The Bridle & the Bit
How Headstalls and Bits Fit and Work
The Snaffle Bridle
The Drop Noseband - The Hanoverian Cavesson
The Flash Noseband - The Aachen Cavesson
The Crank Noseband - The Swedish Cavesson
The Grackle Noseband
The Combination Lever Noseband
The Serreta - Studded Cavessons
The Kineton Noseband
The Bit - The Regular Snaffle
The Elevator or Gag Bit
The Dutch / Pessoa / Continental / 3-Ring / 4-Ring Gag Bit
The Myler Dressage Gag
Snaffle Bit Placement
Undesired Effects from the Snaffle Bit
Loose-ring, Egg-butt, Full-cheek, Dropped-cheek...
Double Bridle - Double Bits
The Weymouth Curb Bit
Length of Shanks
Shape of the mouth piece
Curb Chain Adjustment
Metals & Alloys
Fads in General...
There is a huge amount of different kinds of headstalls for riding horses on the market. Some are so intricate and new that one can only guess how they are to fit and work. Others are several hundred years old in design. And as usual, the technological times we live in have created the huge variety, as opposed to olden times, when there were only a few principles on how a headstall should work.
And now you will say that I shun all things new, and say return to tradition. But I won't. Because many of the newer inventions are actually quite kind to the horse, and come from the traditions of Natural Horsemanship and the need to be able to ride sensitive horses in competition, especially jumping.
But here, I will start with the more traditional headstalls, and work my way through them and some of the more recent inventions. Basically because only two kinds of bridles are allowed in dressage competition, and because they have basic functions that work with almost all horses, provided the rider is skilled and tactful enough.
The Snaffle Bridle
A regular snaffle bridle.
All bridles I have ever seen have a crownpiece running across the back of the poll of the head and down on each side, to hold a bit or something replacing a bit. As a matter of fact, I think this would be the basic description of any headstall. If it does not have this, it's likely something else.
From the bit go the reins into the hands of the rider, for the sake of control of head and neck position, the relaxation of the jaw, and sometimes crudely for the control of speed and direction. These are usually of a length long enough to let the horse stretch the whole neck down to graze.
The browband goes across the forehead and its purpose is not totally clear. There is hardly a risk that the crownpiece will slide backwards without it. It can, however, be nicely decorative.
The throat latch is a part of the crownpiece, and goes around the muscular part of the jaw, and actually serves a purpose:
Should you fall of your horse and he start to back away from you, it will hinder the bridle from being pulled off over the ears. Manege bridles from 1600's or so rarely have a throatlatch. Those horses presumably never went to battle, and never had to be dragged exhausted through the mud by the equally exhausted cavalry soldier pulling his mount along by the reins. There was no risk of the headstall coming off in the 17th century manege...
Old engraving showing absence of
In old engravings of manege riding you hardly see any nosebands, either. That is because they were not needed, and thus not used. That's because the true purpose of the noseband is safety in war and velocity sports. Old style manege mounts hardly ever went out on the battlefield, nor did they ever reach any high speeds. They did not even ride the extended trots or canters at that time. But nowadays...
Imagine that a horse and rider come galloping across a field. In the middle of the field there is a huge log tied stuck between two trees. They are to jump this natural obstacle. The horse slips on take-off and does not manage to get the forelegs over the log, so he and the rider stoops over and down on the other side. Now, horsey has a noseband on, and even though his rider has lost all control, and is pulling on the reins with his whole weight to keep his balance, horsey cannot gape open. Such luck! Because on impact, the nose is first and it takes a real blow, but then the neck bends to the side and the horse rolls over on the side. The rider is somewhere in orbit.
The lower jaw digs into the dirt like a shovel.
If the noseband had not been there, the horse might have hit the ground with its mouth wide open, and dug the dirt like a shovel. The risk is high that the weakest part may have given in, and the horse have broken its jaw, instead of just jarred his whole head before rolling over to the side. This was actually not uncommon in the times of Udu Bürger, as he relates in his book "The Way to Perfect Horsemanship".
In dressage, there's very little risk of nose-diving, at least actually diving into the dirt. So the noseband is used for other purposes. Well, the same purpose, of course, shutting the mouth, but for a different reason.
The rider has no other means to position the head and neck than to guide it with the reins. When a certain neck position is needed to work the horse in a certain way, the horse might find it easier to just resist by opening the mouth, than to hold his neck in that certain way, because it loads the hindlegs or relaxes the back. He'd rather gape than work. Many exercises are heavy and demanding for the horse, and so the temptation for the horse to just open his mouth instead, is great.
When the young horse seeks the bit, he might do it rather crudely at times. Might seek support in the bit, so to say. When he does so, a lot of weight rests on the jaw joint at the temple of the horse via the lower jaw which is supporting the horse's head on the bit. This joint is NOT made to take this kind of force while the jaw is wide open. So the horse will shut his jaw to avoid pain.
By tensing his jaw muscle, which is the one we are trying to relax, anyway, so we're back to square one. But in this young horse, a noseband can support the relative closedness of the jaw and let the masseter muscle relax, which relaxes the poll, which stops the horse from leaning on the bit altogether, and the problem is solved. Unless...
Overly-tight neopren-padded crank noseband
with a flash extension.
The noseband can also be used to shut the mouth of a horse that is ridden with too much contact, in unnatural and uncomfortable positions, by a tactless rider. This is, I would say, the norm. The young horse above can only be correctly trained, if, when he relaxes (as in the example) the backwards traction on the reins is light. Less hand 1/2 pound. If you pull harder than that on the reins (constantly, in the name of contact) you will cause the horse pain in the mouth, jaw and poll. This will generate tension, and the horse will try to escape the tension and pain by opening up his mouth, pulling the tongue up, sticking it out one side, tilting his head or crossing his jaws.
These kinds of resistances can be concealed by a snug noseband. Especially one which can be tightened by tackle action to really "plaster cast" the horse's head. This is not only bad because it conceals resistances - it also creates other resistances. It blocks the horse from arching forwards out of the withers. This arching movement relies completely upon the ability to open the jaw 1/4 inch or so and letting the jaw and the tongue drop down slightly in relaxation.
The Drop Noseband - The Hanoverian Cavesson
This picture shows a correctly fitted drop noseband. When the bit is added, the corners of the mouth will be drawn up a little, and the chin strap of the noseband will be drawn down. The noseband will be buckled below the bit. The bit then exits the mouth above the chin strap. The noseband will constrict the opening of the jaw as low down towards the mouth as you can get. This is where the jaw will open the most, compared to higher up towards the eye. This noseband mustn't be too snugly adjusted. It will need to leave some room for a slight opening of the jaws, which stems from relaxation of the poll and jaw muscles. It must also be loose enough not to compact the nasal cartilage and the nostrils. When the horse is at standstill, you must be able to fit two fingers under it, easily. When the horse works and breathes hard, the nostrils widen to take in more air. This must not be hindered!
The different effects of the placement of the straps.
This kind of cavesson is rare nowadays. The Spanish Riding School, who actually invented it, and some other classical institutions still use it, but apart from that it seems to have gone out of fashion. I have heard many comments about mine, such as "it makes the horse's head look plain", or "looks like pony club", or even "oldfashioned," etc. This vanity is a pity! A functional piece of equipment should be used or not used based upon its function - not the look! Otherwise it it like using a cadillac as a tow truck because it looks better. Plain silly!
It can, of course, cause long heads to look longer than they would in a regular cavesson, or a flash. But think about it - you can't see your horse's nose while you're riding him.
The Flash Noseband - The Aachen Cavesson
This is a kind of "newish" invention. You hardly saw it before the 80's. What it is, is a regular english noseband/cavesson commonly used with the double bridle, and attached to it is an extra strap that is supposed to do what the drop cavesson would do - shut the mouth further down towards the mouth. It was "invented" for jumpers, where they wanted the control over the mouth of the dropped cavesson, but to keep the english cavesson part for attaching the standing martingale to. It was later transferred to the warmblood auction scene, where 3 year olds are held up and ridden straight forward stiffly and at over-speed to show off their extravagant paces. It is now frequently the only kind of cavesson you can find on snaffle bridles.
An excessively tight flash
extension asphyxiating the horse.
This this is a double bandage, if you will. But one that does not do the job very well.
In a young horse, as in the picture above to the right, the molar teeth (at the sides of the jaw) are a lot bigger compared to the rest of the skull, than in the mature horse (which would be working in the double bridle and its standard english cavesson at his age, anyway). You can see the upper and lower teeth bulging out through the cheeks like two ridges along the side of the face. These are a good reason to use the drop noseband, instead of the flash. The upper cavesson band will press the cheeks towards the teeth if too snugly adjusted, or even loosely adjusted if the horse resists the bit and gapes against the noseband. In a young horse the corners of the mouth can bulge upwards with the rein aids and help with the squeeze. And common are the ulcers and lesions on the insides of the cheeks of horses, young and old. This type of noseband is the main reason for it.
This is also the favourite strap to tighten too much. The horse's nostrils are soft, and compress as you tighten the strap. When the horse works, the nostrils flare to allow more air in, but as you see in the photo to the left, this strap can constrict the nostrils. A regular drop can, too, of course.
The different locations of the drop and flash nosebands.
In this crossection of a horse's head you can see the difference in cheek thickness, and the sharp edge where the upper and lower molars meet at the placement for the regular cavesson (3). Lower down, (1), you can see that the problem of pressing the cheeks towards sharp teeth with a cavesson is much smaller since the horse has no teeth there, the cheeks are thinner and the jaw is narrower.
The attachment is strapped
tighter than the cavesson,
pulling the cavesson down.
The attached lower strap is not even very good at doing its part of the job, since it runs diagonally across the face, and not straight. Anyone who has ever used a string of tape to fix two things together will know that unless you tape/bind straight across, it will be looseish in a rubbery kind of way.
This also goes for the more common way of fitting this kind of cavesson, that is, with the cavesson part further down the nose and thus more diagonal or slanted, and the flash strap more straight across like can bee seen in the image to the left. This would be to mimic the drop noseband even further. This would work, but you'd still have the teeth-to-cheek problem arising from the cavesson part. So why, in God's name, not use a drop...?
This photo is also a fine illustration as to just how tight you can pull this kind of noseband attachment.
The Crank Noseband - The Swedish Cavesson
Hrmph! As a Swede, I'm offended. The Germans have named this piece of riding gadget "Swedish". I object, you Honour!
To crank is to twist. This noseband was not made to be loosely fitted, that's for sure. The pulley action of the turned back strap, is the same as is used to secure cargo on waggons and trailers.
It's a way to exert much more power than one otherwise could. But this is around the horse's head!
Mouth cranked shut
with a crank noseband.
There's no need for this kind of contraption when you should be able to fit 2 fingers under the cavesson, for the horse to be able to relax and drop open his jaws (although still have the lips closed) as in throughness. This one is needed when rein contact is too heavy, or when the horse shows such blatant resistances as to gape widely, or cross his jaw. Nor does it "help" any of these flaws, it only conceals them. And this one is used with the double bridle because the double cannot be used with a flash or a drop (which could also be shut too tight) or any other means of mechanically shutting the mouth so that no resistances can be seen.
The pulley function of the crank noseband.
I have heard many excuses for the use of this gadget. Some think it looks nicer. Why? Some say it's better padded and thus softer for the horse. But you can get any kind of cavesson padded to any extent. Some say it exerts an even pressure and better support. What pressure is that supposed to be? Some say it's easier to buckle. Because it's easier to pull tight? Some say it's hard to find a nice bridle without it. And that's sad but true.
The padding pushes the cheeks against the teeth.
Another problem with the well padded crank is actually the padding.
What!? The padding is what's nice about it! Soft and cute...
