My thoughts about riding Part 3 - About the equipment

The thickness of the snaffle

From time to another there is huge discussions about bit thickness. When I grow up in here in Sweden we where all looking at tho old “ardenner bits” (The most common draft horse in Sweden was called Ardenner) hanging in old farmer barns. The where mostly thinner than 1/2”, some times they were made of twinned wire, and for us kids they did look horrible and was a sign for us how mean the older generation were to their horses.

Back then in the 70th all us kids “know” that a bit shall not be to thin. Unfortunately no one told us what was the right thickness, just that it should not be to thin, so “everyone” bought the thickest bit they could find … Therefore there was a market for thick bits so the manufacturers made thicker and thicker bits. Standard became 5/8 – 3/4”, but you could buy bits up to 1” thickness, also for Shetland ponies.

In the 90th some Swedish veterinarians started to write about the danger with thick bits, and we learned that bits shall not be to thick. Unfortunately they didn't say what was right, just that they shouldn't be to thick. Suddenly everyone started to buy the thinnest bit they could find and it didn't take long before you could fins the old “ardenner bits” of twinned wire in shops again.

The last years I have seen that people have started to buy thicker bits. Now you can find 5/8” bits in the shops again.

So what is the correct thickness of a bit? I don't know and I don't think anyone else knows either.

If we shall search for a rule, I think we should start searching for maximal acceptable thickness of the bit. There must be some kind of limit where it gets uncomfortable for the horse. Maybe we can compare it with the size of a lollipop. How big can a lollipop be and we still can close the mouth while sucking it? 1/2”? 3/4”? The tongue is quite flexible and allows rather big things in the mouth without us feeling comfortable.

They say the horse's tongue isn't as flexible as our, but it is anyhow hard to say how thick bit a horse can accept as comfortable. If the bit is thicker than the gap between lower jaw and palate, it is to thick. But how do we know how big that gap is? It is quite hard to measure, so best is not to challenge to much.

Is there any benefit for the horse with a thick bit? Some say yes as the bit then has a bigger “contact area” in the mouth. Some say no as the jaw is straight and the bit is round so there will be a very small contact area anyhow. So who is right? I don't know. Probably none of them.

Those who say that the contact area with the jaw is almost the same on thin and thick bit are right, but they seem to forget the the bits probably has most contact with the tongue and the lips, not with the jaw. So how does a thick vs a thin bit affect the tongue and the lips? I don't know..

So what can we learn from this? Maybe that the riders are more hysteric about bit sizes than the horses are, and that there is more important things to discuss than bit thickness.

The length of the snaffle

Most snaffle bits are made to stay centered in the mouth, and as long as possible we shall try to keep it centered in the mouth. It is, however, no panic if the horse prefer to wear it more to one side than the other. We can let the horse choose that. You can find several pictures of horses with a loose rein and the bit pointing out more on one side than the other. If the horse wants it like that – let him.
The interesting thing to sort out is, how do we keep the bit centered?

I don't think anything in the construction of the mouth piece can center the bit. If it can slide, it will slide.

The best way from avoiding the bit from sliding in the horses mouth, is to attach some kind of stop on the outside. If your horse has a very hard mouth, a full cheek or maybe a strap from ring to ring under the chin is the best, but for most horses 2-1/2” rings will do.

With a stop on each side, how much will the bit still slide? It depends on the distance between the “stops” compared with the width of the horses mouth. The wider bit – the more it will slide.

So, as far as I concern, the best way to prevent sliding is to use a bit as short as possible. When I test if a bit is in the right size, I put it in the horse's mouth and then I take one ring in each hand and stretch the bit. If I see anything of the mouth piece between the rings and the horse's mouth, the bit is to long.

I sell bits world wide and have learned that in different countries people use different sizes of bits. It may be that we have different size of horses in different parts of the world, but I doubt that. Instead I think that our different cultures and traditions tells us different things.

When I was a kid I was told that the bit should be ½” longer than the horses mouth. When I grow up I started to ask why, and got no good answer. I mean, you have no use of the piece of the bit pointing out of the horses mouth. If the bit points out on one side, we can be sure the bit is not centered in the mouth, and we can be sure it will slide every time we ask the horse to bend or turn.

In the 1990th we got a reaction in Sweden about long bits. The vets start telling people what I already told them: The bit shall be as short as possible. And of course people started to exaggerate this instruction so many horses got bits that was way to short for their mouth. And that is of course not good either. To make things just right is so hard.

So as a summary: If you don't want the bit to slide, chose a short one.

