Musings on Melancholy

     This week for one of my classes we’re reading Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. We are invited to post our musings before class, and considering what I decided to write on this week I thought I would share it here as well:

   At *every* conference presentation I’ve given on horse-related topics I have gotten a question about eating horses. So, of necessity, I collect assorted references in order to answer this entirely off topic question. 

“horse…which although some countries eat, as Tartars, and they of China; yet [1354] Galen condemns. Young foals are as commonly eaten in Spain as red deer, and to furnish their navies, about Malaga especially, often used; but such meats ask long baking, or seething, to qualify them, and yet all will not serve.”
Robert Burton. The Anatomy of Melancholy (Kindle Locations 3815-3818). 

     Here the eating of horse meat is dismissed as a foreign practice, and the meat considered of lower quality. It is rightly compared to red deer (much larger than white tail), having a similar low fat content and long muscle fibers. Studies by John Clark suggest that horse meat went out of vogue around London in the 14th century, but survived at a lower volume in more remote areas (in those cases possibly indicative of lack of other meat sources, or inability to feed the horses). With Anatomy of Melancholy first published in 1621, it is reasonable that the practice of eating horsemeat was well out of memory, especially in light of the long rhetoric of the Church against the eating of horsemeat as a pagan practice. 

“At this day in China the common people live in a manner altogether on roots and herbs, and to the wealthiest, horse, ass, mule, dogs, cat-flesh, is as delightsome as the rest, so [1447] Mat. Riccius the Jesuit relates, who lived many years amongst them. The Tartars eat raw meat, and most commonly [1448] horse-flesh, drink milk and blood, as the nomades of old.”
Robert Burton. The Anatomy of Melancholy (Kindle Locations 4043-4046). 

     Again both China and the “Tartars” (Tatars) are mentioned as eaters of horse. I expect this actually does have basis in fact (although “raw” is a bit of an exaggeration– acid cooked is more likely). Despite being in a section that claims to be fairly moderate in view, suggesting that there are in all parts (including those close to home) dietary customs that others would consider unusual, and each man’s body has its own unique nutritional foibles, the inclusion of cannibalism in this section makes it unlikely that Burton actually supports other unusual practices.

Also of note:

     On November 20th 1627, Charles I of England issued a proclamation outlawing snaffle bits for horses “employed for [military] service.” Had Charles I not been deposed, he would likely be credited with the creation of the Thoroughbred horse; the General Studbook was published in 1791, but despite the dispersal of Charles I’s herd and brief suppression of racing, horses he imported still had a large effect on the new breed. The outlawing of snaffles for military use suggests than many lords were employing their race or hunt horses (ineffectually) for service. Burton seems to have a comfortable familiarity with “modern” racing (despite sometimes trying to shoehorn in ancient comparisons), but still upholds the hunt and the height of gentlemanly “disport”; I’ve been wondering at why, and these are some possibilities: hunting was still more in vogue; hunting was a more “active” and therefore healthful sport (air & exercise); or the possibility of “real” racing still being reserved to the most elite, while hunting was available to the gentry.




And a final fun note:
“To see horses ride in a coach, [and] men draw it.”
Robert Burton. The Anatomy of Melancholy (Kindle Location 1204). 

Historical Horse Tack: The Science of Gagging


    This is the “Patent Bridle,” invented by Dennis Magner, a popular and prolific 19th century author on ‘scientific’ horse training. This illustration is from his 1886 “The Art of Taming and Educating the Horse.” This may be the earliest gag bit, at least of the strap style. Anyone know of (or suspect) an earlier one?
   It is slightly different from modern gags in two effective way. First, the pulley gives a little bit more leverage (re: stronger upward pull) than a modern strap. And second, “a rubber connecting the ends of the bit to the rings on the pulley reins makes the action of the bit upon the mouth the same as any ordinary bit. But if at any time there should be much resistance, the rubbers stretch sufficiently to give play to the reins upon the pulleys.” If true, a very neat innovation, though I’m not a fan of gag bits, especially ones with as long a strap as this (a stopper could be added to prevent maximum engagement and the possibility of severe lip damage).