When you shut such a padded strap, there's always some "give" in the padding. The horse can gape just a tad unless it's really snug. But the padding will softly, but still, push the cheeks against the teeth. Remember the cheeks are super soft and cannot fight the pressure from the noseband. If the horse were to gape slightly, it will get alot worse. There will be an opening between the rows of teeth, so that their sharp edges are facing the cheeks, and the horse will press the noseband firmer because he tightens it by opening his mouth.
Altered padding giving clearence for the teeth.
One solution might be to modify the padding so that it only spans across the bony parts of the face, and has no padding across the teeth. This would make the side parts stand out away from the teeth, so that the cheeks cannot be pushed against the sharp rows of teeth. The cavesson would still have its closing effect on the jaw.
The thick padding can also fool the rider (or groom) that it's not very snugly shut at all. There's still some give in the strap when you decide on the looser hole instead of the one you actually could pull it to, if you wanted to. But the padding makes it resilient. The horse is not very strong at opening his mouth. He is, however, strong at shutting it. So the resilient padding makes it hard to open the jaw and let it drop forward and down, like a relaxed horse with a soft jaw and poll should.
The pulley function of the crank noseband.
To the right is a popular crank noseband with all its parts. The red part is the regular well-padded noseband part across the nose. The blue part is the strap used to shut it. As you can see, it turns back from both sides so it can be buckled right under the chin. The yellow part is a specially padded cushion to avoid rubbing and shafing against the two narrow ridges of bone under the chin. And finally, he green part is the flash strap, in case the crank leaves just a slight chance of still opening the mouth.
The Grackle & Figure 8 Noseband
A grackle or figure-8 noseband.
The grackle or mexican noseband has become more popular among jumpers in the last decades. It has not really caught on with dressage riders, and I guess the reason for it is that it's not legal for competition. Or is it? Nevermind. The noseband consists of a nose strap that runs across the face in a figure eight, of sorts. The point where it crosses over the nose is padded and the crossing straps are held together by running through a (usually) round leather patch. It can be adjusted under the jaw and under the chin.
Some riders claim that this kind of noseband stops their horses from crossing their jaws or hanging on the bit or getting hold of the bit with the teeth. That may be so. I have used it on a horse that would gape against the regular noseband, because of it's firm restriction. This kind of noseband runs diagonally across the face, and is thus more flexible and giving, and doesn't give the horse anything to gape against. It also stays away from the teeth. In the rare occasion that you meet a horse who gapes against the noseband, try this one. If not, don't bother. It's just a noseband...
The Combination Lever Noseband
The Combination Lever Noseband.
The "combination lever noseband" works in much the same way as the grackle. If you compare the two pictures here you'll see that they are basically the same. The combination lever noseband is a little stiffer, and does not "give" as much as the figure 8, and it has a tendency to push on the cheeks. It stays away from the lips, and does not rub agains the bit or stabilize it in any way, like a drop or a flash can. It is ideal for hindering the horse to cross the jaws, because of the metal bars on the sides.
But one has to ask oneself why the horse crosses his jaws. Does my rein aids hurt? Is he unable to comply with my demands? Does he do it just to get away from work? If he does it because of pain or inability, those facts won't go away just because you smack on a serious noseband. It will only be concealed.
Duh? Yes, there are studded cavessons.
They are especially popular in the Iberian riding culture. Some use them instead of a bradoon/snaffle when they ride young horses, to "spare their mouths". In this case, it's really a matter of what the studs are like. If they are rounded, fairly flat ones, they have very little effect. But if they are pointy, sharp and raised, they can cause harm and bloodshed.
In Spain this is called La Serreta. The Serrated. Jagged. It is a reinforced cavesson of lungeing type, with serrated edges facing the nose. Supposedly, they ride with light, skillfull hands, or their horses would be bleeding from their noses. I haven't seen such a sight yet, personally.
Added studs inside the cavesson.
But studded nosebands are used in the Austro-Hungarian tradition, too. Not to mention the more quick-fix prone competitive scene. In such cases, they don't use the glaringly obvious serreta type, but merely a normal noseband, with studs added to the inside of the cavesson strap running over the nose. I have seen all kinds of homemade studded cavessons, ranging from those with rounded bumps to sharp pointed studs.
How the cavesson works on the nose, via the bit.
But how would that work? asks the unexperienced. Well, it works the way any cavesson also works, just that it adds extra umphf to the nose. I shall explain.
When the rider pulls on the reins, the bit (red) in the horse's mouth pulls the lower jaw back (green). This would usually open the mouth of the horse, if done with any applied force, and the horse had no noseband. The noseband shuts the mouth. So when the lower jaw is pulled back, the strap around the chin pulls across the nose (blue). When it does, the cavesson and the studs studs are pressed into the nose. This pull across the nose happens in any cavesson without studs, as well. Just that no studs are pressed into the nose. This is why one pads nosebands at all, not because it shouldn't chafe when done up really tight.
The Kineton Noseband
A kineton/puller noseband.
There's an odd looking noseband called the Kineton noseband, or the puller noseband, that is not very common in the dressage world. It originated in the racing cirquit, for use on pulling horses or horses that would go out of control at higher speeds. If you read older english books about tack and this one surfaces, it will invariably be called "sharp" and "harsh". Why, it doesn't say.
I think they have actually only "figured out" that it is harsh without even trying it. The logic is this: Since it stops hot pulling horses from running away with their riders it must be incredibly harsh and sharp, because it can accomplish what a thin, twisted scissor pelham cannot. It must be incredibly sharp.
A kineton/puller noseband.
It is not, of course. Somehow, some very eloquent writers of books seem to be of the "car mechanic" mentality, that if the brakes don't brake enough to keep you on the road, we need to put more power into the braking system, not more finesse into the steering. This is not how it is with pulling or rushing horses, especially I would say, thoroughbreds! They pull because of fear, pain, excitement or sheer drive to win (they do have that, you know). I mention fear and pain first, because those are the exclusively most common reasons horses pull in general. Now what can hurt, and what is it they are afraid of? Spurs and whip? Mostly not. It's the bit that hurts and scares them.
A kineton/puller noseband.
The kineton noseband is an efficient way to stop the bit from hurting the mouth if the horse trips or jerks his head or seeks too heavy support or whatever. Because it moves the pressure away from the bars and onto the nose. It has a restraining function on the nose of the horse, like a hackamore without leverage. The regular, especially the drop noseband, has the same effect on the head of the horse, only, it applies its pressure via the lower jaw (which is pulled back and pulls the cavesson back which pulls on the nose). Only, the metal bit puts pressure on the bars, which can hurt. And if you pull alot on the reins, it can hurt alot. Pain. Rushing and pulling. Vicious circle.
The kineton can be adjusted so that most of the traction from the reins be taken up by the noseband, or less, or hardly anything. It can also be adjusted so that it is so short that it pulls the butts of the snaffle forward towards the nose, and thus inverts the V or U shape of the snaffle in the mouth. This is NOT how to use it.
Used in a correct way, it can help hot, rushing, sensitive horses from fearing the bit, and it can also help horses who open their mouths against a conventional noseband, because they feel them around their heads. Here, there's no chin strap, and nothing to open against. I've used this noseband successfully on many hot/unstable horses, and earned their trust and calm.
Does One Need a Noseband?
The truth is, no, you ideally shouldn't. The schooled horse will need no such thing as a support from a noseband, since the contact should be very light. The dressage horse runs a very slight risk of falling on his nose in the manege. If he does, I think you need to attend to basic balance, not to shutting the mouth.
There are some horses, however, that are tougher and more resistant than others. These individuals might much rather open their mouths and cross their jaws than comply with the rider's demands. On these horses one really needs a noseband, or training won't progress, because the horse will take the easiest way out.
A loosely strapped noseband only stops
excessive opening of the mouth.
It is very common for riders to strap the noseband snugly or tightly, like you do your shoe laces. But the shoe laces are supposed to keep your shoes snugly on the feet. The noseband is not supposed to keep the teeth snugly clenched in the horse! It is supposed to restrict the excessive opening of the mouth. When the horse is standing still and not working, you are supposed to be able to rattle the noseband because it is un-engaged. It is supposed to be loose.
With a loosely fitted noseband the horse can open the jaws some and even open the mouth some. This is very embarrasing for a lot of riders. But if you have the noseband snugly adjusted, the horse is still trying to open the mouth, which is just as bad, only not visible. The noseband is there so that the horse will not travel with his jaw wide open, get his jaw sub-luxed, injure his jaw muscles, break his jaw if he falls to the ground head first, etc. It is not there to "save face" for the rider! (Excuse the pun.)
On the other hand, in modern competitive dressage, where horses are trained into holding their heads in behind the vertical, it is impossible for the horse to relax the jaw and still hold the mouth shut, because of gravity and the nuchal ligament's pull on the rest of the skull in the opposite direction. So in training the noseband becomes necessary, at least if one chooses to employ certain overbent methods. And in competition the horse should at least be up at the vertical or slightly in front of the vertical.
Also, in competition, we have the rules of the FEI, and they dictate that the horse be fitted with a noseband. So nothing in today's rules suggests anything contrary to it being OK to strap the head shut and do your thing. I wish one competition at the higher levels to be done without nosebands, only for once. I'd love to see some of the top horses and riders doing what they normally do in a crank, with a bare face. Some icons would pale, that's for sure.
The Bit - The Regular Snaffle
A single jointed snaffle.
The horse stretches to the still
outside mouthpiece while the
inner piece is mobile and bends
The regular snaffle bit is jointed. This gives two separately mobile parts that join together via a link in the middle. This lets the rider move one side of the bit, while the other is still. As in bending to the inside/stretching the outside. Moving the inside of the bit makes the horse position to the inside at the poll, and the still outside of the bit gives the horse something to stretch for.
A single jointed snaffle.
This is the simplest bit, and what most horses are started in and forever ridden in. Many riders force their horses into a heavy contact with this bit at the beginning of training, and with this kind of jointed steel bar you can actually cause much more damage than you would think, because of the snaffle's rumor to be mild. This bit is assisting in creating many of the trained-in resistances that lower level horses carry with them all their working lives.
A single jointed snaffle pointing
into the palate.
The bit folds in the mouth when you pull on both reins (as in heavy contact). It folds around the lower jaw. It acts as a nut cracker on the bones of the lower jaw. Not only that, the V-shape of the bit will cause it to go higher in the middle and cause the link to hit the horse in the palate. Now, if you thought the bars of the lower jaw were sensitive, the palate is even more so. And no tongue can protect it. Also, the more vertical (and beyond) the head, the more the V points into the palate. The firm Herman Sprenger in Germany, who specialise in horse bits, have recently studied the bit's placement in the mouth and concluded that there's not at all as much room in the mouth as previously thought. They have also started a revolution in horse bit development, which is very good for horses in general.
As a matter of fact, there's zero space available in the horse's mouth, just like in your own. Focus on your mouth cavity, and ask yourself if there's any space/air between your tongue and your palate. If there is, you have your mouth open, and should consider seeking specialist help or having your tonsils removed ;-P.
In horses the bit is supposed to rest on the tongue, and maybe compress it slightly but not much, and the bit still shouldn't hit the horse in the palate. This is only possible with a fairly thin bit, and light contact to avoid the V-shape. Horses ridden into heavy contact, or with a long single-jointed snaffle can sometimes even have a black spot on the palate, that you can see if you open the mouth. Imagine how it felt getting that spot, whatever it is, there.
A double-jointed snaffle.
A double-jointed snaffle.
A double jointed snaffle has 3 pieces in the mouth of the horse. This makes the V-shape turn into a U-shape, which is slightly more anatomical. The sides can still be moved independently, so it works the same way as a single jointed. There's still some small adjustments and issues to be dealt with, though.
Vertical loops making the
bow rough, horizontal links
making the bow smooth.
