Hey Everybody – As we wrap up a winter of play mostly indoors with our horses, many have moved to the bridle or are thinking of it. Here are just a few notes on the how and why of the transition.
Which Bit? Snaffle vs. Curb
I would strongly recommend letting a knowledgeable trainer who is compatible with your horsemanship goals and ideals help you decide on a bit for your horse, but here are some basic guidelines.
Is it your horse’s first bit?
Has your horse ridden in bits, but it will be the first bit you have used in your own horsemanship journey?
Are you still working on control, whether it be general speed and direction control or control of the specific zones of the horse?
If any of the above are “Yes” you are probably ready for a snaffle bit. A snaffle bit is a bit in which the headstall and the reins attach to the same piece or ring of the bit as the mouthpiece does, irregardless of the type of mouthpiece. Common starter bits are Loose Ring, D Ring and Eggbbutt snaffles. They generally have a 2 piece mouthpiece, but not always, which brings us to our next bit.
Three Part Snaffles. Fist off – LOVE, LOVE, LOVE THEM! Why, because when control is pretty much “under control” your horse tends to love them, too. These are the ideal intermediate step between control and contact, which brings up the next point – what is all this “Control, Contact, Engagement, Collection” stuff?
In super simple terms, in the halter, hackamore and snaffle bit we are teaching gross motor skills, foundation, and CONTROL. Control can be boiled down to the understanding that “I can cause you to bend, and in doing so, I can take your balance away, and in doing so, I can take your power, thus if need me, I can take control.” Tapped in in a natural fashion and progression this is NOT a fight or a power play, it’s just an understanding that you both come to. It’s understood that you can take control, but you don’t have to as your horse willingly and happily gives it.
Now, with that understood, CONTACT is the beginning of vertical flexion and begins the understanding that your horse can trust you enough to yield to two reins. This is where Three Part Snaffles come in as they are comfortable to carry with two rein contact, but they should not be considered “collection or engagement” bits.
Curb bits are any bit in which the reins attach to a shank that is affixed below the ring or piece of the bit to which the mouthpiece is attached irregardless of the type of mouthpiece. This can be a very confusing style of bit and you should really seek some advice here, but again, here are a few basics. Any shanked bit with a two piece broken mouthpiece is a torture device and is at best suited to be a toilet paper holder in the porta-john. Get rid of it! This includes the Tom Thumb that we were all told was so kind. It isn’t.
Mouthpieces are either solid and have no one side action or have some sort of barrel port or ball in the center to allow one side action without collapsing the mouthpiece in the horse’s mouth. Beyond that is just varying levels of “port” or, within reasonable parameters, tongue relief. Usually, but not always, Left Brain (confident) horses like a little to a lot of tongue relief and Right Brain (less confident, more reactive) type horses like a little to no tongue relief – they like to feel held and know where you are at all times.
These are bits of engagement and refinement. Essentially after the control and gross motor skills have been taught in the snaffle bits, the curb bits begin helping the horse become more powerful and refined by specifically NOT excessively bending him and by helping to increase his balance and power to his hindquarters. It is essential that before progressing to this bridle that your horse exhibit excellent forehand and hindquarter control to your legs and seat. In the Parelli program this is often demonstrated through safe, efffective bridleless riding. Just as one rein riding in a halter, hackamore or snaffle gains control through bending, taking away balance and thus power by varying degrees of disengagement, two rein riding in a bit of engagement comes long after control is well established and enhances the horse’s power through aiding balance and power by helping the horse become and remain engaged. If you are still steering with the reins, understand that every time you pull an independent rein to steer you will be taking away the power and engagement, and ultimately, teaching your horse that he can not trust your contact. This will lead almost immediately to brace and nothing pretty comes from brace.
Finally, bridle adjustment. Basically it’s loose for snaffle, no wrinkles and just shy of banging around in your horse’s mouth. He will suck it into the bit seat area and carry it comfortably with very little assistance from the headstall. Curbs can be snug just to the point of beginning one wrinkle in the corner of your horse’s mouth. Anything tighter is too tight and will ruin lightness. If you’ve been told two wrinkles or even more, think of this. I’d like my horse to respond before my reins have caused the bit to put two wrinkles in the corner of his mouth. If I can never release past that point because of my headstall adjustment I can never develop that degree of lightness, and I can never really release my horse’s mouth. Any amount of pressure we maintain becomes zero. A poorly fitted bridle is nearly as bad as poor hands.
At no point should any contraption of any kind be necessary to keep your horse’s mouth closed. If he is gaping his mouth either you’ve rushed to the bridle, have the wrong bit (too severe) or it is too tight. He’s trying to tell you something. Listen.
This is a very brief overview of what can become a very involved topic, but hopefully it will help you assess where you and your horse are and where you may be ready to go.
As always, Keep It Natural.