Snaffle Bit Basics

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Snaffle Bit Basics

32 thoughts on “Snaffle Bit Basics

  1. Do you have a suggestion for a well-trained horse who currently uses a happy mouth double-jointed (with plastic in the middle section as well) D-ring. I’ve tried other bits, but he opens his mouth with wide mouthpieces, and the dentist thinks his teeth are wearing from metal bits. Even with the D-ring, he opens his mouth and sticks his tongue out at the canter (but less so than fatter bits, or single jointed snaffles). 1) do you think the plastic happy mouth bits are easier on tooth wear, and 2) can you think of a bit that might NOT cause him to open his mouth and stick out his tongue? I don’t think he’s playing – he’s clearly showing me some discomfort, and I hate to see that. 🙁 Maybe a skinnier bit? Or one where the middle section is plain flat metal, like a french link?

    1. Welllll. Let’s see. Yes, I think the happy mouth bits are easier on tooth wear. I don’t like the way they seem to get snaggy and sharp after a lot of use, but they should be much better for sensitive teeth. A double-jointed is also a nicer bit for horses who have bitting issues. I go back to my usual question? Is there a safety reason he must wear a bit? Have you tried a hackamore or side-pull? I prefer the natural hackamore (bosal) or sidepull to a mechanical one, but if you need more control, us a mechanical one. See: Hackamores

      Also, have you examined your riding technique at the canter? Are you inadvertently hanging on the reins causing him to feel extra pressure? Revisit that issue too.

      1. I’ve tried a hackamore. It’s not really a safety issue. But I prefer to be very light on the mouth with signals, and I didn’t find the hackamore allowed that for the “turn” signals. He just didn’t feel the very slight signals to one side or the other (the stop was almost too sensitive). You’re absolutely right that if I ride on a loose rein at the canter, his mouth is closed – good point. But he’s an older horse, and there is a tripping risk, so it’s safer to ride in a frame with him more put together. I try very hard to only touch his mouth as a reminder to be in a frame, but at some point you just have to give a signal to the bit. You’re also spot on right that those bits get rough edges, and in fact mine had one after a year and I just replaced it. Sadly, that didn’t solve the problem. Do you think a french link (without the plastic in the middle) would be any better? I’ll try the side pull too, if you think that will give the delicate control that I’m looking for.

        1. I didn’t understand if you were using a bosal hackamore or a mechanical one. I don’t like the mechanical ones at all. And the bosal is sometimes a little obtuse to lateral movement. That leaves the Side-pull – my personal choice. It has a move precise lateral pull on the face (reins attached just above the corner of the mouth rather than under the chin). The lateral pull is 1:1 and very direct. (see the picture)

          My personal horse (the sorrel-spotted mare in the flexing exercise) and most of the other horses I train are thread-light to lateral movement in the side-pull. The smallest movement of my little finger will get a turn left or right. We have practiced
          lateral flexes ad infinitum. They are so light that I must drop the reins to practice leg-cues to be sure that they are following my leg instead of a tiny alteration to the face.

          I can’t see how the middle link in the bit is the problem. It can’t really pressure his tongue very much. Those bits generally pressure the lips and bars more than the tongue, and the French Link will hit the same spots. It just rides up the tongue a little easier.

          The issue of tripping is another matter, and I can see how you like to keep him framed. Generally a good side-pull will give you just enough pressure to keep him collected a little without any mouth pressure – especially since he understands the cue to come into your hands. My mare also trips (I think she just doesn’t like to pick up her feet, and I don’t ride her much or ask very much from her these days. Dare I say both lazy?) Is your old guy a little lazy or out of shape or does he have an actual problem that some concentrated exercise will not cure? If you will practice lunging with the help of the video on this page, it might help to develop a secure canter with proper musculature and balance. It is a dressage-riding video, but it applies to all disciplines, so hope you get something out of it.