Rein aids affect the opposite cheek

Consider that you sit on a very stiff, lazy, resistant and non obedient horse with a bad mouth. You have no bridle, only a rope from your left hand through the lazy horse's mouth and to your right hand.

It is a non abrasive rope with the taste of honey and apple so it won't sore his mouth

Now, you stretch your right "rein". What do you think will happen?

- The rope will slide through his mouth to the right. How much depends on how “hard mouth” the horse has, and how hard we pull in the rope. To "adjust" this, we need to put stops on each side of the horse's mouth, like full cheek.

I think that as long as we work with one rein, the snaffle has most influence on the sides of the mouth; on the corner of the mouth or the cheek on the opposite side of the rein you use.

I think every snaffle bit discussion have to start there.

Every snaffle should have full cheeks or any other construction that prevents it from sliding through the horse's mouth. In most cases a normal bit rings, the bigger the better, will do as most horses are obedient enough to follow the rein. Many of us have experienced that in situations where you need extra force the whole snaffle comes through the mouth. You can use a nose band to close the mouth so the ring can't come through, but as far as I concern it is more logic and horse friendly to use a bit that can't come through the mouth, not even in a risky situation.

Most time when we use a rain aid, it involves one rein only. Of course the horse also feel that the bit slides to the side when we stretch one rein, and of course there is influence on the corner of the mouth on the same side as the rein we use, but to prevent the rein from sliding and to convince the horse to follow the rein to the side, we need some kind of stop.

When we “pull” in both reins, we have another situation. Then there is pressure inside the mouth; on tongue, teeth, lower jaw and palate, but also on the corners of the mouth.

The nose band

The origin of the nose band probably comes from the halter, so the nose band is older than the bridle. The nose band have been there for the rider to tie his horse up. That's why the nose bands had been there in most armies. The army riders also rode with a rope from the nose band/halter and around the horse's neck, to use while tying the horse up for the night.

We all know that a tight nose band is not good. Still plenty of riders over tighten the nose band, hoping their horse will get more obedient and more subtle or something else. It is fun that no matter how hard those riders tighten their nose bands, they still claim that a to tight nose band is not good. Though, they don't think they tighten it to hard but know a lot of horrifying stories about others who tighten to hard …

The most common nose bands we call an English nose band. It has it's place above the bit, outside the horse's molars It looks nice and as it sits quite high on the head most riders consider it “mild”. Though, if it is to tight, or the horse opens his mouth with a loose nose band, the band presses on the teeth/molars in the upper jaw. That is a place where horses often get sore: The teeth sores the inside of the cheek. There is plenty of evidences to find that those sores depends on an English nose band.

So if we want a nose band, we better use a model that does not affect the teeth. There we have the drop/Hanoverian nose band but also the grackle nose band. I like both of them. They often looks harder as one get the impression they close the horse's mouth more as they are attached lower on the head. Well, I guess you can put more pressure with one of those, but you don't have to.

I am not sure I can explain it good enough in English, but a loose drop nose band has same “effect” as a more tight English nose band as the mouth/jaw opens more the longer from the joint. So when the mouth is closed the pressure from the drop nose band is lower than from an English nose band, when both stop the opening at same angle.

Then there is a huge number of double nose bands who all are some kind of extension of the English nose band (Aachen/Flash and more). They all have the bad function of the English nose band: They hit the molars and sore the cheeks.

The Micklem bridle is for me a variation of the grackle nose band.

Most arguments about a tight nose band are easy to rebut, so here we go:

  • A tight nose band (and any other tight equipment, like an over tight girth) must be uncomfortable. Horses want to move their jaws while riding, for chewing and, above all, swallowing. I can't think a horse get more relaxed and subtle while we uses equipment that limit his ability of using his body in his natural way, not even the jaw. There is so many different tools that limit the horse in order to increase his gaits, or limit his gaits to make him subtle, like side reins, draw reins and – nose bands. It is not logic.
  • A tight English nose band squeeze the cheek between the nose band and the teeth and will sore the cheek. It must be painful for the horse.
  • A Swedish universe made a study about nose band and found that most horses are more subtle with a loose than a tight nose band. Unfortunately, riders do believe more on their trainers and horse buddies that on scientists so I don't think that study will convince anyone to change their nos band habits.

So is there any good reasons, apart from tying the horse up, to ride with a nose band? Yes, there are some:

  • First to mention is that a nose band may be decorative, and that is always a good reason for wearing one, if it does not interfere badly with the horse.
  • If it often happen that the bit slides through the horse's mouth so the bit comes out on one side, it can be good to help the horse to close his mouth and give him a chance to learn the idea about bit and rein aids. That doesn't require a tight nose band, though. Better than a tight nose band is a full cheek snaffle, the can't slide through, and will help the horse to follow the rein aid. Though, a loose nose band will help out too, so a combination of a full cheek and a good loose nose band is the best.
  • Then we have the fact that the bit and the rein affects the lower jaw only and the jaw attaches to the scull with a joint. I have been told there is a risk that the bit in like a rumble can bring the jaw out of joint, of the rein pressure becomes to big. Some people claim that with a modest tight nose band this won't happen. I don't know if that is true or not.