In some double jointed snaffles the two side pieces join the middle piece with vertical links (while the middle piece has horizontal links) and then the arches can still hit the horse in the palate, although not as much. Some bits, and usually of more expensive brands, have put horizontal links on the sidepieces, bowed the middle piece, bowed the sidepieces, so that the bit conforms to the U-shape of the mouth in quite a smoothe way. This can be fine, and especially in combination with soft/light contact. But this kind of bit also has a greater tendency to work on the bars at the sides instead of the tongue in the middle. And some horses are quite sensitive to that.
A bigger sized middle bean.
There are some double jointed snaffles that have other shapes to the "bean" in the middle, such as the "oval mouth" range, which has an unusually big bean in the middle. I have not tried these myself, so I can't really say anything about them, except that they by necessity take up more space in the mouth of the horse. But as I have said before - it can work for some horses. One just has to try it.
The French Link is a common such double joint. It is an oblong or 8-ish shaped flat piece in the middle, that can be fairly thin. The thinness is usually not a problem, since it rests with the flat side against the tongue. If it doesn't it's not a french-link, it's then a Dr Bristol (see below). The mid-piece is also usually longer than the bean, and thus lies flatter and wider on the tongue. As the name suggests, this bit is quite popular in France.
There are snaffles with the middle bean shaped as a port for the tongue, too. A jointed bit, by it's definition, cannot have a port, because a bar is needed, for there to be a port. But this one exists, and if the horse thinks it better than the flat french link or the rounded bean shape, then alright.
There are middle beans that are exquisitely formed like a ball, with the intention of givig a rather distinct pressure on the middle of the tongue. This is always sharper than the bean shape, and not very common.
There are other solutions to this problem as well. You can use a regular single jointed snaffle that has curved mouth parts so that the mouth piece conformes to the mouth anyway, when the reins are taken and tauted. I guess there might be some horses that prefer this, but you can never know. If I were to test bits on my horse, I would probably first test a double jointed with curved mouth pieces, because you safeguard conforming to the mouth more with 3 parts.
Also, having two joints makes the unmoving side of the snaffle move less, when giving an aid on the moving side.
This is actually one of the arguments that the Myler Corp give, as to why buy their bits. The still side is really still, while the moving side moves. Personally I find their bits too thin and too expensive for my taste. I have also met with a convincing number of riders who say that their horses really disliked the bit. Now, that can be because of their hardhandedness, or the fact that they used some of all the other finesses, such as rein-slots on the snaffle ring to create leverage (just like in a 3-ring gag) and the lot, but for the most parts, this kind of bit is simply just too thin/sharp for riding conventional dressage with contact. Western Pleasure might be a whole different ballgame.
Horses that are extremely sensitive to bar contact can be ridden in an unjointed snaffle, which has a straight or bowed (mullen) mouthpiece. Other horses find this kind of pressure to the tongue extremely annoying, and so one has to try what is best for the horse. But a straight bit can never be used onesidedly. If you move the left side to get position, the bit will lighten/wiggle on the other side.
A straight bar pressing
on the upper gums.
There's another problem with the straight bar bit as well. and it goes for all bars. They don't fit the mouth very well, unless they're mullen, and to a great extent at that. Although it may not always be as extreme as in the animation to the left, there is always the problem of the straight bar resting against the edges of the palate, when the tongue presses on it.A straight bar does not conform to the mouth, and the horse has nothing between the palate and the bit and cannot protect itself. All he can do to relieve it is take heavy support on the bit, or gape open his mouth.
But there is a way around that, at least out of competition. A rubber unjointed bit can be used, that is like a piece of thick hose around a wire. It is flexible to a degree, but does not cause a V-shape. Another option is a double jointed bit with bit-tape bandaged across the 2 joints, to control their flexibility. This can also be good for horses who loathe anything that rattles in the mouth which any jointed bit would do, should the horse move the tongue.
Sprenger's correction schooling
There are unjointed bars that manage to accomodate to the palate, and that is by not being straight. It is shaped around the tongue, but immobile since it has no joint. Haven't tried it, and find no reason to do it either. Can't imagine what it would accomplish, except being able to compete in an unjoined snaffle, since it's legal and the rubber bit is not.
A chain-like waterford
Quite the opposite is the waterford bit, which is made up of 5-9 linked pieces which act as a chain in the mouth. For those riders used to sawing the bit to and fro in the mouth of the horse, this is probably a blessing, since it runs so smoothly, and still causes so much discomfort that the horse will yield. This knobbled and bumpy bit has so many joints that it will easily wrap around the lower jaw of the horse but give him nothing to stretch forward to. It's simply not for dressage.
A dr bristol bit, with the flat middle piece
with it's sharp edge across the tongue.
While we are at it, I shall also express my dislike for the Dr Bristol bit, which is misleadingly similar to a regular french-link snaffle. It has, however, an angle to the flat middle piece which makes it act upon the tongue with the narrow side, not the flat side. This is much too sharp for most horses. And most users think it's a french link...
A magennis bit with rolls
incorporated into the bars.
The magennis type snaffle is also too sharp for most horses. This has had rolls incorporated lengthwise inside the mouth bars, and the reason for that, I guess only Mr McGuinnes knows. The result it has on the horse is that of sharper edges in the mouth and things that move about to play with. But imagine sawing back and forth with this contraption. But it gets worse still...
A chainsaw bit made from the
This must be home made. No serious person could ever manufacture this kind of bit and market it for sale. Animal rights people would swamp this person and he would be brought out of business. Or maybe left to use mailorder only, like they do in countries where pornography is illegal or despised by the moral majority. People would rightly be ashamed to buy this kind of stuff.
A tongue correction snaffle.
Then, on the lighter side, there are all these "correction" snaffles for the sticking out tongue. The plan is for the "spatula" to press on the tongue further up inside the mouth, so that the horse cannot pull his tongue up, and get it over the bit. A good thing about this bit is that it can be used to familiarize a re-schoolee with a lower bit position (which is more comfortable) without giving him an excuse to pull the tongue over the bit (because he still can't). But in harsh hands, this is as bad as drawreins or pelhams - it can overpower any justified protests from the horse. Turn dialogue to monologue, if you will.
The name "Slow Twist" gives me connotations of a torture tool. You twist slowly, and the subject screams. It's not as bad as that. But with this kind of snaffle one can do the "Wrist Test". Put it around your wrist and pull on the rings with the other hand. Pretty sharp, huh? It's the ridges in the twist that does it. Recycle bin.
A Pessoa Scissor snaffle.
Then we have the the scissor bits. They have two (appearingly normal) mouth-pieces which have their joints off-set in each direction. This makes the bit form a W in the mouth as soon as traction is put on the reins.
These bits take up extra space in the mouth and the horse is unable to defent himself against the strong bar pressure on both sides. They come in all kinds of extreme versions, and if you add the function of the pessoa gag to it, I wonder why you don't just put a sawing blade in the mouth, since that must be much cheaper...
A Pessoa Watreford snaffle.
Close to it must be this waterford pessoa gag. There's no finesse left in this devide. It does not have the snaffle function since it has no mouth-bars to speak of, only the "ball chain" of the waterford mouthpiece. And then added is the pessoa gag function that pulls the whole ordeal up against the teeth. The ONLY purpose for such a bit must be to inflict so much pain that the horse stops in his tracks. A very crude hand brake.
Different thickness of mouthpieces.
The thickness of the mouth bar(s) is important to the horse. In general, you can say that a thicker bit is milder while a thinner bit is sharper. The thicker bit has a larger contact surface than a thinner bit and therefore spreads the pressure better. But there are other problems when it comes to bit thickness. A thicker bit takes up more space in the mouth, puts more passive pressure on the tongue and the palate and opens the lips more. It can passively be more uncomfortable.
Then, a thicker bit can also be "too mild" if there's ever such a thing as too much comfort. This can lead to the horse not "respecting" the bit and that he will easily take the opportunity to lean on it or go against it. That can in turn cause all the heavy handedness that the rider needs to use, to end up in the temple joint of the jaw to the skull. This might not show up in the current work session, but can slowly turn into inflamation and render the horse unable to relax the jaw and poll, before the exercise induced endorfins have generated some painkiller function, after 20 minutes or so. So the need for a long warm-up can be a sign of problems in many ways.
The Elevator or Gag Bit
An English gag with running sidepieces.
The snaffle rings have holes
The bit we usually think of when we say "gag" is the English Gag bitting that looks like the photo to the left. From the side, it can look deceptively like a regular snaffle. That is because it's supposed to have reins attached to it the way you attach reins to a common snaffle. Too, that is. Because as you can see in the photo, the side piece of the bridle is not buckled to the ring. It runs through holes in the ring and attaches to the rein after it exits. The regular sidepieces of the bridle must be exchanged for the rounded sidepieces that run through the holes in the bit rings. This is really supposed to be a "two rein bitting", but you hardly ever see it used like that. Just like you hardly ever see the pelham used with two sets of reins, either.
A regular gag-bit with
running side pieces.
The steel bit thus comes with the rolled leather side pieces when you buy it. There are those made of synthetics, as well. The buckle at the bridle and the ring at the rein cannot run through the hole, so it will have to be sewn in.
The rounded leather piece (blue) thus runs through the hole. When you pull on the rein, the leather is pulled towards the rider (pink). When it does, the side piece is shortened (since it is being pulled out with the rein) so that the bit is pulled up towards the teeth (green).
This bitting is supposed to be used on pullers, on heavy horses that evade the aids by leaning on the bit. It is basically a bit used to get about in cross country courses and possibly in jumping. This bit has NO merit in the proper education of dressage horses.
The Dutch/Pessoa/Continental/3-Ring/4-Ring Gag Bit
The most common of these bits was one that became very popular, at least in Sweden, around 1994-95. It was generally referred to as the bit that would put the horse on the bit. Also, it got its Swedish name from world famous jumper stars Nelson and Rodrigo Pessoa, and is simply called a pessoa bit. It's english name, Pessoa-gag, 3-ring gag or simply jumper gag is much more suitable. Because it IS a gag bit, have no doubt.
Many dressage riders resorted to this bit while training at home, because it could control hot horses, and most of all, put unwilling horses "on the bit". People generally speak of 'lever action' and how it was 'softer' than a pelham or a curb. But what this bit really does is create leverage, and by this leverage pull itself up towards the teeth, and cause the rider to ride way too heavy in the hands with a trapped horse who focuses totally on getting his teeth around the bit in some way. QUITE contrary to any unjointed curb bit with a chain.
How does that work? Well to start off, yes, it has leverage, because the side piece is fastened at a given point on the bit-ring, and the rein is fastened at another given point opposite to the side piece.
The bizarre function of a pessoa gag.
The mouth piece is somewhere in the middle and more or less stuck in the horse's mouth. So any pull on the reins will move the fastening point of the side piece in relation to the rein fastening around an axis which is the mouth cavity of the horse. This is the general function of any lever bit.
With the exception of course that it has a jointed mouth piece and no chin chain. The fact that it has no chin chain is in my view the worst part. Because when the rein is pulled back and up, the side piece is pulled forward and down. But since the side piece stops it from actually moving down, the pivotal point - the mouth piece will instead be pulled up, into the corner of the mouth, and against the teeth. The snaffle ring is pulled through the mouthpiece, just like the rolled leather sidepieces are pulled through the regular gag.
That would never happen if the fastening ring of the side piece had been fixed to the lower jaw by a restraining chin chain. That would have kept the side piece fastening from being pulled to the front altogether, and thus stopped the mouth piece from being pulled up into the corner of the mouth and against the teeth.
It would also have rendered a much more severe effect since the mouth piece would be pulled back against the bars and tongue and squeezed the lower jaw between mouth piece and chin chain.
But since it does not, it also does not have any direct effect on a slightly disobedient/rushing horse. All the parts of the bit and bridle give to some extent, when the rider pulls on the rein, and together that becomes quite a bit. The rider can actually pull the hand(s) back 4-6 inches before a really resistant horse is overcome by pain. (A rider with his hands 6 inches back from neutral position has his hands at the sides of his hips and the elbows waaaay back. Not exactly a position where it feels natural for a rider to release.)
