Understanding the function of the snaffle bit is a good first step in deciding which of a gazillion snaffle varieties is right for your horse. Bitting expert Anita Marchesani breaks it down.
The Familiar Snaffle
Ever picked up a bit and wondered how it works? In my work, I classify horse bits into four main categories: the snaffle, leverage bits, gag bits and bitless options. Having a basic understanding of these four main types, and what they are designed to do, will help riders when considering changing to a new bit. Let’s explore the Snaffle in a little more detail to get us started.
The Snaffle is the largest bitting group and seemingly the simplest, kindest option; however, there are now many variations and subgroups within this type. Most simply, and for my purpose, the snaffle can be classified as a “direct action” bit with no curb or poll pressure, and whose primary influence is to ask for the head to come up. The bit acts firstly on the horse’s lips in an upward action, then as the horse flexes more at the poll as his education advances and he works more correctly, the pressure on the tongue and bars is increased.
The snaffle, by my definition, applies the same pressure, in the same direction as the rider’s aids. For these reason, the snaffle gives the best aids for changes of direction. (Western shanked bits known as snaffles due to the jointed mouthpieces would therefore be categorized as a leverage or curb bit.)
The biggest variation is in the different mouthpieces available. There are hundreds of variations of snaffles that are legal for competition as a snaffle, and many that are not. (An example of this is the Waterford snaffle–certainly not legal for competition in dressage as a snaffle, but still working on direct action, with a single mouthpiece).
There are copper alloy mouthpieces, stainless steel, sweet iron, rubber and plastic, and in various different joins and combinations–single join, French link, lozenge link, mullen mouth, straight bar, ported, barrel mouthed… the variations seem endless.
From top to bottom:
- Plastic mouthed full-cheek snaffle
- Copper lozenge link loose-ring snaffle
- French link eggbutt snaffle
- Stainless steel single-join loose ring snaffle
- Rubber mullen mouth dee-ring snaffle
Then there are the cheekpieces. The Myler Brothers like to say that the mouthpiece is for the horse and the cheekpiece is for the rider, and this is very astute. It is through the variations on the cheekpieces that the subtle benefits can change, even with the very same mouthpiece on each.
For example, the common and popular loose-ring offers the rider a great deal of play and finesse to their aids, communicating the slightest movement very quickly. Whereas the eggbutt cheek gives the bit a little more stability, which can be very useful with a rider with unsteady hands, or a horse that is unsteady into the contact.
Just because the bit is a snaffle does not always mean it is the kindest option. A rider can do tremendous damage to a horse’s mouth in a “kind” snaffle if used poorly. Personally, while I encourage bitting down as often as possible, I do also recommend a stronger bit where I feel it improves these two main factors: the safety of the rider and the comfort of the horse. In my mind, a horse will be more comfortable in a “stronger” bit when responding to a good half halt–release, when required before a fence, than to be galloping out of control with a rider hanging onto it’s mouth for dear life, tugging and yanking in a snaffle for the whole XC round, not to mention at least a little safer.
So, the familiar Snaffle–a direct action bit with the clearest indication for turning aids. Nest month, we look at leverage bits and how they work.
About Anita: Anita Marchesani is the bitting expert behind Bit Bank Australia, a specialist web shop that sells only horse bits and accessories. She is a published author and a regular presenter, including at Equitana Asia Pacific, on her favourite topic of, you guessed it–horse bits! Having lived and worked in the UK as an event groom, she now lives in Perth, Western Australia, with her family of one beagle, one fat pony a gold fish and her wonderful husband.