          1. Thank you! I’m game to try the side-pull hackamore. Any particular brand? Is this different from the Dr. Cook’s bitless bridles?

            1. Yes. It is different in that it has no indirect pressure around the nose or face. When you pull left, it pulls left. When you pull right it pulls right. It is very simple.
              However, a good, leather bitless such as the Justin Dunn Bitless might work for you. Read about the Bitless Bridle to see how it works and if it interests you.

              You should be able to give him the support he needs without any mouth pressure. It just depends on whether you like the indirect rein of the bitless as opposed to the direct rein of a conventional side-pull. The horses I train neck rein in a conventional side-pull just fine, but a bitless bridle is good for that too

              You can get this particular bitless side-pull from or StatelineTack

  2. Definitely informing. Thank you!
    There definitely has been a lot of conflict over ‘to bit’ or ‘not to bit’ over the history of horsemanship;
    but in my personal opinion, the horse and rider decide the result for their personal use for the benefit and safety of both. There is no ”you definitely should bit.” or ”it is cruel to bit.” Every horse is different. One of my horses requires a bit in order to be safe.
    Another can be ridden in a halter. I do appreciate you sharing your knowledge. It was very helpful. Great job guys!:)

  3. Hi, I just got a four year old appendix breed filly . She has been barrel racing her in a twisted wire O ring style bit with a war bonnet. I m looking for alternative that I can use instead of this kind of bit . She is very light in the mouth and it is causing mouth sores on the corners .

    1. Hi Kendra:
      Did she have the sores before you got her? Is she “barrel crazy” and unmanageable when she sees the course? A twisted wire mouth makes a horse very light. EXPERIENCED trainers sometimes use it in the early stage of training to make a horse light. Once she is light, a gentler bit is needed. (Twisted wire is rarely used after the training process except maybe “occasionally” to remind her to stay light). A war bonnet is frequently used to keep a horse from coming up or rearing. Both pieces of equipment might imply that you have bought a horse that is very hard to control with some potentially bad habits. Is that the case?

      You didn’t tell me what you will use her for, so I am a little bit in the dark. Will you also use her for barrels? Barrels don’t usually take a lot of “mouth” except at the end of the run to pull up. IF she is properly trained, she would not need a twisted wire there either. Does she rear up before the straight-away to get the run started and then refuse to pull down?

      I almost always recommend LESS bit, not more. 3-piece snaffle is a good beginning unless she will not rate back, then she might need a slight curb of some kind. But if she has bad habits, she should probably leave barrels for a time and go back to training.

  4. Thank you for all this information. I have been educated tonight.
    Would like to know what is a side pull? I could only dream of the day when I could ride without a bit. I ride dressage, but my hands are way to active. Working on me and don’t want to ruin my new guy with to much activity in the mouth.
    Any suggestions on a cure for the busy hands.


    1. Hi Susan: Thank you for joining us. A side-pull is also called a breaking hackamore or a bitless bridle. It just happens that I wrote an entire article on “sidepulls” the other day. See it listed as a separate article under Hackamores. Side Pull”

      In the early stages of dressage, the side-pull is great. I find that it is wonderful for lateral turns, bringing his head down, allowing him to stretch his top-line without pressuring his own mouth or fighting a rider with too much control.

      Because I don’t train or practice dressage, I am not sure when you would actually NEED the bit. All dressage trainers and riders I know desperately WANT it long before any of their horses NEED it. They just can’t fathom not having a bit. I have to keep dragging my feet and dragging my feet, constantly putting off changing the head gear as long as they will possibly wait.

      If you have done your longing correctly so that the horse knows every gait and is working through smooth transitions, and he has been conditioned in his back and body as well, then your riding will be as smooth and collected as you can imagine.

      What to do with your hands? I find that one or both of two things affect a rider’s hands: 1. They are afraid the horse will not stop or slow down and are constantly feeling the urge to pull back. Or 2. They do not have a balanced seat and use the reins as a way to balance. Balance takes core muscles. Work on those. Try riding without stirrups first. Get the feel and the rhythms that way. Then put your stirrups back on and try riding without ANY reins (start in the round pen). See how you do.