First the side piece gives an inch forward (while the bit moves up) which results in 2 inches in the hand.Then the bit bends around the jaw because it is jointed which renders it even more horizontal and gives another 2 inches to the rider. Then the horse starts to open his mouth as far as the noseband allows, and then gives some in the neck. The rider can thus pull the rein back about 4-8 inches with a slowly increasing amount of discomfort for the horse. And if you pull your hand so far back from its assigned place above the withers, your fists will now be at your hips. Which will put your elbows well behind the vertical line of the upper arm. And from this position, you are not likely to yield with any quickness or feel. You will be pulling.
Myler Dressage Gag
The Myler Dressage Gag, imagine that...
There is an enormous amount of bits from western training entering the dressage scene. This, I guess, because of the focus of getting the horse to yield his neck has become stronger in dressage, and western pleasure have already invented all the tools for it.
The Myler Brothers manufacture and sell their "myler bits" and have entered the dressage market big time. Lots of dressage riders use the bits, and complain about that they are not legal for competition since their horses go so well in them. "And it looks just like a snaffle bit..." Little do they know that the small fastenings on the sides make this bit into a glorified jointed kimberwick - an English hunting bit in the ranks of pelhams or other hand brakes.
A gag bit for dressage..?
Don't get me wrong - I have nothing against either the Myler Company or inventors of new horse equipment. What I do have a thing about is riders and trainers using equipment that they have no idea how it works for reasons they don't even know, or just to "fix a problem" without understanding the reasons for the problem in the first place. Like getting the head down. If you need a bit that gets the head down, you are not prepared for dressage competition.
To dressage riders, many of these western bits look novel, unusual and flashy, and are also called such things as on-the-bit-bit, miracle gag, and happy mouth (with a plastic coating tasting apple to take focus away from the fact that it is a gag bit). No matter what you call them, a gag bit is a gag bit, and if it exerts leverage and is not fixed by a chin chain it will move up against the teeth. Especially if the fastening of the mouth piece to the side pieces is running, as on this american gag to the right. The inch or so that the mouthpiece can glide when the reins are pulled, causes the shanks to become horizontal, the side piece fastenings to move forward and the mouth piece to jam against the teeth. And speaking of jamming against the teeth...
In an English horse magazine last year, I read an article about horse dentistry, and how it could benefit the riding horse. The article was called "The Bit Seat" and explained how filing down the edges of the first molars making them angle inwards, would give a seat for the bit. Those dentists and riders can hardly know anything about the correct action of the bit in the mouth, when the horse is ridden correctly on the bit.
They do not know that the bit should never be in contact with the molars at all, because if it is, the angle of the head is wrong, the adjustment of the bit on the side pieces is wrong, or the rider is pulling like hell with a gag bit of some sort!
I have superimosed the horse's teeth and the correct bit placement onto a picture of a bridled, ridden horse here. With normal contact and normal head carriage the mouth piece of the bit never touches the molars. The bit should be at least an inch away from them. This will cause the bit to give no more than a wrinkle at the corner of the mouth, both at standstill and when ridden with contact. Only severe contact will cause the bit to come up against the teeth. That will also cause the side pieces to slacken and loop out from the cheeks.
So this is probably something that some thrifty businessman has come up with to squeeze some extra cash out of horse owners, and another last straw for the not too educated riders to grasp when there's no adequate instruction around.
I have been reminded, by several persons, that these few paragraphs make it sound as if I find dentistry for horses unneccessary and a waste of good money. I do NOT. If a schooling problem persist your attempts to change bits for one better fitted, and using lighter contact and aids, it is high time to let the equine dentist check the teeth. Don't just let the blacksmith or regular vet do a float either. Would you have your shoemaker or GP change your teeth? No, there's a whole sience to how the horse's mouth works, and remember that the horse uses his teeth alot. A person can drink soup for the rest of his life, but a horse with bad teeth will starve slowly.
What I don't think is a good idea, is to pay lots of cash for a "bit seat person" to come out to your barn and install a bit seat into your horse's mouth because it's supposed to be better and both you and your horse somehow "need it". The problem is always elsewhere. Solve the problem and don't just disguise it with a bit seat.
A friend of mine had ongoing trouble with her horse and his mouth. He wouldn't accept anything, not the bit itself, the rein aids, contact, etc. She finally took him to the dentist who discovered he had an overbite, and thus nasty hooks at the front of the upper molars. He made a very small adjustment to the teeth in question, forbid the flash noseband, prompted for a thinner, shorter bit to be fitted lower, and for her to come back in 3 months for a touch up.
No touch up was needed. She changed the bits and bridle as he said, and also moved him from the barn where the trainer was extremely heavy handed and pressing towards the horse. It was drawreins, rollkur and the works. When she left the stable the problem went away. I think it's a very common scenario.
Undesired Effects from the Bit
Disharmony caused by unfitting, harshly used bit.
Many horses have mouth problems which are totally unnecessary and caused by humans and their ways of controlling the horse. Just as much trouble is associated with having a bit in the mouth, as with having a rider on the back. Just like the back looks like it was made to accomodate the saddle and rider, the mouth looks just like it was made to accomodate the bit. If possible, the horse is even less tolerant of having someone pull the lower jaw back than carrying a weight on his back. The back spine supports the viscera and its weight every day, and the muscles used for it, are the same muscles that have to be engaged to carry a rider well. But in nature, nothing ever pulls the jaw back. Nothing ever spans across the tongue or limits the movements of the neck. So that is completely and utterly unnatural.
The bitting thus has great impact on the horse, just like the riders weight. But what has the biggest impact on the horse is how the reins are used. The reins influence the bit's pressure on the tongue, its position in the mouth and its movements. So a bit is not inherently "bad" hanging on the wall of your tack room, it is how it is used that matters. As you can read in any instruction manual for riding, the bit, and especially the curb, is like a razor in the hands of a monkey when it comes to unskilled riders. And with unskilled riders I don't just mean green riders. I mean all those riders who do not understand what "On the Bit in Balance" means. What it really means.
Held up in front to cause spectacular frontleg movements.
As usual there are two categories of poor use of bitting, just as with everything else in riding. You can do wrong out of ignorance, or you can do wrong in a premeditated attempt to manipulate the horse into something it does not want to do. You can pull the horse in the mouth because you have poor balance - you balance yourself on the reins as if they were a rail. Some are totally unaware that they do and can thus do nothing about it. That's sad. Some are just unable to balance themselves properly and are painfully aware of it. This is at least the first step towards doing something about it. So it's not so sad.
Head pulled up to get frontleg exaggerations.
The saddest is when the rider could balance himself independently of the reins, but choose not to because they need the counter-weight of their upper bodies to erect the horses neck to get that spectacular frontleg movement. To do something that one knows causes pain and a
faulty balance plus broken gaits - in order to win points in competition or simply to get the "Ooohs!" and "Aaahs!" from onlookers. Now that's sad.
The same distinction (of ignorance vs. premeditation) can be made in the choices of bits that riders make.
A lot of riders choose a single jointed snaffle, that is too thick and is too wide (long) for their particular horse. This because they have heard that it is the kindest bit. Of course they would not describe it as "too thick" or "too wide" because they think that it is well fitted (or they wouldn't have bought it) and soft. Because their fellow riders tell them it is or because they have read it. And well yes, as a horse, choosing between pulling a green rider along in the field (cavalry training) with a thick snaffle or a thin one, I'd also choose the former. And I would also prefer to be ridden in a loose-ring snaffle that is too wide, at least does not pinch the lips bloody as might a too narrow bit.
The bit sticks out too far - too wide.
But let's rise above the "lesser of two evils" train of thought. The lesser of the two evils is still pretty evil, you see. The scenario above is extremely common. It is the norm. And it causes what you see at most barns - horses with their mouths open, crossing the jaws, and then being shut with a crank noseband or a flash extension. The thick mouthpiece pushes the tongue down and the tongue pushes it up into the palate. The thick butts open the lips so that air slips in as the horse tries to suck the bit. The single joint creates an upside down V in the mouth and the sharp end hits the palate as soon as the slack is taken out of the reins. And since the two jointed mouthpieces are too long, they are pulled way out of the corners of the mouth, causing more of a nut-cracker effect than necessary. The horse's lips are propped up under the noseband which at the very least looks disharmonious, and can also cause bruises and ulcers.
A too wide bit sticking out of the
corners of the lips.
The horse gets used to the discomfort in the mouth and becomes insensitive, and the rider has to pull and jerk the reins. And the horse grows more insensitive and more resistant. The heavy contact and harsh aids cause heavy traction on the lower jaw. This is something the lower jaw IS NOT MADE FOR! The joint at the temple is strained and painful, not to mention the muscular tension and cramp this causes.
A correctly fitting snaffle bit.
The remedy would be to leave the bit altogether for a while to get the jaw joint back on track. Use a hackamore, sidepull, cavesson, halter whatever. Maybe let off work for a while. Then find a fairly narrow, double jointed eggbutt bit which conforms to the mouth and needs to be no wider than that it fits perfectly from corner of lip to corner of lip when held straight through the mouth out to the sides with the rings. Fit the bit lower in the mouth so that no wrinkles appear at the corners of the mouth. Then use webbed reins and no gloves. When your hands hurt, you know the horse's mouth hurts too.
A snaffle fitted too high causes wrinkles
that can rub and chafe.
Ride with a release of the tension of the reins as a default so that your fingers are comfortable. Teach your horse to respond to the aids by releasing the tension in the rein as a reward. Never hold the head and neck into position, if the horse cannot hold his neck and head up without tension in the reins, he needs permission to have it lower, because he's not really coping with the stronger contact either.
A well fitted snaffle with no wrinkled lips.
Riders usually fit the bit too high up in the mouth against the teeth, which just really help the horse to hang on to it and lean on it. The teeth feel no direct pain. Sometimes this is a good thing, especially if the ignorant rider rides with too heavy contact.
The horse can avoid some of the pain in this way. If this rider just lowers the bit 2 holes, the horse will instead try to pull the tongue up and over the bit to avoid pain. This is the background for the myth that horses learn to pull the tongue up if the bit is fitted too low. They don't. They learn that by being ridden into too strong contact.
Here dressage riders ought to look at western pleasure riders for a while. Although some WP riders overdo it and ride their horses off the bit and head low in a stupor, yet some of them know how to make a horse relax, stretch and be light. And they have the bit low in the mouth on the middle of the bars with no wrinkles on the corners of the lips. No chafing or ulcers. Pleasure.
Bone growth on the bars caused by the wear of the bit.
A study of the dissected bodies of dead race horses, in Great Briatin I believe, showed that a high percentage of them had bony changes to their jaws. Bone spurs, like those forming in joints suffering from inflamatory arthritis, covered the bars of the lower jaw. Some horses had a grove across the bar near the lower first molar, where bone had withered away from the pressure of the bit. Imagine the agonizing pain these horses must have felt as their bars were injured by the strong pressure of the bit. They were probably too excited to feel it while racing or training, but the inflamation afterwards. And the renewed pain of getting that bit into the mouth again with the bars still sore and inflamed from the day before.
Loose-ring, Egg-butt, Full-cheek, Dropped-cheek...
There are all kinds of different ways to join the bit rings to the mouth piece on snaffle bits. Most of the differences make little difference to the horse, but some change bit function, and some are better for sensitive horses, or specific problems related to green horses. Let's start with the norm, and move on to more specialized designs.
The loose-ring snaffle is the norm. This is a simple bit that is simple to make, and works for most horses. One of the down-sides is that the ring slides through the hole at the end of the mouth piece, and could potentially pinch the horse in the lip. Another problem is that there is a space between the ring and the walls of the hole, so the metal parts can rattle some. I personally know a mare that hated all things that clicked and rattled. So for her we had to move on to...