Every mechanic hackamore, and most non mechanic too, are placed on same place as an English nose band. The mechanic nose band will tighten while stretching the rein and put same pressure on the cheek and molars as a tight English nose band. A side pull will also press on the same place on the left side of the head while stretching the right rein. Still, bitless riders often consider themselves to ride more horse friendly. Heaven knows.

Tight nosebands

When we do something to a horse there is usually a reason followed by consequences and we hope that the consequences give validity to the reason.

So many riders like to ride with a tight noseband that I feel we should all look more closely at the reasons why. Even the most conservative books on equitation recommend two fingers clearance after adjustment.

  • To keep the horses mouth shut. Why? To stop him putting his tongue over the bit! Why does he put his tongue over the bit? I believe that the tongue goes over the bit by accident because what he is really trying to do is to push the bit away because it hurts and occasionally it slips over. With a tight nose band it is less obvious and does prevent the tongue from going over but unfortunately it can still come out the side: the consequence. Another consequence is that some one like me or Theresa Sandin is standing next to the warm up arena with a camera!
  •  To make the judges think that the horse is not trying to open his mouth in an effort to escape the harsh rein aids of the rider which are ever so discreetly pulling the horse onto its forehand.  Here the consequences are usually disconnected from justice though as the judges accept this cruel practice and think that the gel pad under the jaw is a consequence of the rider’s consideration for the horse’s welfare! I have seen a horse owned by a well known international rider that had its nose BROKEN by doing this! I have even seen a little lever, similar to a larger one used for tightening the girth, for tightening the noseband. Here, however, is the worst consequence of all and it applies to even those who do not over tighten but simply have it “snug” Due to the fact that the horses head is V shaped the nose band tries to move down the horses head the more it is tightened to find the path of least resistance. It can’t because the head piece goes behind the ears and puts a sustained pressure on the cervical vertebra. The force here is dependant on how tight the noseband is but even if slight would cause tremendous discomfort leading to headaches and possible depression. I tried a “crank” noseband on one of my horses a few years ago and he became a head shaker in two minutes.  Luckily for him and many other horses I decided to find out why!

    The consequences of our actions are not always where we would like them!
  • Every body else does it!  No comment!

About cavesons

Apart from longeing, cavesons can be used for riding in the same way as a snaffle or side pull. The caveson can also be combined with a snaffle, and works well with a curb bit.

The caveson can be used to halt, bend, lift and lead a horse, and has basically the same functions as a snaffle. Some horses work best with a caveson, others with a snaffle. For horses with a "hard mouth", a caveson is often a good way to get the horse in favor of riding and the rider's hand again.

Cavesons may have a chain nose band, a solid steel nose band or a simple leather nose band. My experience is that a solid nose band is the best, since it is sturdier and although it will move slightly sideways, it stays in place on the horse's nose and works as it should.

The caveson's severity depends on:
• the nose piece width
• the shape of the steel nose piece
• Possible padding thickness

The smaller the contact area, the more severe the caveson.

It's easier to pad a too-severe caveson on your own, than to try to make a mild one more severe.

The caveson should be able to be lifted 1-2 cm from the bridge of the nose. It should not be too tight. Cavesons do not need to follow the shape of the horse's nose. It lies on the nose bridge "corners" and should be tightened so as to allow a finger to be inserted between the cheek and the caveson.

Cavesons with a solid steel nose band can be reshaped to fit your horse. That is easy to do for a blacksmith.

When riding with a full caveson and a snaffle bridle, fit the cavesson high enough on the horse's head to prevent the caveson nose band from pinching the corners of the mouth . If you are using the semi-caveson, you can fit the the caveson through the bridle  cheek pieces.

Because the rein rings on the caveson sit farther forward on the horse's head than rings on the snaffle and curb bit, a longer rein should be used.

To select curb bit

There is no reason to look for extreme variations of the curb in your bid to improve your riding experience. Certainly there are lots of variations and it can seem impenetrable, but you can follow some simple ground rules.

  • Where should I start?

If you are uncertain, you should first consult your coach or someone else you trust. What follows here is general advice; no guarantees!

As a first curb, I usually recommend the Portuguese curb. It works well on most horses and can be used alone, with two reins or together with a bradoon.

