Benefits of a Snaffle
I have always adhered to the philosophy that less is more when it comes to bitting your horse. I start all of my young ones and even most of my older horses in loose ring snaffles and then I have the ability to adjust as needed. This stems back a long way to when we were riding with Alex Jayne and then it has been carried forward over the years as we rode with Candice King, and Joe Fargis. We have always flatted our horses in a loose ring to keep their mouths as soft as possible and make sure that they are truly listening to us. Then depending on the horse we may show them in a different bit such as; a Pelham, three-ring, Gag, etc. When you go in the show ring you need your horse as responsive as possible and if you work them in the same bit day after day, pretty soon they will not react to it as quickly because their mouth has become used to it. Of course, you might use your show bit at home when you are jumping around courses so that the pair of you become used to it and learn how it works before showing. However, if you use a strong bit daily you simply toughen their mouths and then have to use even stronger bits.
The other day a person who has been watching me work with my 3 year olds asked me in an incredulous tone, “you ride all of your horses in such soft bits, aren’t they too strong?” I personally would be worried about the other way around, if I start with harsher bits I run the risk of making their mouths tough. When I get on a young horse they have fragile, untouched mouths and it is my responsibility to keep them that way. Furthermore, they are already confused about what is happening to them and they do not need an even more confusing bit. Joe’s philosophy was always, “keep things as simple as possible.” If I use my leg and hand in the proper way with an even amount of both, or even a little more leg than hand, they will pretty soon learn to give with their mouth and soften onto the bridle. Yes, of course it will take me a little longer than just throwing on a gag or side reins and dropping into the connection, but it is worth the work. When your horse learns to soften in just a snaffle, then you know they are truly well flatted.
My 8 year old investment mare Clever Girl came in from Europe last summer and like all of my horses I started riding her in a snaffle. She had the toughest mouth I have ridden; she had no idea about softening into the connection. I spent hours holding my hand and closing as much leg as I possibly could, it was so aggravating feeling like I was getting nowhere. In reality she got a little softer each day, but then she started tossing her head when I was jumping her.
When my equine dentist came out he said that her teeth were terrible and he did not think they had ever been done. This is another important aspect of horse care, how can you expect them to hold the bit steady if it is jabbing them in the mouth. We have our horses seen by an equine dentist twice a year and he determines whether or not they need to be floated.
Even after her teeth were done, she still tossed her head and I attributed this to memory of the bit hurting so I decided I would try a simple hackamore to see what happened. She was AMAZING! It was like I had a completely different horse. I could take a feel of the bit to ask her to collect or wait and she didn’t toss her head or stiffen against the bit. I was so excited, my hard work was finally paying off. Before I found the hackamore I was getting so frustrated because it was like all the pieces were there, they just wouldn’t come together.
I needed the snaffle to start with to help her learn the feel of the connection, but I then had to adjust to a different bit to “finalize things.” By starting with the snaffle I was able to get an unsullied idea of what her mouth was like and to have a clearer view of exactly what I needed a bit to do. Bits are tricky and you do have to play around with them sometimes, but when you find the right one it can make all the difference in the world.