The egg-butt snaffle. In this snaffle the mouth piece is jointed to the rings by a wide tunnel in the butt of the mouth piece. The ring is thinned where it goes through the tunnel, and the mouth piece is rounded and smoothely contoured against the ring angle. There is no room for rattle here, and also no room for a lip to get pinched. The only downer is the price, which is usually higher due to the higher production costs.
The D-ring is really just a further development from the egg-butt, but with specific positive functions. The prolonged joint between mouth piece and ring gives the rings a flat side against the face of the horse. In a young horse, which can lean on the bit or be a tad difficult to steer around sometimes, the flat sides pull the entire head in the direction of the rein aid, much like a hook or an anchor. This is the traditional bit for starting thoroughbred racehorses. This is softher than a rounded ring that can be half-way pulled into the mouth from the rein on the opposite side.
Loops for full-cheek snaffle.
But the best
bit for this kind of problem is the full-cheek, or Fulmer bit, with its extended straight sides. There is always an inherent danger, though, in
using a bit with pointing things. In order not to get tangled up in the bridle parts or reins, the upper sticking-out things are jointed to the side
pieces as well with small leather loops. These also keep the bit from rotating in the horse's mouth and gives is a fore fixed position. This can sound complicated, but it is really not. This kind of bit together with a drop noseband is generally the gentlest way to start a green horse.
Another bit with this function is the drop-cheek or baucher/fillis bit. This bit can look deceptively like a gag-bit but it is not, since the mouth piece cannot slide on the bitring, which is a prerequisite for gag action. In this bit, the fastening of the bridle side piece is done further up the side of the head. This makes the bit lie flatter to the side of the head, because anything other than would have to fight the "lever" of the arm where the side piece joins. This effectively stops the bit from being pulled into the mouth from the side as well. And horses usually like this kind of bit.
This bit is usually falsley described as creating poll pressure.
Most baucher bits don't. In order for it to put pressure on the poll, the ring which the rein attaches to, needs to have a drawn-out oblong shape so that the rein stays at a certain position on the ring. If the ring is oblong, the rein will want to stay at one end, and thus pulls this end up towards the hand/rein. If the ring is round, so that the distance from the mouth bars to the rein is constant at all angles, the rein will slide.
It is also sometimes erroneously depicted upside down while called "hanging/dropped cheek". This use might be possible, but it really only turns into a strange jointed pelham without the lever effect. Just a rotating mouthpiece. It surely was not meant for this...
And speaking of "like"... I usually don't put a lot of personal aesthetic judgement into which equipment to use, and I'm not one for big name brands, but Sprenger have really succeeded in making a beautiful drop-cheek bit in their B-ring snaffle. But $120+ for a snaffle? Nah.
Rubber Bit Guards
Why would one want to use such hideous pony club like-things on a horse ever? Because one likes the ridicule of the entire barn and any unsuspecting passers by? Or simply because one has taken a good long look at ones horse, and realised his snaffle leaves marks at the corners of his cheeks. Any horse with fat lips, or sloppy lips, or just sensitive lips can benefit from these. One should however take into account the other things which might influence this, and the first is naturally the way the rein aids are applied. Next is the loose ring and the width of the bit. The bit adjustment and thickness. Perhaps the noseband? And when nothing else works, smack on the fat rubber discs. Hey, it's your friends lips were talkin', right?
They can be REALLY tough to put on a snaffle. I have a tip. Put leather grease on the snaffle ring. Put the ring through the center hole in the disc by folding the disc over the ring. Latch on to a sturdy hanger (or a regular door handle unless you have those English/American knobs) and grab the disc and pull like hell. Wash off the grease - it's no friend of rubber...
Double Bridle - Double Bits
As any other written instruction on how to use the double bridle, I will begin to say that the double bridle is not a means to increase the effect on the horse. It is not an instrument of reinforcement, although it surely can be used as such! I have heard all kinds of reasons for the double bridle, usually coming from a school of horsemanship where lightness is not openly revered, and who prefer muscular power before harmony. Here I have heard it said that horses in upper levels "need to be in a double bridle because they have developed such impulsion that they can't be ridden in a snaffle". This reminds me of an english book on the subject of bits, where it says that "the pelham is a sharp bit, so it is necessary to maintain plenty of leg." It said nothing about gentler hands, smaller aids or a better schooled horse, only that the stopping effect of the bit must be equalized with more drive! This implies just the same thing as the first quote, that there is so much impulsion that one needs an extra brake in front to control it. Force on one end must be countered by force on the other. And then we demand that the horse be relaxed?
I wish I could say that these riders never reach Grand Prix Level, but unfortunately that is not true. Many horses in international GP can't be ridden in a snaffle, without draw reins or something else holding them down. This is truly sad.
On Swedish TV, Malin Baryard has a show called "Bareback" and in the episode called "Dressage Special" I heard, or rather read, the strangest thing stated about the double bridle. "The double bridle is an auxillary rein" a small note said at the bottom of the screen. I can't even comment on it...
The intentions of using the double bridle should be, that the horse is thus schooled, that it moves in balance on the bit in all gaits, bends and transitions in the snaffle. The horse must listen to light aids so that the rider can employ very small movements for giving the aids. Up 'til this, the snaffle has been used to teach the horse to bend and stretch for the bit to come to the bit in balance! How?
Horse stretching towards the outside rein.
The snaffle is a jointed bit. This enables the rider to move the bit in the mouth of the horse on one or both sides. As when giving a bending rein aid.
On a circle, the horse is bent to the inside to align with the bend of the circle. This does not only mean 'shorten the inside' but it particularly means 'stretch and elongate the outside'. This is how the key to 'on the bit' lies in moving forward and bending. Bending to the inside stretches the outside, which can be seen as "half-body longitudal flexion". When the horse does this to both sides it is close at hand to stretch both sides simultaneously, to stretch the topline and come to the bit. Thus, all this limbering up to stretch the topline should be made on the snaffle, so that the rider can bend and correct the crookedness and stiffness in an effective and gentle way in a bit that can be used one-sidedly.
When the horse goes well in the snaffle, and only small corrections are needed, the regular bridle can be extended with a curb bit. (Well, the curb bit takes the place of the snaffle bit on the bridle, and the thinner snaffle bit, called the bridoon, is added on an extra strap. But the function is that of the curb being added.)
So let's get into how the curb works.
The Weymouth Curb Bit
A curb/weymouth in the horse's mouth.
The curb bit, also called a weymouth, is an unjointed mouthpiece with shanks, that can be used to assert lever action. The unjointed mouth bar is essential, since without it, it simply isn't a curb. This bit is totally different from the snaffle in that it works in mono - you cannot use it one-sidedly. It is used to get the horse to lower its poll, give the neck and arch the neck forward, down and out. It is supposed to do this more or less automatically, but can also be used with specific aids to achieve this.
The curb has an unjointed mouth bar and shanks that work by lever action. The lower shanks take leverage against the part of the upper shanks where the bridle fixes the bit to the head. It also takes lever action against the chin chain which fixes the upper shank in relation to the lower jaw. A pull on the rein causes the upper shank to move forward, but since it is hindered by the side piece of the bridle and the chin chain, the mouth piece puts pressure on the tongue and lower jaw.
So it actually puts an even pressure across the tongue, that is only relieved by the horse moving the lower jaw closer to the hand that pulls the rein. And since the neck has its given length, this is easiest done by relaxing the
poll to let the head drop to the vertical, or opening the mouth. And opening the mouth is hindered by the noseband, and to be honest, not something most horses will do gladly given an option. And this option is to relax the poll. This relaxation of the poll causes the topline to stretch some, and the base of the neck to lift and the neck to telescope, if the horse knows how to do this and is able to. This he must have been taught on the snaffle so that this is easy to do when the curb asks for it.
Now, the curb is normally adjusted so that the horse is expected to have a more or less vertical head from the start, and so that necessitates that the horse is well schooled and trained to have his head vertical, but not only that. A vertical head never made a horse well schooled. All the things that comes with it - the telescoped neck and lifted base of the neck must be more or less automatic. And it only comes with a relaxed swinging back and the beginnings of collection.
The curb thus adjusts the angle of the head, by relaxing the jaw and tongue to get the poll to relax and drop the nose to close to vertical.
It also puts pressure on the poll, and asks the horse to lower the poll (head) and thus telescope the neck and lift the base of the neck.
The positioning, bending, lifting and "neck reining" that might still have to be done, is done with the bradoon hand/reins. Onesided action cannot be made with the curb - it has to be done with the bradoon.
So how to use the curb bit? Well, first, I'd like to go into how not to use it, that is, how to avoid using it while using the bradoon. This is really quite simple, as long as you've got your basic equitation right. Thumbs up and wrists supple, knuckles pointing towards each other. From this position, the hand can be turned so that the fingers rotate in and up.
In such a rotation, the bridoon rein's point of entry into the hand moves further away from the horses mouth, while the curb rein's point of entry is the pivotal point where there is no distance change. Thus the bradoon goes into action and the curb does not.
Lifting the curb rein - adding curb pressure.
This is also why your horse must be sufficiently educated, because you cannot whisk around with big arm movements giving rein aids. The horse must answer to your rotating hand only.
So, if one is only to use the bradoon, why the curb? Well, of course you can use the curb too, if it doesn't do all the work by itself.
And by that I mean, the effect that the curb has on the horse if he decides to poke his nose. You see, that would automatically poke the curb lever further from the hand of the rider, and the curb would come into play automatically.
Lifting curb rein - adding curb pressure.
But a horse can stiffen without poking his nose, and need some poll and tongue pressure to relax the poll and stretch. And how does a rider accomplish that? Easy. The best way to further the point of entry of the curb rein away from its attachment on the bridle is to lift the hand. If you lift the hand upwards or even a little forwards, the bradoon rein will not shorten, because your hand moves a tad on a circle around the bradoon ring in the mouth. But the curb rein has its insertion lower down, so lifting the hand moves it away from the curb shank. The curb shank is moved and the bit affects the horse.
Traditional 3+1 hold of the reins.
The 3+1 holding of the reins illustrates this very well. Hardly anyone rides with both curb reins in the left hand anymore. That's a pity, because the role of the curb becomes very clear in that position. A curb bit cannot be used one-sidedly. A pull on the left rein is felt as an equal pressure around the lower jaw, unless it is so harsh that it actually pulls the head to one side. But that's out of the question, in good dressage.
Having both curb reins in the left hand disables the rider from
* moving the left hand more than just a tad
* having his left hand far away from the centerline of the horse (riding with wide hands) and
* hiding that his horse goes crooked by adjusting the reins with differing pressure.
Traditional 3+1 hold of the reins.
The curb rein is adjusted so that it sets in when the horse lifts his head above the bit. The use of the bridoon, by turning the knuckles inward, has very little effect on such a loosely adjusted curb rein, so this rein aid, signalling bend or position can be done without influencing the curb. But bigger hand movements, such as needed for sawing, cannot be made without it influencing the horse negatively, blocking the head, poll and neck.
To ride holding the reins 3+1 can tell you alot about the crookedness still left in the horse, since the rider cannot adjust for it unknowingly or inadvertantly.
Between the Fingers
Bradoon rein below the pinkie.
When the reins are held split, there are many different ways to hold them. The most common, and the one I don't use myself,
is to hold the bradoon rein below the pinkie, and the curb rein between ring finger and pinkie, where the snaffle rein usually goes. But if you have learned to ride and feel the horse's mouth on your ring finger, you will continue to feel the horse's mouth with the ring finger in the double bridle. You will ride the curb like you would a snaffle, and with the same amount of contact and technique. That does not work very well, you can't position, lift and bend very well. Because you now need to do those things on the bradoon, and the bradoon rein is under the pinkie.
Bradoon rein below the ring finger.