Neck-reining and Foundation Bits For One-Handed Riding

     Neck-reining sounds simple: the horse moves away from the pressure of the rein on the neck. Anyone who has tried to teach a horse to neck rein knows that this pressure doesn’t make sense to a green horse, and often results in some odd contortions of the neck and a complete loss of finesse. Like in any part of a horse’s education, a slow and systematic approach creates relaxed and clear communication. I prefer to have my horses well started in dressage (or purposeful flatwork if you prefer), with a fairly nuanced understanding of seat and leg and a clear idea of outside rein before I introduce neck-reining. For this stage, I prefer a snaffle or a simple cavesson (reins attached at the bridge of the nose or at the side, but not under the jaw and no moving parts). Then, I begin “neck reining” by exaggerating hand position, with the outside rein still engaged but touching the horse’s crest, and the inside rein opening as needing. All cues begin from the seat and leg. There are a number of reasons that the snaffle is not ideal for neck reining, including that the hand position must be higher with one hand than with two, but a few sessions (or a few weeks, or months) of working in the familiar snaffle or cavesson while refining seat and leg cues and introducing neck cues prevents confusion or panic later on.

Riding at one hand isn’t just for cowhorses

Once the horse is going well this way in a snaffle, I introduce the first (and, for many, last) “curb,” which is generally one of the following:

fleece short-shank hackamore

     This is my favorite summer camp “bit,” as it provides clear communication (once introduced) and ‘control’, while having the least possibility for injury or fear, even in the most unsteady or unkind hands. Pressure is mild to the bridge of the nose and the poll, mild to moderate on the chin. It is important to make sure they are adjusted properly, being not so loose that they twist, and not so tight that there isn’t a clear release. A more advance rider can also ride at two hands with a light contact and be able to engage each side separately, with some amount of lateral pressure on the side of the muzzle. I see no reason for a more severe nose band, as it is a sensitive area that is easily damaged, or for longer shanks, as they make the pressure too rapid and jerky. Especially for camp, I may swap out the standard curb chain for a leather strap.

Tom Thumb

     Most barns have a ton of these laying around, and they’re great. Again, I prefer a double jointed bit, but unfortunately most of the “western” double jointed bits are dog-bones, like the lower bit. I thought I, and my horses, would love this bit. And we did, at first. It has an extra long purchase (distance from mouthpiece to cheekpiece ring) which means more poll pressure, but that can be mitigated by adjusting the bit a little low in the horse’s mouth, as long as the

Dog Bone

cheekpiece is adjusted far enough back so as to not be pushed into the horse’s eye. With all curbs, the shape and length of both the purchase and the shanks need to be considered, especially if the reins might be in unsteady hands. Unfortunately, the open space in the dog-bone can pinch, especially if your horse has a thicker tongue. So, I prefer the single joint over the dog-bone, even though I generally prefer a double jointed mouthpiece

Argentine Snaffle

     I also love these. Often people point out it isn’t really a snaffle because of the leverage, but what makes an argentine snaffle different from a tom thumb is the additional rein ring at the mouth piece. This gives you the option of using snaffle pressure or tom thumb pressure, working like a pelham bit but without the funny looks you get for riding a young stock horse in an “English” bit. These are especially good for introducing or tuning up neck-reining and curb response in a horse that is well started and confident in a snaffle. The one above also has small rings for a lip strap, which can help prevent the bit from flipping forward. And, a copper mouth piece which many horses love; I don’t have a preferred metal, because while many horses like copper or sweet iron, many also hate them. The pelham itself, of course, is the “English” option for this. I usually don’t use kimberwicks, since they lack the finesse of a pelham or argentine snaffle, and tend to actually dull the horse to curb pressure since there is not as much clarity in either engagement or release of the curb.

   Most horses go well in any of the above bits if they are well fitted and introduced slowly and systematically. When I can follow my preference, most of my horses will eventually go in a fleece hack and a french link pelham (or Argentine), as well as a snaffle and in just a halter; some may also go bridle-less or in a solid curb, though both of these take considerably more training. 


