Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Little Bit about Bits

Awhile back, dp asked about the transition between snaffle and bosal that I made with Kate last spring, partly, I think, because she is going bitless with Tonka and Raven. In my instance, the change was purely medical: Kate had had several caps removed from her adult molars, as well as her wolf teeth, and the vet said no bit for a month. At that point I had only been on her three times, so it was a major leap of faith for me to give up the extra control I imagined I had with a bit. Kate did fine, as did I, and there are several advantages that come with a bosal.

In the vaquero tradition of the old-time California horsemen, the bosal is actually a move up from the early training in a snaffle--it is the first introduction to pressure on the sides and lower parts of the jawbones, that will eventually come from the curb strap of a full (western) bridle. There is, obviously, some pressure on the sensitive bridge of the nose, but it is not the primary control. As I undersand it (and I am NOT an expert, by any means), the bosal begins teaching the horse to round at the poll and across the topline, engaging the hindquarters fully and allowing collection. The bosal is used two-handed with primarily direct rein pressure. I use this softer latigo (possibly kangaroo hide) bosal because I don't care for the extra abrasion of rawhide. In this photo, just after I got the headstall, the bosal is probably one hole to high, but I actually damaged the cartilage at the end of Corky's nose when he was young, by having his bosal too low--so I'm extra careful now with fitting.
Here is the bridle that I generally start my babies in: a 4 3/4 inch, D-ring snaffle with copper and stainless steel rollers on the mouth piece (see photo below). Although it may seem that the rope reins and slobber straps are a bit faddish, I have used rope reins for years, because I like the more solid, substantial grip they provide, especially on the babies.
Don't get me started on the myth that a western snaffle requires a curb or chin strap to "keep the bit from being pulled through the horse's mouth." If the headstall, which is anchored on the horse's ears and jaw, can't prevent this (along with the shanks of the bit), then that floppy chin strap ain't gonna do it! I've ridden English at least as long as I have western, and never once have I seen a chin strap on a snaffle bit! I only have them on my western bridles because the rulebooks (and judges) require them.
Here is the 5 inch, full cheek, egg-butt (no pinch) bit that I moved up to this year with Kate and Maddie. As with the D-ring, control is through direct rein pressure, with the cheeks of the bit pulling directly against the sides of the horse's face.Notice the angle that the cheekpieces are to Maddie's mouth. This western headstall swells a little for the bit conchos, and I can't get the "keepers" over the headstall to anchor the top of the cheek piece. This means that pressure on the reins "breaks" the joint of the bit forward in her mouth and applies the primary pressure to the corners of her mouth, not against the roof or bars of the mouth.
Here are the keepers in place (on Zoe, with an older headstall). Pressure is more against the bars than the corners of her mouth, and more pressure is applied to the roof of the mouth by the joint of the bit.
Here's my chunky egg-butt snaffle, in my English headstall. Notice the loop on the noseband for a flash strap. There was a time when, as a matter of course, I used either the flash or a figure eight noseband on young horses to encourage the habit of keeping their mouths closed. (I don't like a straight dropped noseband, again because of the damage I did to Corky's nose cartilage.) I suppose I may still do that if, after a month or so, a youngster is still jawing at the bit, but I haven't had to any time recently.
Here's Zoe's half-brother (and Kate's half-uncle), Pete, with the flash in place.
I picked up this Myler D-ring off of eBay last year, and just started using it on the girls. The roller in the middle of the mouthpiece prevents the joint from forming a "V" and "poking
' the roof of the mouth, so pressure is primarily against the bars and tongue. You can just see the copper inlays in the mouthpiece, that promote salivation, and therefore softness. The little "rings" on the D's serve the same function as the keepers on the full-cheek: the headstall goes through the top set, holding the D and mouth in the proper position.
The reins go in the lower ring. Because the two sides of the bit operate independently (because of the central roller), a direct rein on just one side supposedly can help tip the nose and "lift" the horse's shoulder.
While Kate really seems to like this bit (she stays very soft and supple, reaching down for contact), Maddie fussed at it all last Saturday afternoon. She had done fine in the full cheek in the English classes, but it's what I've been using on her regularly--I only added the Myler to the mix a week ago. We'll have to wait and see if she settles into it.
I haven't used a curb bit on a horse in probably 30 years (with the exception of the horse in the last picture in this post). This is partly because I haven't really had the opportunity to go beyond basic training, trail riding, and low level showing. I bought this bit for Kate when I thought I might try reining with her (I may yet, sometime in the future). It has the same roller mouth as the Myler (in this case known as a "Billy Allen") and I like that I have the option of putting a snaffle rein on it (making it a "western pelham"). But the shanks are pretty long, and Kate and I would have to be pretty advanced before I would consider using it.
Instead, or at least before hand, I would try this little bit, which I love the looks of, with its filigree inlay, short shanks, and copper-inlaid mouthpiece. It is essentially what folks call a "Tom Thumb" or "Colt Bit" because of the short shanks and broken mouthpeice. Unfortunately, most folks don't realize how severe this combination can be in untrained hands: the combination of leverage and nutcracker action can be very damaging. Many people think "It's just a snaffle, so it must be mild." But as soon as one adds a shank and a curb strap, it becomes a curb (leverage) bit. My hands will have to get much lighter and steadier before I even consider moving to this.
I haven't used this little English pelham in a looong time--it's actually getting rusty, and therefore it's not likely I'll ever use it again. But it was a nice general use curb bit back in the '70's, when I dabbled at eventing. It has a fairly fat mouth piece that is reversible: the slight "ribs" you can see on the mouthpiece provide a little more pressure on the bars, while the other side was smooth. I still value the fact that I learned to ride with double reins with this.
This is the only curb bit I have actually ridden with since that pelham, and only because the horse is no longer mine, and this was what the owner uses. I don't remember, but I think it has a snaffle mouthpeice.
This is Eddie--registered name: EvenSong. He was our first baby (2000),out of Misty--so he's Maddie's big brother! He's a real sweetie, livin' the good life in Connecticutt.


  1. Interesting post!

    I think it's funny that you love rope reins. I cannot stand them! They just feel clunky and -wrong- to me. We all have weird little preferences.

    I have a version the first curb you showed, the one with the roller. Dixie hates it, but it's not particularly cruel so I won't throw it away. Maybe she'll change her mind, or maybe someone else can use it one day.

    EvenSong is stunning! I can't imagine trying to keep a grey paint clean, but I love their looks.

  2. Thanks, Funder. This photo of Eddie as taken when he was four; when I visited him last summer, he was nearly white!