True, the curb should go into the hand above the curb, so that any turning inward of the knuckles will effect the bridoon, and never reach the curb. But there's no need for this to be done below the pinkie. The whole reason one holds the snaffle rein between the ring finger and the pinkie, still stands when riding on a bridoon (and added curb).
The straight line to the bit from the elbow goes
via the ring finger.
The relaxed hand held straight out from the lower arm will be angled upward by the rein below the pinkie. The rein and its pressure will want to be in a straight line from the elbow to the bit (seen from the side) and this will cause the hand to tilt upwards. A straighter line goes from the elbow to the bit via the ring finger. There are enough fingers on the hand to allow the curb rein to come to the hand between long finger and ring finger. It doesn't matter that this finger is unused to holding a rein. It won't be doing much with it anyway.
The Fillis Hold
Holding the reins a'la Fillis makes the curb a lot
sharper, so the horse tends to break off behind
the 2nd vertebra.
James Fillis, a student of Baucher, who developed Baucher's theories further, and who trained the Russian Cavalry and left a tradition in Eastern European and Russian dressage, also invented, or probably just named, a special hold of the reins - the Fillis Hold.
The usual function of the reins in the hand does not apply to this hold. That is because the curb rein does not enter the hand above the bradoon rein. Quite the opposite - the curb rein enters the hand from below, under the pinkie. The bradoon rein enters the hand from above, like a driving rein. This places the points of entry into the hand of the both reins as far away from each other as possible. This means that a mere tilting of the hand up or down has a strong effect on the horse's mouth, and thus it is a very "direct" form of connection. I would say, almost a "correction connection" because the curb can be used strongly without employing the bradoon. It is not just there as a self-regulatory function, like in the 3+1 hold.
Philippe Karl holding the reins
Unfortunately, this spectacular look is getting popular. Unfortunately, I say, because I have yet to see a competition horse ridden in this rein hold that does not overbend at the 3rd vertebra, like the horse in the picture above. Not even Kyra's horses. Philippe Karl (left) uses this hold a lot, but then, he is probably the most well seated and well educated rider I have ever seen, and also one who is manic about not overbending. Not something one can say about the majority of riders...
I personally don't use this hold at all, since I find no use for it. Either, the horse is ready for the double bridle, and I use it 3+1 or 2+2, or he is not, and I use a snaffle. But it is very popular with for example Kyra Kyrklund, Michelle Gibson, etc.
Types of Curb Bits
There are many types of curb bits for dressage, with different lengths, shapes and parts. They all have a solid mouthbar without joint, and for competition the length of the shanks is regulated in the rules. I'll try to describe some of the curbs for dressage, why they are designed in the way they are, and their different effects.
Length of Shanks
The differences in sharpness
in long or short shank.
The biggest differences in effect comes from the length of the shanks and the form of the mouth piece. Most people say that the longer the shanks, the sharper the bit. I would have to disagree. I would say that the longer the shanks the stronger the bit, and the shorter the shanks the sharper the bit. Now, this sounds like semantics, but it is really not.
Imagine you had 2 feet long lower shanks. To make them turn the bit around the axis (mouth piece) let's say 22,5 degrees one would have to shorten the reins maybe 9 inches! If the lower shank is instead 4 inches, one would have to shorten the reins 1 inch to have the same effect on the angle of the shank. So moving the hands around on the former reins would not have such a direct effect on the bit in the mouth as the latter. Thus one can say that the shorter shank is "sharp" in that small movements of the hand give direct effect. But the long shanks give much more force once they have been hauled in 9 inches. It would be more than possible to break the jaw on the pore animal, much like a long spit used for unearthening big boulders of rock. So longer shanks are stronger in the actual force they can deliver. But you also have to take into consideration the length of the upper shank. A nonexistent upper shank will render the bit virtually effecless. The chin chain will need to be pulled forwards by something, for the mouth piece to have an effect on the tongue and bars. If there for an example were no chin chain, the upper shank would mover forward until horizontal (which has the lower shank pointing horizontally towards the hand and the lever effect can go no further) the only pressure on the bar is the same pressure as with which the rider pulls - like a snaffle. Only that the upper shank would pull the side piece forward and down. And since the side piece doesn't yield, the mouth piece will be pulled up. A really bizarre and useless effect on the dressage horse.
So, a really short upper shank lessens the effect of the lower shank. The ideal proportions between the two seem to be that the lower shank be twice as long as the upper. Or thereabout.
Shape of the Mouth Piece
The eminent Globus Sport mouth
The effect of the shanks is always dependent on the rein aids. No aids - no effect. But the shape of the mouth piece has a direct effect on the horse in that is lies against the tongue and bars, and more or less in contact with the palate. So only lying there, the horse feels it and its shape with his sensitive mouth. Some horses seem to think it OK to have something lying across their tongue, but strongly dislike any contact with the bars, and some are sensitive to tongue pressure but find bar pressure OK. Some like a thick mouthpiece that is smooth in contact but bulky in mass, and some like thin mouthpieces, and tolerate their inherent sharpness. But those are not the only differences there is. Some, like my favourite curb bit, that seems to be preferred by most horses I have met, has a wide, shallow bend to the mouth piece so that it arches around the contour of the tongue. This is not unusual, but what is unusual with this bit is that it has been adjusted to a tongue that is flat and wide, and not like most ports - fairly high but narrow.
Useless port shape
popular in the 80's and 90's.
Those ports, popular in the 80's and 90's, that are high and narrow hardly fit the tongue into it, but stand up above the tongue, and poke into or towards the palate. This does not put even pressure on the tongue, does not lower the rest of the mouth piece to come closer to the bars on the sides to the tongue, and makes the whole bit take up unnecessary space in the mouth. And just like any space in the mouth, this space fills up with drool which slowly drips out at the sides, and looks like a moist chewy mouth when in fact it is the same drool as you would produce if forced to hold a large pebble in your mouth.
A horse with nothing in his mouth hardly ever opens the mouth to let air in, unless he eats or whinnies. When the horse has his mouth closed the tongue fills the space between the rows of teeth and the palate, and there's nothing to support the idea that when a bit comes into the mouth this changes. The tongue will press the bit up against the palate, although not very hard. So the bit will be in contact with the palate, or your horse will be gaping. So minimum air space in the mouth, and as mouth-contoured a bit as possible, is probably high on the wish list of many horses.
I read somewhere on the internet that the port must not be too wide, or it will lose its effect on the bars and instead hurt the poor tongue. Well...
How the mouthbar fits in the mouth.
A narrow port will hurt the tongue - that is the real truth. To think that a tongue will somehow fit into a narrow port so that the bit can act on the bars is absurd. The tongue is thick and wide and for a port not to compress the tongue somewhat and still touch the bars, it needs to have an almost circular port.
There are such bits, the Segundos, but I wouldn't put such a bit into the mouth of my horse for obvious reasons.
I think this idea originated in some horseman's wish for the curb to have some mechanical explanation, that it actually takes leverage against bone. In the absolute majority of cases, it never touches bone, except for the palate. The curb works on the tongue.
A western cathedral mouth port.
Spanish and Western bitting include even higher and narrower ports, sometimes pointed, tassled, with rolls etc, which would pressure up against the palate quite far back and possibly cause tissue damage if used in the modern dressage riding style in which the rider pulls the reins backwards. They use these bits just because spanish and western riders supposedly do not pull on the reins.
No effect from
This is a self regulating bit. It is made to work in the way that it will apply pressure to the palate by the weight of the shanks. I have superimposed a photo with a catherdral-port bit, both at the vertical, and showing the action when the horse goes above the vertical.
Automatic effect from
This is serious stuff. Do NOT try this at home, folks! Sure, they do it, and sure it works. But think of the risks. Imagine that your horse is not as well educated as you think. Something scares him and he comes above the bit. Naturally you're holding the reins in some fashion, although slack, but when he raises his head like that they snap taut and jab the port into the palate. Or even imagine the rein gets caught in something, and your horse panics. Imagine explaining to your vet why the horse has to be put down because he has a bit pushed into his nasal cavity and it's stuck!
Safety ring for curb chain.
This is also why I use a weaker link on my chin chain, when I ride with a curb. Not that I ride with a cathedral port, or anything. I just like safety. I have simply put an old ring from a key chain, you know the kind that you bend open one end of the spring, push the key in, and run it along the crack until it's inside the ring. This contruction is weak, but strong enough to be used as a link. Only when an accident happens, it will break before your horse's jaw does.
Bit designers have tried to solve this "mouth contour" thing for some time now, and come up with different answers. Such luck for horses! For no two horses are alike. You simply have to try out what fits your horse. Some more expensive curbs come as an assembly kit, where you have different ports to choose from. If you can afford it, this might be the way to go. The only downside is that they have a bolt and nut visible from the outside, and that doesn't look so nice, in my opinion.
Around for a long time, has been the Mullen Mouth contour with no actual port, just a slight arch across the whole mouth piece. This is very common in older pelhams and carriage bits, as well as french curbs for the double bridle. The design is simple, but it does not take into consideration the shape of the tongue or anything like that.
An oldfashioned contoured
Even more common when you look at older bits (and you can guess I have a few) is a sort of port that has no name of its own. It is simply a shallow arch for the tongue, and the mouth piece is thinner above the arch. It's like the arch hollows out the bulk of the mouth piece. This neccesitates that the mouth bar is fairly thick to begin with, and that can be a "downer".
Sprenger 'Lower Parts' Curb.
Sprenger 'Lower Parts' Curb
A newer invention is the sprenger "lower parts" port, that is, there's a marked port which is tongue-shaped and slanted forward. It has been developed to increase champing and submission, and at the same time be softer and adapted for curb introduction in young horses.
I don't know. I haven't tried it, but it sure looks like the tilted forward port might cause submission by pushing on the palate, or possibly by gripping the tongue. But as I said, I haven't tried it. It is more pronounced than it looks from these pictures.
Revolving shanks on a curb
Something else that has become popular recently, and as usual no tack shop attendant can explain the reason for it, is a curb with swivel or revolving shanks. They can be turned or rolled in relation to the mouth piece. Some say that there is no difference between these bits and one-piece curbs, but if not, why do they exist? Well, there IS a difference, of course.
In the revolving shanks bit, the mouth piece is shaped to fit the mouth cavity and the tongue and bars, and it will fit the best at the particular angle it was made to fit. So if the shanks can be rotated independently of the mouth piece, quite like the hands of a clock, the mouth piece can stay in its optimal position, but the shanks still effect the curb chain and put pressure on the tongue/bars.
Revolving shanks see-sawing the chin chain
with alternate rein aids.
"This bit exerts poll, curb chain and bar pressure without compromising the tongue. Each side of the bit can be worked independently for finite control of the head carriage. Proven to be very helpful with horses that like to tilt their head."
This quote is from the manufacturers of one such bit, and I tend to agree with the first sentence. The curb cannot be used one-sidedly, since the pressure against the chain is what makes it work at all, and if you put pressure on one side of the chain, the chain will move to that side and even it all out.
The tilting head thing is not a bit-related problem, it's a riding problem. A tilting head can never be adjusted by action on the curb at all, because action on the curb, be it double or one sided, will always be evened out by the chin chain. If the rider pulls on the left rein, the left shank will move back. The upper shank on the left side will move forward, and pull on the chin chain until it has pulled around the jaw on the right upper shank, and so evens out the pressure. But this bit can in effect allow for double action sawing with both bradoon going left and right, and chin chain going left and right. But honestly, one must think about the action of it, before one buys or uses a bit like that...
of the shanks.
But the swiveling shank, what in the world does it do? Well, this one actually beats me. The only differences I can find in this curb and a regular one-piece curb are that (1) it rattles, and (2) when using an extreme opening rein the top loop/side piece fastening turns into the cheek of the horse, and (3) there's another opportunity for pinching the lips. In a regular curb, the ring at the bottom of the shank will allow for the reins to move about in their direction towards the bit. Just because the shank swivels does not mean that the curb suddenly is suited for opening rein aids like it were a snaffle. So don't be fooled.