Bits: Cheeked Snaffles

My (and many trainers) preferred foundation bit is some form of cheeked snaffle. These bits add pressure to the offside of the nose, and prevent the bit from pulling through the horse’s mouth. The “usual suspects” are fullcheeks, dee rings, eggbutts, and for western the offset dee.
All of these bits function in essentially the same way if they have the same mouthpiece. I prefer french links, as they prevent the mouthpiece from raising into the palette and they give a clearer differentiation between each rein. The “comfort snaffle” and similar mouthpieces correct some of the problems with a single jointed bit, but do not afford the nuance of the french link due to their stiffer nature. In some cases this can be a benefit, but they are not as clear a signal to the horse. Of these cheeks, I prefer the eggbutt as they tend not to flip forward like the dee and don’t need keepers like the full cheek. All these preferences aside, I tend to use a lot of plain single-jointed dees and full cheeks because they are far cheaper and work well for most horses and riders.

Bits vs. Bit-less

There are many great reasons to go bit-less, like:

1. You can.
2. It gives you more options for how to communicate with your horse.
3. There are so many options, there is no need to give up a nuanced feel.

And a few to consider as to why not (or, not exclusively):

1. Many bit-less options put far more pressure, physically and psychologically, on the horse than a basic bit does.
2. Many shows do not allow bit-less bridles. In some cases, this is just due to tradition and can be challenged. In others, it is because the show staff are well aware of #1.
3. If for any reason that horse must be sold, it is far easier for a horse that is comfortable in a bit to find and keep a good home. Even if you expect to own the horse for their entire life, invest in their future and make sure that they understand a basic bit.

Headgear for Horses: Bitted & Bit-less Pressures

There is no one magic piece of tack, and that especially applies to any item we use to exert pressure on the horse’s head. Every horse is an individual in conformation, temperament, and training, and so is every rider or handler on the other end of the line. I feel that this is, perhaps, an overly obvious statement, but ads still abound for bits and bit-less rigs guaranteed to “fix any horse” or “be more humane.” When choosing headgear (or any other piece of equipment), consider what pressures it exerts on the individual horse.


Common areas of pressure:


Bars The naturally toothless portion of the lower jaw.


Lips The corners of the mouth are incredibly sensitive. As such, this can be the gentlest or the cruelest type of pressure. Any direct rein use with a bit will put pressure on the lips. Gag bits will exaggerate this effect.


Tongue Most bits will apply some pressure to the tongue, but it should not be the only or sustained point of contact.


Side of muzzle Usually the easiest pressure to introduce to a young or headshy horse, which is why full-cheek and d-ring snaffle bits, and side-pull and bosal bit-less options, are so popular for starting horses.


Bridge of nose Pressure varies considerably based on placement and material.


Curb Under the chin. This pressure can be very subtle, or vice like. As an indirect pressure, it is not immediately “horse logical,” and should be introduced systematically to a horse that is already well accustomed to a rider and more direct pressures.


Poll Top of the head. This can be a very nuanced addition to horse/rider communication, but it can also be very frightening to the horse. Many “humane” rigs, including the Dr. Cook’s Bit-less Bridle, have an incredible amount of poll pressure and can cause horses to panic.


Palette Either accidentally, from a single-jointed mouth piece with both reins used strongly, or purposefully from a ported mouthpiece. A ported mouthpiece is not necessarily a more severe bit, but there are many very severe ported bits. Ports often make more “sense” to a green horse than the curb pressure they generally come with, but should still be introduced slowly and systematically. In addition, while all tack should be fitted to the individual horse, it is absolutely critical with ports. Depending on each horses mouth shape, the same ported bit can be very mild or immediately painful. Ported bits also tend to be heavier, which should be kept in mind when fitting (this is also why you always find dozens of old aluminum curbs at auctions– it isn’t just because the metal was cheap, but also because it was light).


I am often asked about bits I love or hate, so for articles to follow I will tag them:

Green: Suitable for everyday use, green horses, and green riders. Generally these are smooth mouth snaffles and direct pull bit-less options.

Yellow: Suitable for everyday use and green riders, but requires some training for the horse. Most simple curbs, including bit-less options.

Orange: Not suitable for everyday use, probably not something a beginner should use, and requires training for the horse. This is a pretty large category, ranging from double bridles to gag hacks to spade bits.

Red: Why, oh why, does this exist? I generally reserve this category for bits that will cause immediate pain and/or damage even in sensitive hands. If it can be used without causing pain or panic, even if it is not something I would use, I’ll stick it in orange.