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A BIT OF INFORMATION
SNAFFLES VS. LEVERAGE BITS
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There are three basic types of bitting devices; snaffles, gag bits and
leverage bits. Snaffle bits are direct reining devices which lay across
the horse's tongue through which the horse is directly guided, or
"direct reined". Snaffle bits are used primarily for lateral control of
Gag bits are somewhat similar to snaffles except that the horse will
"lean" into the gag. Gags are used for racing and the only purpose of
mentioning them here is that they are closely similar to snaffles, thus
it is possible through improper use of a snaffle to turn the snaffle
into a gag and encourage the horse to run away. (It is my belief that
such misuse feeds the incorrect rumor that a rider can't stop a strong
horse that is wearing a snaffle bit.)
Leverage bits are devices where the reins are not directly connected to
the mouthpiece. They are instead attached to shanks that hang down from
the horse's mouth. Pulling the reins causes the bit to become a compound
leverage device that applies pressure to the horse's jaw at a ratio much
higher than the actual "pulling force" that is applied to the reins by
The Importance of Terms
There is a great deal of bad advice that goes around when it comes to
Much of this advice is often appropriate for one particular situation,
but inappropriate in others. Therefore it's extremely important that we
all understand and use the same terms.
When "up" doesn't sometimes mean "down" and "snaffle bit" doesn't
sometimes mean "leverage bit," the advice we give and receive will
actually have some consistent relevance, and both horses and handlers
Pictured right are two types of snaffles. The top is called a "full
cheek snaffle". The outside bars prevent the bit from slipping
horizontally through the horse's mouth. Full cheek snaffles are often
used with younger horses who may shake their heads or pull laterally
with their mouths open causing the bit to slip out of position. The
lower snaffle has egg butt rings. Note how the reins attach and control
the horse along the same plane as the mouthpiece. Both of these snaffles
have broken (hinged) mouthpieces so that the mouthpiece can lay properly
over the tongue.
A curb chain can be attached to each ring on the snaffle. The chain acts
much the same as the full cheek bars as it passes under the horse's jaw
and will keep the bit from sliding through the mouth. Switching from a
full cheek to a ring snaffle with a curb chain when working outside the
arena minimizes the possibility of the horse getting a the snaffle
caught on objects such as water troughs when riding out on trail.
There is a common myth that all bits with broken mouthpieces are
snaffles and vice versa. Snaffles can be of "straight bar" design, such
as with this old heavy horse driving bit. Additionally some leverage
bits have broken mouthpieces and therefore are not snaffles.
Horses have a variety of differently shaped mouths. The mouthpiece needs
to be long enough to fit in the horse's mouth without pinching the lips,
but not overly long where it will shift back and forth excessively.
Additionally, some horses have rather flat pallets and they may need a
flatter profile, 3-piece mouthpiece (one where the bar is "broken" in
The headstall should be adjusted so that the snaffle hangs comfortably
in the horse's mouth, not so sloppy that it bumps the horse's teeth and
not so tight that it applies uncomfortable pressure against the corners
of the mouth. Generally if the snaffle pulls one to two mild wrinkles
back against the corner of the mouth, the snaffle will maintain a
Leverage devices are finishing bits and are not suitable for training
beginning horses since one of the first things the trainer needs to
establish in the horse is lateral flexion and lateral control (being
able to lightly bend the horse's neck and body and control his direction
to left and right.) Leverage devices such as curb bits cannot be
effectively "direct reined". Pulling on one rein to guide the horse will
cause the lever to actuate and squeeze the jaw. Thus the horse must be
taught to "neck rein" before wearing such a device and the curb should
not be used to teach lateral control to a beginning horse.
The severity of the curb is based on the ratio of length of the rein
shank to chain shank according to the following formula:
The pivot point to where the reins are attached at the end of the long
-------------- (divided by) --------------
The pivot point to where the curb chain is attached at the end of the
A curb with a 5" rein shank and a 1" curb shank will generate a force
ratio of 5:1. Thus a 20 lb. pull on the rein will result in 100 lbs. of
pressure being developed by the curb's "vise grip" onto the horse's jaw.