Curb Chain Adjustment
The use of the curb is also closely dependent on how the chin chain has been adjusted. It needs to be correctly fitted, of course, and have no roughness in it. One can even use a cover out of leather or neopren to pad or stop it from chafing or acting sharply in general. After all, it acts across the lower jaw and its two narrow ridges of bone.
A gel cushion to soften the pressure,
and stop the chafing.
Some riders use a rubber cover or gel-cushion thingie over the chain to make it chafe less, but that really shouldn't be necessary. The chain doesn't chafe by itself, and you cannot see-saw on a normal curb. If you get blisters or soreness from using the bare chin chain, there is something fundamentally wrong with your contact with the horse, and he probably feels no better inside the mouth, either.
There are leather chin chains as well, although I haven't really seen anyone use one, except for yours truly. I'm not sure if they are allowed in FEI competition, but I can't see why not if they are only chains covered with leather, and has an actual chain running all the way through it. The gel and rubber covers are allowed on chains, so why not this...
The curb chain runs under the chin.
The purpose of the chin chain is to fix the curb bit at a certain height in the mouth, and stop it from moving about when used, and to take leverage against the chin, thus pressing the tongue down with its action. It is fastened to the upper shanks of the curb, usually in the very same ring where the side pieces go. From there it runs under the chin behind the curb bit but in front of the bradoon. Hooks hang from the upper rings, and these should point with their opening to the front, or else they can catch the bradoon, or the reins or anything, and make a mess.
If the chin chain is too loosely fitted, the curb will be allowed to turn around the axis of the mouth bar until the lower shank points backwards, when reins are taut. If it is really loose, the shanks will point straight in the direction of the reins to the hand.
The curb falling through because of poor adjustment
and undue traction on the reins.
In that case the curb has no lever action on the mouth at all. The bit just works as any unjointed snaffle (a straight bar) and like the shanks were a mere continuation of the reins. So like that it is a fairly blunt bit. There is no harm in this, of course, but no function either. Riders who fear their horses "over reaction" to the curb adjust their chaíns like that, or kind of.
If one were to succeed in adjusting the curb chain too snugly, so that the lower shank remains parallel to the mouth of the horse when traction is put on the reins, the opposite will occur. The angle at which the rein aid will have the most action is when the shank is at a 90 degree angle to the rein, and that is about parallel to the mouth. This is also a position where the horse can try to nibble at the lower shanks, and stallions are quite prone to this. If you are really unlucky the horse could incidentally move his head so that the lower shank turns over the other way around. This can easily happen when showjumpers use the double bridle or an unjointed pelham without converters. The best way to avoid this is naturally not to use the double bridle for jumping, and use converters on the pelham. Or fit a lip strap.
The Lip Strap
The fitting of the lip
strap on the crub.
is a quite forgotten old device that noone but myself uses anymore. This is what the small holes midway down the lower shanks of the curb is for. The lip strap goes from the small hole in one shank, through an extra ring in the chin chain and to the other shank, in this way hindering the shanks from moving too far away from the back of the jaw (i.e. forward). And it does not have to be adjusted more than once - you can easily put the bridle on and off without opening it.
45 degree angle to the mouth.
Now back to the chain. The ideal is to adjust the chain so that the lower shanks are at a 45 o angle to the mouth when the reins are tauted (without firm pressure). As soon as traction on the reins make the chain go taut, the bit comes into action. The chain fixes the upper shank in relation to the lower jaw so that all action on the lower shank is translated into an equal pressure across the tongue (mouth bar) and back of the jaw (chain). One can easily imagine the tongue being the more sensitive part.
So, when we see a horse ridden with the lower shanks pointing backwards in the direction of the rein, is this then necessarily a faulty chin chain adjustment?
I would say, usually not. Many of these horses would have their bits in perfect angle to the mouth if they were ridden with a more normal rein pressure. So what is it that gives to allow the shanks to be pulled this far back?
The tongue is pressed down by the
action of the curb.
The answer is, the tongue.
If you look inside the mouth of an unbridled horse you will find that, contrary to the belief that the tongue is a thin "neck tie" like structure coming out of the back of the mouth, the tongue is a very thick loaf-like muscle that emerges from the space between the lower rows of teeth, even quite far down. Only the tip of the tongue is thin - the part we see when the horse licks his lips, etc.
With the force of the leverage of the bit, this muscle can be compressed by the riders traction on the reins, even to the point where a normally fitted chin chain will allow the bit to "fall through" so that the shank is in line with the rein. The tongue is soft and compressible. But it is also a muscle. It needs blood flow and has nerves and can thus hurt. How nice can it be to work through a session with a steel bar pressing the tongue down and cutting of its blood supply?
Rein Pressure on the Curb
Test the pressure from the curb on your own foot.
A friend and fellow worshipper in our "lightness cult" (joke) showed me a neat test the other day. She put the foot into the curb to replace the horse's jaw and tongue, and applied traction on the reins. We all tried it. Now that really tells you something. With the kind of contact I'm used to riding with, the top side of the foot just felt slightly uncomfortable after a few minutes. So I moved the reins some, released and applied again. Still tolerable. But then I applied the kind of tension that one sees others ride with from time to time, and I all of a sudden understood why some riders have a hard time "getting their horses used to" the double bridle. Pain! Constant, unavoidable pain. I admire those horses who manage to cope with this, and manage to move forward into this kind of contact with just some "added leg aids".
Then there's the size of the curb width-wise. How wide a curb ought one to fit ti the horse? The really only problem with a curb that is too wide is that it sticks out at the sides and can get caught in things, and it probably moves around more since neither it nor the chain is snug all around the jaw.
The much bigger problem is when the curb is too narrow so that it presses the lips against the teeth. The top shanks also need to give clearance to the wider upper jaw so that the skin is not pressed into the bone.
The Pelham Bit
The pelham has recently had a revival, in alternative dressage circuits. Several books have been published on the use of pelhams for dressage or general riding, and big names, like Sylvia Loch and Heather Moffat, recommend them for training and even allow them for showing within their special "Classical Riding Club". To be honest, they don't recommend them for showing, but they allow them, rather than having riders sit and fight their horses into flexion with a snaffle.
But what is a pelham? A pelham is a curb bit, much like the dressage weymouth curb bit of the double bridle. The difference is that it is used alone. You could take the curb from the double and use it as a single bit and it would more or less be a pelham. But they look a little different, if you compare the pelham proper to the weymouth. That's because they should be used differently.
The pelham has fastenings at the side of the mouthbar, much like a snaffle. That's because it's supposed to be used as a snaffle, and have a rein attached to it and this should be the primary rein used. Then it also has a shank like the weymouth and that has a rein attached, and that rein should be used like the curb rein of the double bridle - for flexion of the poll and lowering of the head.
But most riders using it only attach reins to the shank or possibly use a delta (converters) between the two rings. The converters will cause the reins to primarily put traction on the upper ring, and if more force is applied, put traction on the shank. The problem with that is that most of these riders have heavy traction on the reins from the start.
And speaking of problems... There are problems with capital P regarding riding dressage with a pelham. The first one being that if you have a straight mouth bar, you cannot position the horse in the poll or loosen the jaw one-sidedly. But that could be solved by using a jointed mouthbar on your pelham. Now another problem arises. The jointed mouthbar does not work very well with the chin chain (that you need for the curb) because the chin chain will be tightened by the traction on the curb reins and it will wrap the jointed mouthbar around the lower jaw. So there will be a lot of mobility, to the point of slack, with a jointed mouth piece. So, you thighten the chain more. But you still have a mouth piece that is wrapped around the lower jaw of the horse. For this setup to work, the horse must be extremely light, as in well-schooled. A cob that would be fighting with the regular snaffle, rarely is.
I would suggest such a horse to be schooled in a regular snaffle in bending and positioning exercises and flexions, preferably at slower speeds (stand-still, walk...). I would further suggest such a horse to be ridden in quicker, more energetic paces in a hackamore, for schooling balance, strength and only a basic form of longitudal flexion at trot and canter.
The Mikmar Combination Bit
The mikmar Combination Bit.
You probably guessed that I will barf all over this paragraph as soon as you read the headline. It's not a bad guess. But sometimes understatements are better at saying what one really means, instead of shooting wildly with a curse word machine-gun.
First of all, I would like to say that a Mikmar combination bit has nothing to do with training a horse for dressage. It is a western bit. It is quite useless for training a horse for anything other than go, stop and possibly flex vertically, because it's a straight mouth-bar bit like the pelham above.
Many of my friends throw fits when they see a photo of the bit, calling it a torture device, cruel gadget and so on. But I'm not so sure. It is fairly thick, and does not have a nut-cracker effect since it's straight, and has some way of transferring the pressure from the mouth to the nose and poll, in a relatively soft way. I think it's quite hard to inflict pain with this bit.
And, according to it's creator Frank Evans, that's what the intentions were. To actually stop bad riders from hurting their horses in the mouth:
"But many riders need time to develop good hands. It's real easy to mess up the mouth, so riders needed a bit that was mild but effective... He needed something to protect the horse's mouth while the owner was learning to ride."
So, to put it in clear text, this is a bit for people who can't ride. And people who can't ride shouldn't train horses for dressage, they should train themselves. Wether they do so with a Mikmar or something else, is up to them, I don't think it will hurt anyone, except those who spend the $150 without really being able to afford it, because they find no better way. But that's volontary.
Top jumping riders use it, even though they presumably know how to ride. But they school what I earlier stated as "go, stop and possibly flex vertically" and they also try to clear fences. In the show jumping arena, a hot horse can pull or throw the head up hard because it wants to go, or because it wants to manage its own head, or because the traditional bit hurts like hell when the rider pulls. If any of this is made easier with the Mikmar, shoot. But in dressage training, you need to handle that with schooling, trust and skill instead.
Metals & Alloys
Sweet iron and copper snaffle.
New metalls and alloys are invented every year in the horse bit industry. There used to be a time not so long ago when almost all bits were made of nickel, nickel/iron alloys, or simply sweet black iron. The black iron bits are still used today, a lot of them in the western dicipline, and it is still a fine bit metal. Lovely, I would say. Except for the sour fact that it rusts in contact with water, as in saliva.
But that can be fixed by simply remembering to wipe it dry after taking the bridle off. Horses usually like the taste of the oxidizing iron in their mouths, and I have tried it myself. Tastes a heck lot better than stainless.
There's another problem as well - it's black. I have never seen a dressage horse fitted with a black set of bits. Well, a few spaniards, but it was hard to tell because of all the other frills and ruffles that they decorate themselves and the horses with. No FEI dressage combos, anyway. I have never seen an english double bridle bit set in sweet iron in a tack shop, either, so I can't blame anyone for not using it. If there was one, I'd buy it! But maybe I'm alone in that sentiment...
They found out long ago that nickel doesn't rust. So most of the bits from the 20's, and 30's in my chamber of horrors are made from nickel or nickel alloys of some form. One might be surprised of the absence of nickel allergy in both humans and horses back then. Nickel is a soft, pliable yellowish silvery metal that is tough to get polished up to a shine. In other words, it's dull. The bits were also a bit dull, since nickel is difficult to get sturdy if too thin. Needless to say, hardly anyone uses nickel bits anymore, and they are not frequently manufactured either.
Stainless steel is very common today, simply because it's stainless, hard, shiny and fairly inexpensive. It is in fact a nickel alloy, even though the nickel is only 8%. The rest is 18% chromium and the rest is iron. Some also have a mere 2% molybdenum. Stainless steel is a bright silvery metal that is relatively easy to get polished up to a shine. Thus the prevalence in dressage bits.
