Whether you ride English or Western, it's likely that you started out by riding your own horses or by being mounted on a schoolmaster horse while using a snaffle bit. These bits sit comfortably in the horse's mouth in the rear opening between its top and bottom teeth, and can be used with rubber lip guards to prevent pinching its lips.
What is a Snaffle Bit?
A snaffle bit is a common type of horse bit that is gentle on the horse's mouth. Comprised of either a single bar or two to three jointed pieces between large rings on either side, snaffle bits make it easy for riders to communicate with their horse and are commonly used to train young horses and beginner riders.
Even if you don't start out using a snaffle bit, there's a good chance that somewhere along the path of your riding education, you will ride with one. Knowing how the snaffle bit works is helpful in developing effective rein aids and to avoid being either ineffectual or too hard on your horse's mouth.
Although the basic action of most snaffle bits is the same, it sometimes takes trying a few different bits to find one your horse is comfortable with. Sometimes choosing the right bit, even if you are choosing among snaffles, can take a bit of time.
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A snaffle bit has a straight or jointed mouthpiece with rings on each end of the mouthpiece. There are many different types of snaffle bits. The basic structure is the same for all, and the basic action in the horse's mouth is similar, with some subtle modifications. The snaffle bit is regarded as a relatively mild bit. The addition of wire wrapping or other similar mouthpiece variations can make it much harsher.
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What Happens When You 'Pull' the Reins
When the reins are pulled, a pressure is applied to the area of the gums that have no teeth called the bars of the mouth. This gap is between the front teeth that crop grass, and the back teeth, that grind the food. A properly fitting bit sits comfortably within this gap, just forward of the grinding teeth. Occasionally, a horse will have problems carrying a bit comfortably and small teeth called wolf teeth may have to be pulled, or a bit seat created.
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How the Horse Reacts to the Signals
The simple snaffle applies pressure to the bars of the horse's mouth. There is no pressure anywhere else on the horse's head and no leverage comes into play as it does with a curb bit. When you pull straight back, the horse will understand that equal pressure on both sides of its mouth means to stop. A pull to the right, that applies pressure on the right bar, means turn to the right and a pull to the left, of course, means turn left.
As you learn to refine your rein aids, combining them with using your seat and leg aids, you will learn to cue your horse for things like leg yields, half-passes, lead changes, changes of gait and other more advanced riding skills. While at first you may be simply 'pulling' the reins, you will in a short time learn to give much more subtle signals that can be felt by the horse but are almost imperceptible to the average observer.
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The Function of Bit Rings
The rings on a snaffle may be D shaped or have a small piece sticking up or down like a full cheek snaffle and Fulmer snaffle. The rings may slide or they may be fixed to the mouthpiece. The shafts perpendicular to the mouthpiece on the full cheek and driving bits prevent the bit from slipping through the horse's mouth. Large leather or rubber type discs can be used to keep the bit from chaffing the sides of the horse's mouth as well. The rings can affect the weight of the bit and prevent the bit from pulling sideways through the horse's mouth.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
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How Mouthpieces Differ
Bits with jointed mouthpieces will have a nutcracker effect, while straight mouthpieces spread the pressure evenly over tongue and bars. An egg butt snaffle will have oval rings, and the mouthpiece will get thicker as it approaches the rings. These bits are among the mildest because they distribute the pressure of the rein aid over a wider area of the bars. Generally the thicker the mouthpiece the milder the bit. A horse with a large tongue or low palate might be uncomfortable in a bit with a thick mouthpiece.
The French link is considered the mildest jointed snaffle. The Dr. Bristol link, although it looks similar, is much more severe, because of the way the plate in the middle of the bit lays in constant contact with the tongue—either flat or on an angle, depending on how the rider attaches the bit to the bridle.
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Snaffles can be hollow to reduce weight, flexible, twisted, joined with one or more links, have keys or rollers, be squared or oval, or have any combination of shapes and joints. Mullen mouth bits are the same width from end to end. Wire bits are quite thin and wire wrapped bits add to the sharpness of the pressure on the bars of the mouth.
All of these variations are intended to enhance the rein aids. Different metals and material can be used to encourage the horse to accept the bit for its taste or encourage salivation. Copper, sweet iron, vulcanite, and other synthetics can be used. Some bits, often used for teaching a young horse to hold the bit, are flavored.
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The Vesatility of Snaffle Bits
Snaffles are often the first bit a horse will carry. Many will be ridden throughout their entire lives with a snaffle bit.