Using a snaffle on a Senior Horse

Senior horse snaffle bit training…

Or any other bit for that matter!

I think the worst thing you can do once you hunt down that curb/shank bit that your horse loves and works well in is to use it on him day in, day out. When you do find that “favourite” bit the best thing you can do is to keep it for those special occasions like showday.

Lot’s of riders’ do this and it is “common sense” to them to say “Beauty! My horse loves this new bit, I can relax now and stop worrying!” Down the track though, I get calls and questions all the time wondering why their favourite bit is not working anymore. You can liken it to using the same spurs day in day out, after a time the horse starts to become dull to the feel of the spurs you use every day.

I truly believe that it’s not the bit and it’s not the spur at fault – it’s the hands and feet behind them that does the damage. No horse is born with a “hard mouth”.  Poor riding or training create one, just as good riding and correct training develop a responsive horse to the leg and rein aids.  Again, it’s not about the mouth, it’s about re-educating the horse to respond correctly, to understand what we are asking of him.

Remember, whatever bit you use is only as effective as your training.  Horse are not born with an understanding that they should soften to the rein aid, that they should move this way to follow an open rein, or that they should stop when you apply a little stronger pressure.  It’s a language that they need to learn, and as with learning any language, this takes time and patience.

If you ride a horse (any age) with the same bit every day you are not allowing your horse to develop any “feel” in it’s mouth. They become accustomed to the same “feel” and pressure on the bars of their mouths and become dull to the pressure. This, by the way is not helped by holding firmly and equally the reins continually either. I like to have what I call an “open door” at all times whilst training, this means one rein at a time for most rein aids. The more you hold firm with both hands the more they will get dull to the feel. But getting back to the bit and not straying onto another subject, you will be doing yourself and your horse a big favour if you change bits occasionally.

A change is as good as a holiday

Every so often it’s nice to get a snaffle on and go two handed on your senior horse whilst training, work on flexing his head and neck, direct rein him, indirect rein him around, move his shoulders, hips and torso around with wide open reins and hands or one hand holding up a working shoulder and the other holding him way out away from your body guiding him in that direction. It’s not only about limbering your horse it’s about limbering yourself up too. Try not to train like you are under the eye of the judge at all times, loosen up the pair of you, get some really good flexibility into your horse by putting him into a snaffle and getting more open in your own body to give him a good “calisthenic” workout to limber him up and work on getting him soft up front. Straying away again…when training your horse at home, don’t get on the rail and do a “class” and think that’s enough and put him away for the day, it’s not meant to be like that, the rail should be savoured for the class and used as a reward and not a mindless, daily routine of getting on the rail at the walk, jog and lope. Get off the rail and do some work, that there is the quickest way to softness, it all comes together in the middle with the Drill Sergeant, the PT or, in this instance – YOU, the trainer! get off the rail and get some calisthenics down.

Below are a couple of medium shank broken mouthed bits that also work whilst training a senior horse at home. These bits are a good change up to help prevent your senior horse from “dulling to the bit”.

Using an Argentine gives more control when changing from a snaffle.

Argentine snaffles have more control than a ring bit. Low leverage shanks combine with some curb pressure for more control, they are a great bit for transitioning in to a curb bit as well.

Argentine Bit

The longer the shanks the more pressure is applied. With shanks of moderate length, when five pounds of pressure is applied to the reins, about fifteen pounds of pressure is applied to the mouth.

Tom Thumb sometimes called a snaffle

A lot of riders consider a Tom Thumb bit to be a mild snaffle bit. However, the Tom Thumb bits jointed mouthpiece doesn’t actually make it a snaffle—it’s actually a leverage bit. The Tom Thumb bit is a more severe and uncomfortable bit than many people realise. A jointed mouthpiece does not make a bit a snaffle bit. There is a very big difference between the snaffle and curb bits, and one can’t be the other regardless of what the mouthpiece may look like. 