      I have attached a great video to teach the canter to a dressage horse on the article about Liberty Longe. You can find the 2nd installment on (I have not had time to audit it or attach it.)

  5. Hi I’m an experienced rider… but have always bred and trained from birth never purchased someone else’s horse….. I just rescued an arab gelding from Kill pen…. he is said to be professionally trained and seems to be. I have 3 different bits avail. and want to advice …. as I saddled him up for the first time in 3 months.. I tried the Pelham… he tossed his head alot… tried the reg. round ring snaffle… and he constantly played with it and I had little control…. the only thing I have left is my training bit … which is the tom thumb… Oh and the side pull bosal… anyone have a suggestion…

    1. Hi. Although an Arab is not always the best candidate for no-bit, how about trying the side pull? If her ground training is good, it is enough more frequently than you might think. We recently rescued a paint gelding who was very stubborn and reluctant in his double-jointed snaffle with copper roller. He was practically impossible to bridle – fighting every way possible. He is a fairly easy-going horse, so I gave up the fight and put a side pull on him. He as been wearing it ever since as a super trail horse. We do not ask him to do anything fancy, but it is plenty of control for the trails and riding around the ranch.

      It sounds like you are a skilled and experienced rider and trainer, so if the side pull doesn’t work, try a thin french link. It relieves tongue pressure and isn’t so bulky in his mouth. He might like the more precise action and less metal.

      I am also attaching a very good article about a horse with a more severe bitting issue. Read about horses with tongue pressure problems.

  6. Hi,
    I am a very inexperienced rider with an OTTB who is well trained but sometimes doesn’t stop when asked. Which bit is best for me? I am just a casual pleasure rider. Thank you!

    1. It is a frequent complaint about OTTB horses. Racing horses need to GO, not stop, so they are often difficult when rating back. That being said – of course, I am going to tell you that a bit is not the answer for a poorly trained stop. You should go back to the basics on the ground and then in the saddle using the instructions in this blog or under the supervision of a trainer.

      If you want a bit to help (in the short run), you will need a bit with leverage. You might try a Kimberwick slotted D. You have choices for how much leverage or none at all. See the discussion of pelham bits.

      Being a very inexperienced rider, however, a leverage bit is a delicate proposition – rarely recommended for novices. Untrained hands can damage a horse’s mouth or personality by untrained handling. My advice? I’d start over, not raise the ante.

  7. I just purchased a horse from a rescue. He is 6 and beautifully trained and sweet. I haven’t ridden for decades, since I was a teen so I am starting over almost. I want to be as gentle with him as I can be. Someone suggested a plain snaffle or French Link snaffle. What do you think?

    1. Are you wanting a good trail horse companion or a dressage horse or other highly schooled horse?
      Is there any reason you cannot start him from the beginning under your own training without a bit? Get to know him inside and out. Read “joining Up”, get yourself a knotted rope halter and 14′ lead, and follow the steps through all of the exercises in the Training section to a superbly trained horse. You will probably fly through them in record time if he is as well trained as you think he is. But you will both learn a lot about each other, and the bit issue will solve itself.

      I don’t put a bit on my trail riding horses (or dressage horses) until they have passed all ground exercises and many saddle exercises as well. The trail horses never need a bit at all. And the dressage horses don’t need one until we get to more complicated riding. See the pictures in the “Maintaining Gait” exercises of a future Dressage horse being ridden with no reins at all.

      If he MUST start in a bit, get a nice French Link snaffle without cheeks. Or look at Myler bits and choose the right bit for his level of training and your goals.

