Historical Horse Tack: Snaffles, Curbs, and Losing Ones Head

charlesI
Charles I

On November 20th 1627, Charles I of England issued a proclamation outlawing snafflesYouatt, a prolific nineteenth century equine historian, suggested that this law may have been meant to counteract the trends towards favoring light racing horses over the (comparatively) heavier cavalry horse, but as the law specifically exempted racing and hunting this cannot have been the case. Charles I did have a fondness for imported hotbloods, and bred a number of early ‘thoroughly-bred’ horses, most of which were dispersed under Cromwell.

While it is easy to consider Charles I cruel in suggesting that only ‘bitts’ (i.e., curbs) be used, it is important to consider both who this law applied to, and the training processes of the time. First, this law was specifically directed at horses “employed for service,” i.e. warhorses.* These horses must be managed with one hand, and their swift and precise reaction would determine wether they, their rider, and their companions lived or died. These were not, generally, the heavily armored knight that we think of; the heavy lancer had become ineffective in the face of greater deployment of archers, along with both canons and pistols becoming more accurate, and the bulk of military forces no longer being limited to the elite. Secondly, the introduction of the ‘bitt,’ or curb, was considered an advanced step in the horse’s training in England at that time, more like modern dressage than western riding**. Thomas Blundville’s 1580 adaptation of Frederico Grisone’s treatise on the training of warhorses is a fascinating and entertaining read on this subject, full of both good advice and startling horrors. Charles I’s proclamation may have been an effort to ensure that riders put time and training into their mounts, rather than showing up on a horse that was either green, or used to an entirely different form of riding (as in racing or hunting).

bits
17th century curb bits
Look how tiny the mouthpieces are! I’d love to get a ruler on these. The ones I’ve seen usually look like they’re about 4″ to 4 1/2″

Charles I was executed in 1649, but his law stood.

*Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Charles I: 1627-1628 Great Britain. Public Record Office – January 1, 1858 Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts, pg 441

**though I hate to draw that particular comparison; this is the beginning of ‘classical’ dressage, but it does not have a strong relation to either modern dressage or what modern riders call ‘classical’ dressage.

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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.

levade
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:

hack
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.

tomthumb
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

dogbone
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
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.