In unskilled hands, this particular tool can be quite a harsh bit, which can cause your horse to object because of the discomfort it causes. Because of that, the horse might appear to misbehave, which is dangerous for the rider and the horse.

Tom Thumb bits have a jointed mouthpiece and medium-length shanks similar to that of the Argentine bit. The shanks range from 5 to 7 inches long (15 to 18 centimeters). The headstall of the bridle attaches to the rings at the top, and a curb chain or strap attaches to the D-shaped slots just behind where the headpiece attaches.

There are several different types of mouthpieces on Tom Thumb bits, you will find various types of rubber and synthetics, rollers, and copper or copper-inlaid strips. These bits have shanks, although they are shorter than many western bits, but nonetheless making it a leverage bit. Leverage bits means that every pound of pressure that the rider puts on the reins, the horse will feel that pressure times three.

The curb chain is a very important part of the curb bit, and should always be adjusted properly. A curb strap of leather or synthetic material might be used instead of a chain to prevent the bit from rotating in the horse’s mouth too far. I have known of some “good intentioned” riders transition their horse from a snaffle to an Argentine or Tom Thumb type bit minus the curb chain thinking it was kinder when infact it is very uncomfortable for your horse when you take a hold of the reins the bit rotates too far back putting undue pressure on the roof of your horses mouth, causing him to flick his head or try and pull away from the pressure.

What Does the Curb Chain or Strap Do?

A snaffle bit only places pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth when you pull on the reins. But, more happens when you pull on the reins of a curb bit. As the shanks are pulled backward, the horse will feel pressure on the top of its head (poll), the bars of its mouth and in the chin groove where the strap or chain is sitting. The curb strap prevents the bit from rotating too far in the horse’s mouth, which may be very uncomfortable, especially if there is a large spoon or port on the mouthpiece of the bit. The curb chain limits the pressure on the upper palate of the horse’s mouth as the mouthpiece rotates. The pressure under the chin also pulls the bit down against the bars of the horse’s mouth, amplifying the rein aids.

Adjustment of the Chain or Strap


Proper adjustment of the curb chain is very important. If the curb chain is too tight, there will be constant uncomfortable pressure on the horse’s chin groove and bars of the mouth. The rein aids will be exaggerated, which could cause the horse to toss its head or open its mouth to escape the pressure.

If the chain or strap is too loose or left off altogether the leverage action of the bit won’t be as effective. If there is a port or spoon on the bit, it can be pulled against the roof of the horse’s mouth sharply, causing the horse pain. This can also happen with the broken mouthed snaffle type mouthpiece. The curb strap or chain should be done up so that when the reins are used, the shanks of the bit don’t rotate beyond 45 degrees. Many people use the width of two fingers between the horse’s chin groove and the strap or chain to estimate how tight the chain is. But this is only an approximation after you’ve checked that the shanks will rotate about 45 degrees.

So, always use a curb strap or a chain.

Take care when using broken mouthed shanked bits…


Many horse enthusiasts disagree on the severity of the Tom Thumb bit. Because it is jointed, it has a nutcracker action in the mouth. Combined with the leverage action provided by the shanks, the bit will apply pressure to the horse’s head over the poll and under the chin as the curb chain or strap pulls upward. If the reins are pulled hard, the joint in the mouthpiece bends and can come in contact with the roof of the horse’s mouth. This can cause the horse to toss its head, which is not safe. But like I said earlier, if used correctly, leaving out any brute force these bits will help you maintain a responsive mouth.

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Pam

I am a retired professional horse trainer, active Certified rider coach, I coach riders and their horses throughout Australia and New Zealand, I am the author of the book From Go To Whoa - Training Your Own Horse, I am also a Certified Nutritionist and a professional Keto Coach. I am a keen fisher woman and I love the gym where I weight train 4 days a week. I travel Australia full time now with my husband and our Jack Russell Doug, booking and holding clinics and lessons throughout the country for many remote horse riders as well as not so remote. I love coaching riders and their horses along with helping people with nutrition and the ketogenic diet.

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