Introduction to Snaffle Bits
The Snaffle configuration by itself is a mild bit and one of the most universally used mouthpieces. It can be thick and mild on the bars and tongue or more severe if it has a thin twisted wire mouthpiece. It can be combined with many variations such as a Copper Roller, Dr. Bristol, Dog Bone, or Lifesaver mouthpiece (a few shown below). Whatever the configuration, most break in the middle in some way or another (Single-piece Mullen Mouths are an exception).
How a Snaffle Bit Works
One of the most basic forms of bitting, the class of direct, simple Snaffles (above) communicate with a horse in a direct way. One pound of pressure on the reins exerts one pound of pressure on the horse’s mouth (1:1 ratio). (see Pressure)
The first pressure a snaffle imparts is to the horse’s lips. Because a snaffle usually breaks in the middle (with the exception of a mullen-mouth bit, which is a slightly curved single bar), most of the inner mouth pressure is concentrated on the outside of the bars and the tongue. (see Bars)
The horse’s tongue makes a large pillow in his mouth, filling the mouth from lower jaw to palate when at rest. The snaffle bit (at rest) sits gently across this pillow, held off the bars by the plump pressure of the tongue up against the palate. A horse learns quickly how to comfortably “carry” the bit in that position.
Simple Snaffles work well to teach horses to turn laterally: to give direct response to direct pressure from the rein left or right. When a rider pulls on one rein effectively pulling on one side of the horse’s face and pushing with the other, the horses can respond directly by yielding to the pressure and turning in the direction of the pull. He gets direct communication, and the rider can easily feel any resistance.
The 1:1 ratio of the pressure means that the rider will not pull harder on the mouth than the exact amount of pull he is using. Nothing magnifies his request.
Despite the appearance of this picture, a simple snaffle is considered a good bit to start a young horse who might feel “claustrophobic” if a huge piece of iron is placed in his mouth, which pressures his tongue and palate as well as bars, chin, and poll. He is more likely to quickly tolerate the more reasonable piece of metal with fewer pressure points.
However, the propensity to cause pain in the hands of a novice rider must be clearly understood and is clearly visible in the startled expression on the horse’s face above.
Notice that the chin (curb) strap is loose on a snaffle bit. It is there just to center the bit in the horse’s mouth, not to cause pressure as a curb bit with tight strap does.
Myler Brothers contend (and have built an entire business around the contention) that the jointed mouthpiece of a standard snaffle mouth can exert “nutcracker” pressure on the tongue and roof of the mouth if handled roughly. While I can see how a horse’s palate might be gouged by a hard jerk down (such as when walking beside the animal), I have been unable to work through the physics of the nutcracker on the tongue, as the rider’s hands pull slightly up or down and back, not straight up and back. The rough-handling of the horse above, clearly shows the angle of the rein and the position of the bit. So, the jury is still out on that issue for me.
See More about sensitizng your horse to direct bit pressure
Types of Snaffle Bits
Snaffles come in a variety of mouthpieces and rings.
O Ring Snaffles with single joint mouthpieces are considered most forgiving of rider error and most commonly seen in early training. Owing to the loose ring design, there is more signal to the horse of impending action when the rider takes up the reins. but they have a more “muddied” signal to the horse than a Dee snaffle (below).
Additionally, they are more easily pulled through the horse’s mouth than a bit with cheeks. They can sometimes pinch since the butt of the bit is not fixed in one position on the ring. The cheeks move laterally back and forth and the ring rotates through the bit butt (loose-ring). Rings of 2.5″ to 3″ are generally legal for horse shows and are commonly seen in dressage and eventing. They are commonly found with rubber mullen mouths, eggbutt mouths, and sometimes twisted wire mouths (although the more complicated or severe mouthpieces are rarely combined with a simple O-ring configuration because the O-ring is usually considered a beginner bit). The red lines (above) represent where the pressure occurs to the horse’s face. The O-Ring exerts the most concentrated pressure.
D-Ring Snaffles A fixed-ring Snaffle bit does not swivel on the ring. They have a fixed butt and better lateral cue because the side opposite the rein-pull exerts pressure to encourage the turn.
The flat side of the cheek spreads the pressure over a larger area on the far side and makes it a little easier for a young horse to understand the request to give his head. (see the area between red lines above). With an O-ring snaffle (above) the pressure is concentrated in a smaller area of the mouth.
Signal is sacrificed because the ring does not rotate. There is less movement of the ring to warn a horse that the rider has taken up the reins. Less signal time is bad for novice riders, but the clearer communication of the Dee snaffle is better for novice horses.
Dee snaffles are less likely to pinch the lips than an O-Ring snaffle. They come in many types of mouthpieces, from egg butt to thin twisted wire, and more complicated combinations. Simple mouthpieces with a Dee Ring are the universal bit of choice for almost any type of pleasure riding. If you are a beginner who might still be inadvertently balancing yourself with your hands (reins), a smooth, D-Ring snaffle may be the bit for you – particularly if it has a curve in the bars of the mouthpiece. Curving the bars will help to alleviate the nutcracker clamp on the outside of the bars, making it an even milder bit for less experienced hands.
Not as often seen in dressage, show jumping or eventing, this bit has become more popular in western riding.
The Full Cheek Snaffle is actually a Dee snaffle with cheek bars that prevent the rings from pulling through the horse’s mouth when lateral pressure is applied. The pressure is spread over an even wider area of the face. Spreading the pressure gives a horse more understanding of your desired turn. It brings a horse’s head around firmly and decisively. The effect is to give even more lateral guidance.