Tom Thumb Bit
There is often confusion surrounding the Tom Thumb bit. Often mistakenly
called a "Tom Thumb snaffle" due to its broken mouthpiece, this device
is really a short Shanked leverage bit. Folks today think the name "Tom
Thumb" suggests the bit is mild however the bit was named after a
locomotive on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad with the same name; a
small locomotive that was for it's time the most powerful engine of its
size in existence. (It was also the engine that lost the famous horse
vs. locomotive race in 1830. It was well ahead when it threw a drive
belt and stalled!)
The combination of the broken mouthpiece and leveraged rein attachment
can make the Tom Thumb a most severe bit. The broken bit and lever can
squeeze the jaw like a nut cracker. Some horses have had their jaws
broken as a result of heavy handed riders who didn't realize the power
of the Tom Thumb. If you use, or are contemplating using this bit please
read The Trouble with Tom Thumb by Mark Rashid. He mistakenly refers to
the Tom Thumb bit as a "snaffle," but otherwise his article is dead-on.
Another leverage device is the mechanical hackamore. This device is a
modern adaptation of the ancient middle-eastern "haqima," which
originally looked more like the bosal. The mechanical hackamore applies
pressure across the bridge of the horse's nose and in the wrong hands
can result in a broken nose. The one pictured here has 8" shanks. A 20
lb. pull on the reins will result in a 160 lb. force applied across the
rather narrow cartilage which makes up the bridge of the horse's nose,
which is why this particular device keeps permanent residence on display
on our "Wall of Shame."
RIDING IN A SNAFFLE
The snaffle is best handled when "direct reined." This means you will
hold one rein in each hand. Your objective is to maintain just enough
pressure to keep the bit lightly pressed against the horse's tongue.
This amount of pressure will be comfortable to the horse and if you are
practiced at maintaining light pressure, the horse will eventually
respond and be "light" himself in order to maintain that point of
comfort. How much contact should you have? There should be no excess
slack yet you should have enough contact that you can feel the horse
swallow. To do this, your hands and arms must be "fluid" and move with
the horse's head.
To guide the horse to the right, simply take up slack with the right
rein while giving slack to the left. To guide the horse to the left,
simply do the reverse. The amount of "bend" you get in the horse's neck
can be adjusted by the amount of pressure which remains in your slack or
For example, if you draw back with the left rein and give complete slack
with the right rein, the horse's neck should bend sharply to the left
and the horse's body should follow suit. However if you draw back with
the left rein and only give a little slack with the right, the horse's
neck and body will remain more rigid and he will tend to pivot more over
his hind legs (haunches) and swing to make the turn rather than bend his
body through it.
Schooling horses involves asking the animals to bend to various degrees
of lateral pressure along with "shaping" their bodies and generating
momentum and directing the horse's feet by means of various leg aids.
Young and inexperienced horses need to be able to capably bend to
varying degrees so the use of a direct reining device such as a snaffle
bit is very important.
STOPPING A HORSE IN A SNAFFLE
Do you remember the discussion about gag bits and race horses? If your
horse is forging forward and you pull back evenly with both reins your
snaffle will easily lock against the horse's molars and become a gag.
Like the race horse, your horse can lean against a gag and gain
momentum. Thus, to stop your horse you do not want to pull back evenly
with both reins. A more effective means of communicating with your horse
is to relax in your seat and "stop riding" with your body while you draw
back on one rein while holding your original position with the other.
Such action will prevent the snaffle from "locking" into a gag and if
you need to, you can give a slight tug-tug- tug with the "active" rein
to regain your horse's attention if his mind has gone somewhere else,
and you can then aid him into a safe stop.
I had a interesting email about the website
and the Aluminum Snaffle.
