University of Vermont AAHS

A Little Bit of Difference

Jan Dawson
AAHS President

[reproduced from Fall 2002 Caution:Horses

What is the best bit to use in horses that are going on a public trail ride? Does it make a difference if the trail ride is commercial, open to anybody or only guests from a certain guest ranch? Would the answer be different if the riders are kids from a children’s summer camp or guests at a private ranch? Would the answer be different if the riders were all guests at a posh Eastern resort in fox hunting country and only English tack were available? 

If the riders were on a pony trek in Ireland or riding in Europe the choice would be (a) flat saddles and snaffle bits or (b) flat saddles and snaffle bits. 

The tendency of some segments of the horse world to assume that a curb bit is automatically the best way to go will not meet with agreement in all parts of the world or even in all parts of the horse industry in the United States. 

Arguments for and against the more severe bits may include the following: 

1. A novice, weak or small rider has a better chance of controlling a horse with a stronger bit.

However, inexperienced hands and a severe bit can cause a horse to be more fractious and less quiet. Constant severity and unpredictable pulling, more than anything else, cause horses to lose the sensitivity in their mouths and become “hard-mouthed” and difficult to control. Many would say that a horse that cannot be ridden in a snaffle bit is not a children’s or novice horse anyway. Horses ridden reasonably in softer bits may be less likely to become sour and behave inappropriately. 

2. Not all curb bits are severe. The severity depends on the type of bit, length of shank, and tightness of the chain.

However, when you take away the severity of the curb you have less control than with a snaffle. Furthermore, if you have to really control the bolting horse you need to double him and you either need a properly fitted snaffle or a properly adjusted curb not a poorly fitted curb. 

3. If one needs a strong bit no special training is needed to use a curb to its best advantage.

However a great deal of experience is needed to use a curb to its best advantage without irritating the horse. Constantly irritated horses can be extremely dangerous. 

Other Problems with Biting 

Novice trail riders who have been given curb bits have also usually been taught to manage the reins with only one hand. They have been taught to start, stop, and steer by moving the hand that holds the reins left, right, and back toward their tummies. When there is an emergency this novice rider frequently pulls on the reins with one hand and grabs the horn with the other. Often the reins were too long to begin with but with one hand grabbing the horn and the rider now fearful and not likely to release that hold, the rider is unable to shorten the reins and cannot regain control. Shortening the reins is not as much of a problem with a rider who has a snaffle bit and a rein in each hand. 

Often with the novice trail rider who simply wants a way to see the scenery, the idea that the ride could become more thrilling than planned never crossed his mind. When something happens and the horse spooks, this rider may just grab the saddle with both hands in which case it is more important that the horse is comfortable and unlikely to leave the group than what kind of bit is in his mouth. Of course if the bit in his mouth is severe, at this point a good jerk on the bit (no pun intended) will frighten the spooked horse and send him far down the trail, or at least far enough to lose his rider.


What bit should you use for novice trail riders? Should you use all the force you can get away with? Should you use as little as possible? The answer may be “whatever.” It may be all in the management. 

If the trail ride is being managed responsibly it should include the nature of horses carefully explained, releases should be carefully explained with the necessary equine activities statute papers included where applicable, helmets fitted (don’t even think about not using them for minors and separate waivers at least for adults), meaningful pre-ride instructions and real skills tests. You should explain the bits that you are using and how to stop the horse in the event of an emergency. Demonstrate an emergency stop (See Teaching Safe Horsemanship) and then use either a plain, medium width snaffle, if your horses respond to that, and most will or should if they are proper gentle horses, or a soft, low-port curb of either the grazing or tom thumb variety. If they need something stronger they are not appropriate horses for your trail ride. Both types of bits should be adjusted so that the horse can carry them comfortably. The horse should not have a “smile” with a curb bit but may have a wrinkle or two with a snaffle. Many Western trainers adjust their snaffles much lower but that is not recommended as an adjustment for novice trail riders. 

Riders should have instruction on rein length and be cautioned about grabbing the saddle in an emergency. They should also be taught a method for shortening their reins. 

It is surprising how just a little bit of instruction before a ride will keep a sudden occurrence from becoming a medical emergency.

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