Open safety stirrup
with rubberband -
For a while brass became very popular, mainly because of it's colour. It is an alloy of copper and zinc and has the colour of gold. Unfortunately, it's quite soft, scratches easily and actually warps in you tack box. For example, there are hardly any open side safety stirrups made from brass, because they simply bend out of shape if you post the trot.
But there are other alloys that have better performance strength-wise, and Sprenger's aurigan is one such alloy. It has a lot of copper, which oxidizes and tastes good, but it's still not very soft. It has no nickel in it, which can be good to know for those with allergy concerns. It also supposedly tastes good.
Then there's German Silver which is an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel that is white and shiny like stainless steel. The German Steel has no taste bacause of the nickel content.
There are other alloys as well, but they are usually a mix of the above, and have about the same tastes and shines as the above.
Twisted copper wire scissor snaffle - duh!
Copper is rarely used as it is in bits, because it's too soft. It is used in the middle bean for it's taste, or in the feared twisted wire bits. I guess because it's an easy metal to twist. Anyway, don't use twisted bits, they hurt.
Some older bits can be stamped "neverrust" or "never rust". They can be made of either nickel alloys, nickel only, or from stainless steel. Some are even made from chrome plated brass, like one in my chamber of horrors. Needless to say, it's very hard to use without it being worn down and blotchy. The "neverrust" label was simply one saying that it wouldn't rust. Not specifying any materials.
Webbed reins with stopper notches.
In dressage, the two reins are buckled together at the ends. They are also quite long, long enough for the horse to stretch all the way down to the ground, or possibly, for the rider not to lose them if the horse snatches them with his head. Traditionally, reins were made from flat leather, or if they were of a less expensive kind, from strong canvas band and added on stopper notches of leather to be able to hold on to the reins. The leather reins could also have these stoppers.
Rubber reins for holding on to.
New and "improved" riding has invented all kinds of reins, that are readily available in the tack shops. One such thing is rubber reins, which are regular reins with a noduled rubber surface added to give you a really secure grip. They are perfectly suited to their intentional area of use - cross-country riding in rainy weather. I wouldn't want to ride that fast in difficult terrain with my daily soaped and oiled leather reins as the only means of contact, if I was galloping and soaked with rain!
Notches on the reins
But to have to rely on rubber grip to ride schooling exercises in the basking sun ought to tell you there's something seriously wrong, either with your hands or with the contact or your horse's way of going.
A very common problem, it appears, is the reins slipping out of the hands. This is basically the reason for all the "super grip" products in the tack shops. Long ago, the only aid against the reins slipping were the leather stoppers sewn on at 4 inch intervals on webbed or flat leather reins.
Rubber reins for holding on to.
They can help you secure your grip on the rein by either placing it inside your hand so it hinges on your ring finger, or just coming out of your hand so that it hinges on the tip of your thumb.
There are two errors to that idea. 1, continous contact should never be so strong that it becomes problematic to keep the reins in the hand, and 2, the hand must be rotated so that you can see the nails, and relaxed and free of tension. If so, the rein will take a sharp turn inside the hand, and the grip will be sufficient.
The problem of slipping reins cannot be fixed with rubber coating on the reins, super grip golves, stick-on glue smeared over the reins, or sewn on leather notches. Those will only help you to keep training your biceps in this sub-standard fashion!
Tack Fads in General
There are a lot of things that could go under gadgets that I have placed, or will place here, under Tack Fads. I place them here because they have no ill effect on the horse, only your wallet and the fact that you will look suspiciously gullable in some people's eyes. Mine included. But there's a slim chance you'll ever meet me so that I can see you, so nevermind, really.
Oooh, the Padding!
The Jacson 'Immer' Bridle.
I've already been over the padded nosebands and their not so innocent effects. But a few years ago, bridles started popping up, that had padded browbands (and I don't just mean lined with white leather) and padded crownpieces (but not in white, thank God). Suddenly, level-headed people I've known for some time found it necessary to buy these not entirely inexpensive bridles, that were naturally endorsed by some mega-star.
These were half-lined with soft, probably chrome tanned, leather that was filled with rubber foam. Soft and nice, sure. But how long will it keep its shape (chrome tanned leather stretches) and most of all, is it really needed?
On a simple snaffle bridle, the crown piece hardly ever puts pressure on the back of the neck. To make it do that, you need to use a gag or a pelham, to make the lever effect pull the crownpiece down. Or you must tighten the noseband so hard, that the noseband moves further down because of the wedge-shape of the head. The crown piece should never go against the back of the ears, and if it does, the browband is too small (like in this photo to the right).
Have you ever seen a horse with wear behind his ears? Bald patches or even roughed up hair or split ends? I thought not. This is not a rubbing spot...
The Comfort Quirk
Some brand of Comfort Bridle.
Then, we learned, that even the back strap of the noseband is uncomfortable, and needs some fixing. It must go on the outside of the bridle, and for it to do that you must buy a new, big-name endorsed $200 bridle.
No you don't. But this bridle is marketed as specially kind, and the same goes for this one as the aforementioned. Ever seen any roughed up hairs behind the ears or maybe the horse becomes bruised under the skin from the pressure? What pressure? Even if it's a double bridle, there isn't supposed to be that kind of pressure. And the bridoon hanger and the noseband can lie side by side under the crown piece and be just as wide, flat and comfortable as anything. If it's a double, you still have the very same problem with the bridoon hanger if you put the noseband on the outside, and what will you do about that?
The best part of this is, that you can make this one yourself. Cut a hole in the sidepiece just above the browband, and put the noseband through it. But then, it will not have some German mega-star's signature on it, that's true.
This bridle won't hurt you or your horse. Hey, if enough people would buy it, it would boost both the American and German economic markets. But I won't buy it even if its on sale. Because...
Despite of all the comfort we are talking here, these bridles still come readily equipped with - yes, you guessed it - a CRANK NOSEBAND and RUBBER REINS! The horse's poll must be comfortable, while you strap his head shut by tackle action and pull on the rubber-clad reins. Jesus!
A Matter of Taste
White padding - dull horse.
If you have a poor complexion and don't get much sun, be sure to use a white collared shirt to brighten up and get some contrast. That old 50's thing is what must have struck bridle designers 10+ years ago. Let's line the bridle with white, to perk things up! White leather, and let's puff it up with rubber foam to get some pizzaz and volume. That's more 80-ish, like the shoulder pads and fountain hair-do. Thank God it's fading now!
Still, it's a matter of taste, and if you want the bridle to show more than the horse it's great. If you want to show your horse's pretty face, don't obscure it with fluffy white padding. Or silvery padding, for that matter, which will probably be the new craze. Check out the Salzgeber bridle line.
Leather cannot be made to take on the colour of silver or white. You can paint silver or white on the surface of the leather, but what the eye will see then, is a coat of paint, not the leather with its natural surface. And this white or silver/gold paint coat crackles and chips, and looks fairly plastic in general, if you are at all used to look at leather, or leather quality. Not to mention that it takes the attention away from the face of your horse. I'd rather hear "What a cute horse" than "What a nice bridle".
Black or Brown?
The white paint layer chips off
So what colours can leather have, then? Well, basically, leather can be "anilin dyed" where the pigments go into the leather and thus lets the structure of the leather show, in quite a few colours. It can be yellowish, red, maroon, honey, brown, grayish, black. The anilin in itself is red, and small amounts of other dyes can be added and mix with the leather's natural pink/beige/tan colour. So the dyes are not necessarily bright neon colours.
So, we can begin to conclude that there are surface paints on leather (like the white and silver above), and there's the anilin type dye that is translucent and goes into the leather, leaving the surface textures natural and "alive". I doubt they use anilin anymore, since it's toxic and a carcinogen. I will disregard all of the surface types of dyes, since I find them hideous and they remind me of ladies high heels shoes in the colours of the rainbow. Among those of anilin type, the tack shops basically carry black and quite a few shades of brown.
If you want to match a new noseband to your old bridle, you're going to wish you'd chosen black. Because the varieties of the shades of brown are endless. This is the problem with brown. And the only other problem is that it looks awkward on jet black horses, but that's usually not a problem many encounter.
Traditionally, and that's a view that I share, black tack is considered inferior in quality and used only for harness driving. This is so, because lesser quality leather could be made to look OK with an all-covering black dye, or even a surface paint layer type colour. The leather's own structure can be hidden with massive amounts of black dye, and it will still look OK. To begin with, anyway.
Also, the nicer anilin dyed black leather is actually over-dyed because you need massive amounts of red to make it look black. Sooner or later, usually sooner, some of the dye fades or seeps out, and you have faded tack (and a black/red bum). Some more modern tack does not turn brown on the faded spots, but greenish gray. This is because some other dye has also been used (a dark green ink, or the like) and as the leather is over-loaded with dye some dye goes out during use. Could be the anilin...
This doesn't happen with genuine anilin dyed brown tack. As it is worn, it will take on a darker shade of brown, but it will never lose colour. Because it has not been over-loaded from the start. But if you use old tack like I do, be sure not to use the teeth for undoing buckles or other. It is actually a poisonous dye...
Hook Studs, Buckels, Snap Hooks or Eventer Loops
Smooth hook stud fastenings.
This is usually a matter of esthetical preference. The look seems to be the most deciding factor, while function is basically the same. 50 years ago, there was hardly anything but hook studs, at least on riding tack. Buckes were reserved for driving harnesses or less quality tack because it was considered less stylish. Apparently that is changing, and buckles are becoming increasingly more popular, both because they are considered easier to open and showing more sparkle, as some American rider told me. Well, I'm Swedish, and prefer the toned down design, instead.
Fashion changes, and just like the black dressage tack fashion, regular buckles are more prevalent in dressage now than ever before. I would guess it has to do with the glitter of shiny metal. Just like the white padding, a regular buckle is visible from the outside and "sparkles" because of the metal. In Brittish traditional showing there is no possibility for a horse with buckle ends on the bridle to be marked well. But that's a different story, I guess.
Some bridle designers have even taken that to it's extreme, and added metal strap holders instead of leather ones, too. This reminds me a lot of spanish bridlery where more seems to always be better, at least decoration-wise. Maybe it's because my Swedish temperament is so different from those southern europeans, maybe I suffer from the "Swedish Grace Syndrome" of stripping all design off until there's nothing left. Could be.
Still, that's not important. What's important to know is that none of this decoration stuff will hurt the horse (albeit my eye) unless they are badly placed or in the way. It's simply a matter of taste. And skill...
According to many, the regular buckles seem to be easier to unbuckle. Now, I have arthritis of the fingers, and I still don't have a problem with unbuckling hook studs on my bridles. I do have problems with others' bridles, though. Strange. But that's always because they miserably fail to keep them soft with leather-oli and grease! That's the crux of the problem.
Opening hook stud with left hand alone.
There's technique involved, too, I guess. Good quality leather that has been well maintained, soaped and oiled with good products at even intervals enough to be butter soft, it can be treated like such:
Hold the fastening with the inside up between thumb and fingers. Push thumb placed on the bottom loop in the direction of opening, as shown in the photo left. Use the other hand to take hold of the leather strap as it un-hooks from the stud. Lift, and pull it out.
There are other fastenings as well. One that has been designed for easy switch of bits and reins is the regular snap hook solution. For me, this is alright for a halter or any other strap that is not involved with the horse's mouth. These hooks are made of metal, and metal on metal rattles when it moves. If there was no room to move there'd be no problem, but in these there is. The rattling in the mouth can be quite annoying to some horses.
There's another kind of fastening, popular in eventing and hunter/jumper diciplines, called a eventer loop or even a monkey loop. Here, the metal also is in touch with the bit, but there's no space to move. In most of them the bit ring is snug against the leather of the turning back rein as well. This, I guess, could be a choice, if one thinks them chique. I have, however, heard unusually much complaints about them "dissolving" in grit and dirt, and suddenly break in the least expected situation. I don't know why that would be so, or if it's even statistically significant. But it's a thought.
To be continued... 2005-08-29