They corrected us on the term
"Snaffle" A true Snaffle term is
in reality a term
meaning the bit is in a direct line from the hands to the horse's mouth.
So in that case their would not have any shanks or curb strap. That also
mouth be Broken in the middle
or not. So many people call a shank bit with a broken in the middle a
Snaffle like a Tom Thumb Snaffle. Do you think I need to change the
website to the terms referring Snaffle with shanks. Email us
Fitting the bit to
the horse's mouth
The correct width is important for all
bits but especially so for jointed snaffles. A bit that is too wide
will pinch the tongue (the dreaded nutcracker effect) more than a
correctly fitted bit. too wide bit may also poke the roof of the
horse's mouth with the joint. To get the correct width, use a wooden
dowel or metal rod about 8" long. Put it in the horse's mouth where
the bit would go and, after the horse stops playing with it, mark
the stick outside the horse's lips. The distance between the marks
indicates the correct width. Actually, you'll have to round up to
the nearest size that's at least that wide. A measurement of 4 7/8"
requires a 5" bit, not 4 3/4"!
To check the room inside the
mouth, you have to check the jaw width, palate (roof of the mouth)
and tongue. Put your fist between the horse's jawbones. If your fist
doesn't fit easily and you wear a size 10 or smaller glove (Men's
medium or Lady's large), the horse has a narrow jaw. To check the
roof of the mouth, put your straightened index finger where the bit
goes and wait for the horse to stop playing. Crook your finger and
if it hits the roof of the mouth, the horse has a low palate. To
check the tongue close the horse's mouth and lift the upper lip. If
the tongue slops over onto the bars, the horse has a thick tongue.
Any of these situations will require a different type of bit than a
horse with a wide jaw, thin tongue and high palate. In general,
French link or Dr Bristol type snaffles, Mullen mouth bits and/or
curbs with low broad ports will help.
Check the bars of the mouth. Various bit designs (especially those
that provide relief for the tongue) but more pressure on the bars of
the mouth. If the bars are thick and relatively low, that's no
problem. If they are thin and/or high, such a bit would be
|Bit Terms: Definitions of some of the
most common terms referring to REINSMAN bits!
Bridge of nose
Hackamores (side pull)
Curb chain (loose or tight)
Corner of lips
Shank bits and draw gags
Chain, 3-piece snaffle
Ring Snaffle, Offset Dee
|Purchase - Portion of cheek above the
mouthpiece. A shorter purchase means a quicker reaction.
Shank - Portion of cheek below the mouthpiece.
The shorter the shank, the less control Ñ the longer the
shank, the more control.
Cheeks - Sides of the bit. Includes both
purchase and shank.
Poll - Top of the head behind the ears where
the neck and head join. The "feel of the bit" - Not only
what the horse feels when the rider pulls on the reins,
but, also what the rider feels. Suppleness or stiffness.
Bars - Portion of each side of the mouthpiece
that rests on the horse's bars (gum area between front
and back teeth).
Port - Center portion of mouthpiece. Both
height and width are important in creating the amount of
tongue pressure or tongue relief.
Curb Bit - Rotation in mouth-down on mouth, up
on curb chain, pressure on poll.
Timing - The amount of time required from the
moment the reins are pulled till the horse reacts.
Curb Chain Pressure - Timing of the bit. Loose
curb chain - slower. Tight curb chain - faster.
Curb Action - Includes pressure on poll.
Mullen Relief - A forward curve in the
mouthpiece that creates even pressure across the bars
Snaffle - Broken in the middle. Most common.
Double Twisted Wire Snaffle - Two small
snaffles which are broken off-center from each other.
Chain - Works lightly on the bars and corners
of lips while adding some tongue pressure.
Solid - Any mouthpiece that is not broken.
Copper - Causes mouth to salivate keeping it
soft and usable to the rider.
Sweet Iron - Intended to rust, it actually has
a sweet taste to it as rusting occurs.
Stainless Steel - Very little taste. Gives a
clean, neat look.