The top wing should be strapped to the headstall to prevent jabbing the horse’s face or getting caught up. The upper end keeper also gives this bit a tiny bit of poll pressure through the bridle. (As the rein is pulled back, the bridle ring moves forward and down because of the keeper on the top of the bit.) The bit keeper is certainly a must if the horse is participating in any kind activity that might catch the cheeks of the bit.
This type of bit helps when you are having trouble getting a horse to flex laterally using a regular snaffle bit. It is also very popular for lunging a horse.
Seen in almost all disciplines, this bit is very popular for young horses who need the benefits of its decisive lateral cues.
Eggbutt Snaffles take their name from the slightly oval (egg-shaped) connection where the butt of the bit meets the ring. They are considered the mildest of mouthpieces. They can be O-ring or D-ring or shanked. The description has to do with how the butt of the bit fits onto the cheek and its diameter from cheek to break. Eggbutt horse bits have the fattest bars at the ends and gradually taper to the center. Because they are “fat” and smooth they exert the least intense pressure on the bars of the horse. However, some horses object to the “heaviness” of an eggbutt bit. In those cases you might change to a lighter-weight smooth snaffle with good results.
Most often seen in show hunter and less often in dressage (where the O-ring dominates). Sometimes seen in equitation, show jumping, eventing and occasionally in western riding.
Types of Snaffle Bit Mouthpieces
For mildest effect, the mouthpieces should be smooth and not too thin. One of the most gentle bits is the Waterford ball-chain mouth, which spreads the pressure across the entire mouth and seems to discourage a soft-mouthed horse from leaning on the bit or trying to take control of it.
Regular snaffles can be used by a majority of riders with slightly educated hands and reasonable balance, as they won’t easily damage the horse’s mouth.
However, there are drawbacks to a simple, smooth snaffle. Because the pressure is dispersed, it may take more “pulling pressure” to achieve a response from your young horse. That may cause more pressure damage to the bars of his mouth when they contract and clamp the sides of the bars. They may apply too much tongue pressure for a horse who understands how to soften and bend and doesn’t need so much pressure there. Stabbing or trapping a horse’s tongue under the bit can lead to all kinds of undesirable bit avoidance behaviors.
That is why some experienced trainers start with a thin snaffle or twisted wire snaffle specifically to lighten the pressure required for clear communication (the point of pressure is more intense, therefore the horse responds more quickly with less pull – much like using a rope halter vs. a nylon web halter) then progress to a double-jointed snaffle such s a French Link after the horse is yielding lightly. see Twisted Wire Snaffle. Remember that starting with a thin bit is for experienced trainers with light hands only.
Snaffles are also a poor rating (slowing) and stopping bit. With no curb action, the horse is not so easily stopped as you might wish.
Dog Bone Snaffles, Life-saver Snaffles (3-piece) are a very good starter bit and a “kinder-gentler” bit for inexperienced hands. The extra link in the middle spreads the pressure inside the mouth more evenly over the bars and tongue, reducing inadvertent tongue or palate pressure caused by too heavy a hand on a conventional snaffle (nutcracker effect). Some double-jointed mouths also have a copper roller that puts a little more pressure on the tongue but is a “cricket” to quiet a restless horse and relax tension in the neck and spine as he plays with and salivates over the roller. (see Copper Bits)
Many double-jointed snaffles are simple non-leverage Dee ring bits like the one above. The double jointed snaffle with “dog bone” or variations of dog bone centers also come in shanked versions. Even with different angles of the dog bone center piece, the Dr Bristol or the French link are considered mild bits. The Dr. Bristol’s link is affixed on edge and can still bite into the tongue when the reins are pulled. The French link, on the other hand, has the center plate slanted 45 degrees and rides up the tongue flat when the reins are pulled. (Both of the bits at the right have shanks to add leverage to the poll. When the reins are pulled back, the bridle ring moves forward and down. The mouth is softer, but the shanks add another layer of pressure.)
It is recommended that you use a curb strap (see Curb Chain) with a snaffle to keep the bit centered and to keep it from slipping through the horse’s mouth when you pull from the side. (Do not confuse the use of a curb strap for centering the simple snaffle bit with the use of a curb strap on a curb bit. Centering is passive. The curb strap of a curb bit is a very active pressure.) It is also a good idea to use a regular brow-band headstall that keeps the bit evenly positioned on either side of the mouth. And last, but not least, usually one wrinkle is desirable at the horse’s lip when you fit the bit. A young, green horse may take a longer length for a little while as he gets used to his first bitting experiences, but ultimately, one wrinkle is the standard. (see Bit Fitting)
Truism: There is no substitute for Solid Ground Training. Teaching your horse to yeild to pressure BEFORE he experiences the bit or rider is paramount to his success.
As horse and trainer progress and acquire more experience, you can start using bits with thinner mouthpieces and/or longer cheeks (shank snaffle – actually a broken-mouth curb bit – in diagram left) (see Curb Bits with Broken Mouths). However, although shanks and an active curb strap are the most frequent answer to a horse who lacks a good, solid “whoa”, shanks are not always the best answer. Often the better answer is to go back to basics and re-school the stop using all of the verbal, seat and leg cues as well as the bit. A bit cannot substitute for good training. See: Teaching the Verbal Whoa
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