  8. i find it v interesting that no-one here is talking about the medieval, cruel nature of the bit that forces by using pain, to make a horse complie to the riders demands,
    Humans want to ride a horse because of their beauty and power and then do everything they can to constrict, control and dampen this power….So sad. I advice everyone on here to watch the documentary ‘The path of the Horse’

    1. While I appreciate the sentiment very much, the purpose of this particular page is to detail more clearly the usual and intended purpose for each bit, not to advocate for its use. In my opinion, if we could just get people to use a bit correctly and the CORRECT bit correctly, it would go a long ways toward eliminating any cruelty and eventually opening the dialogue about removing the bit altogether (a step that 99% of riders are not ready for and whose suggestions just throws you into the “crackpot” category before you start).

      Over the past couple of decades, western riders have progressed from heavy, harsh curb bits (seen in the old cowboy movies) to less-severe, more-precise snaffles. I thought that would never happen because they just didn’t “look like” a “cowboy bit” and made the horse look “prissy”.

      I, personally, ride my beautiful and powerful horses in halters and side-pulls. See the pictures on “Maintaining Gait” of my protégé riding in halter with no hands at all, preparing for tackless free riding. It can be done. I don’t want to speak for all riders and all disciplines. I am not an expert in any. But I have seen Dressage horses as well as Western horses ridden tackles. Maybe the day will come.

      By the way, are you a rider of a horse with “beauty and power”? That will give you much more credibility when you talk to other riders about your concerns. :*)

  9. Fantastic information – cleared up some ‘mis information’ I had from other trainers in easy to understand language! Thank you:)

  10. The shank snaffle description was good for those of us who were unsure of the difference. If I inderstand correctly, the “shank snaffle” as pictured would be what I’m im familiar with being called a “Tom-thumb” bit. Is that correct?

    1. Yes. The bit shown has a 2-piece jointed mouth but also has long shanks that add leverage. Most people classify it as a curb bit (because it has an active curb strap and offers more pressure from a rider’s hands than the 1:1 ratio of a simple snaffle.) There has been a lot of criticism here of my “shank snaffle” terminology, so use it at your own risk :*)

  11. I like the cutaway picture of the simple snaffle bit. I hadn’t thought of the way it traps a horse’s tongue. I have since talked to several trainers who feel it is not an issue. However, I must say that when I went to a three piece bit, my horse quit fighting and moving with his head up. (In his regular snaffle, he would come into my hands and bring his face down for a stride or two and then throw his head up again.) Changing bits made all the difference.

  12. This is the most comprehensive discussion of snaffle bits I have ever seen. I’m not sure what it matters how they are classified, as long as you know how each mouthpiece works and how shanks work. Anyone who is still confused should go on to read the next discussion of shank snaffles. Tons more details there. I will be studying all of this for a few days and then changing my horse’s bit (she is a big head tosser and unable to stand still). I’m thinking that it may take a combination bit to stop both problems – less severe mouth and more curb action at the right time along with better relaxation training. Thank you.

    1. If she is tossing her head vertically she may have head shaking syndrome and her tossing has nothing to do with the bit. This is a painful condition that can usually be managed with medication.

    2. There is no such thing as a “Shanked Snaffle”. Lots of people think it’s a bit with a break in the middle. That however isn’t true… A snaffle is a bit that has no leverage, or applies direct pressure.

  13. If there is a distinct difference in snaffle bits and leverage bits, then how do I classify my dog bone (snaffle bit) with shanks? Is it a snaffle bit bit or a leverage bit, or would it be considered a combo?

    1. If you use a curb strap that is “active” (the leverage shanks engage the curb strap to pressure up into the chin and bring the poll down) then it is a “curb bit” with a 3-piece mouth. If for some odd reason, you do not use an active curb strap, then you are just using a 3-piece snaffle, but not in a conventional way. It would be better to drop to a 3-piece snaffle with no shanks or use the Dee rein loop only. Shank cheeks with no active curb strap just muddy your signals and gouge the horse’s face on the lateral pull.

  14. This is really interesting. I had no idea the complexity of bits and how each is used under different circumstances. I have friends who really need to know this stuff.

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