With the horse's reaction to this bit as a starting point, you can, if necessary, try other models.

  • Port

Most horses get on well with a normal (low) port. Some horses, however, particularly those with a fat tongue, may find that a low  port presses too much on the tongue. With these horses a higher port may be beneficial but make sure the chain is adjusted correctly; a loose chain that allows the curb to come on beyond 45 degrees to the jaw, could put the port into the roof of the mouth. If you notice that the horse  feels dumb in his mouth with a normal port, or is anxious about his mouth (excessive, annoyed chewing) or he, hangs out his tongue, try a higher port. NB. There are not many horses who can tolerate a curb with no port at all!

  • Upper shank

When riding with two bits (curb and bridoon), the upper shank can be short, so the chain and the bridoon do not conflict in the corner of the mouth. When riding with the curb only, I recommend a longer upper shank, as there is no risk for the chain and the mouth piece to squeeze the corner of the mouth. I have seen many horses with sores in the corners of their mouth. If the upper shank presses against the  cheek, you can easily bend it out in a vice.

  • Lower shank

The difference in length of upper and lower shank determines the "strength" of the bit. Big difference = sharp. At the same time, a long lower shank gives rider's hand more freedom of movement, as the hand must move further before the rein affects the bit. A long lower shank also offers the horse less room to move his head and this is a little more commanding.

inexperienced horse = short lower shank
experienced horse = long lower shank

NB. A short shank is not kinder if it is always fully applied!!

  • S-shape

Apart from the length and angle (balance),  the shape of the shanks make no influence to the effect of the curb ie. the S-shaped shank does not alter the function of the bit itself. Let taste prevail.

  • Length of the mouth piece

Curb bits should be a “snug” fit in both corners of the mouth. It should not be possible to pull the curb bit out side ways! If the upper shanks pinch the cheeks or cheek teeth, (common on horses with short heads), they can easily be bent out on the iron and brass curbs. The stainless may be a bit challenging to bend as this material is so much harder.

  • Materials

I have not seen any major difference in function or the horse's acceptance of different materials. Let aesthetics prevail. Black curbs go rusty if stored in humid conditions or are not cared for. They must be wiped, not washed, and wiped with vegetable oil to reduce the risk of rust. You can also let them rust and get a beautiful pattern. The horse likes them anyway, as long as they are kept smooth. If they do go rusty, steel wool is a good tool.

All black bits can be slightly brownish.

Brass is a weak metal and can bend, so it must be handled with some care. It is not used for rough riding

  • Flexibility

A rigid curb works well for most horses but if the shanks can be turned, in the way of the Portuguese bit, there will be no real difference. There are also curbs where you can drag one shank backwards, against the rider, in isolation. Such bits are called correction bits among western riders. They make it difficult for the horse to get a good contact with the rider's hand, and should be avoided.

  • Balance

If you're holding a curb  so the  mouth piece is resting in your hand , let the shanks hang free, so you can see that they either hang straight down, or that the curb turns forward or backward. Normal horses need a curb that hangs straight down, while the horse that holds his head too low or the nose close to the breast (behind hand), usually prefer a curb where the lower shank is rotating forward (and the upper shank backwards). The academic curb and my S curb are of this type.

This test of the bit should be made without the chain.

Poll pressure and anathomic bridles

From time to another poll pressure is high fashion and told to be goos as it encourage the horse to lower his head. Other times, poll pressure is almost an ugly word, something that must be avoided. In Sweden, the latter is modern now.

Some companies have invented “anatomic” bridles that shall avoid avoid poll pressure on the horse. Those bridles are often used together with a snaffle. When you ride with a snaffle and stretches the rein, you lift the snaffle up against the corners of the horse's mouth. The more you pull in the snaffle rein, the looser the head piece becomes and the smaller the pressure of the poll gets. So instead of spending big money on those ugly but modern poll saving bridles, teach your horse to like the bit and search for you hand. That will remove any poll pressure and is more satisfying than a new bridle.

When we ride with a snaffle there is actually one thing only that can put pressure on the poll, and that is an over tight nose band. The horse's head is wedge-shaped so when you tighten the nose band it becomes a triangle that presses on the nose, on the lower jaw – and on the neck! There is one more reason for opening the nose band: It will save you money for that fancy anatomic bridle.

When you ride with curb bit, mechanic hackamore, pelham or any other bit that works with a leveler system (i.e. needs a curb chain/strap) You get a poll pressure. It is part of those bit's nature. Some say this poll pressure it's good, some say it is bad. Maybe those extremely expensive “anatomic” bridles may have a function there, but I doubt.