Question: Dear Julie:
I have seen quite a few western horses lately wearing full cheek snaffle bits without cavessons/nose bands or bit keepers. When I ask the rider about their bit, they reply, “To avoid the bit being pulled through the horse’s mouth.” Without a full cheek snaffle bit tucked in so to speak, isn’t it more dangerous, as well as putting the bit at the wrong angle in the horse’s mouth? Please correct me if I’m wrong here.
Thank you for your time,
Alice in Oregon
Over the past decade, I have noticed an interesting trend in both English and western riders toward snaffles that are not really the right tool for the job. The western riders have become smitten with the full-cheek snaffle, while many English riders have embraced the loose ring snaffle. It’s interesting because neither bit is the best tool for the job.
The full-cheek snaffle is similar in style to the egg-butt and dee-ring snaffles—each with a fixed ring and a bar for the horse to balance on when ridden with direct contact. In a way, they are all variations of the same thing—if you think about the full-cheek with the long bars on each side of the mouthpiece, then you could think of the dee-ring and egg-butt as a half-cheek and a third-cheek.
The purpose of the full cheek is to give the horse something steady to balance against when ridden on direct contact (as most English horses are). That’s why it is a traditional bit for hunters. If the rider holds two pounds of pressure in her hands, the horse balances two pounds of pressure on the bit. In essence, the full-cheeks give him something to lean against. For the horse ridden on direct contact, that may help steady the bit in his mouth and give him something to balance on.
On the other hand, the loose ring snaffle, which allows the mouthpiece to spin around the ring, is a useful bit for horses that are ridden on a loose rein. He can suck the mouthpiece up into his mouth and twirl the ring, keeping his jaw soft and encouraging him to play with the bit. It’s really more appropriate for the western horse, which is most often ridden off-contact.
While the full-cheek snaffle could be useful for a colt, to keep the bit from sliding through his mouth when you take a hard pull on one rein (as you might do in a very green horse), in my opinion that does not out-weight the negative effects of the bit. Besides, a chin strap (or bit hobble) will do the same thing. Once the horse is reasonably well-trained, you should not need to be pulling on the rein so hard that it pulls the bit through his mouth.
In my experience, the full-cheek snaffle encourages horses to lean on the bit; something we definitely do not want western horses to do; and really, we don’t want any horses to lean on the bit. I’ve found that trained horses that are switched to the full-cheek will often resent the extra pressure on the sides of their face and often will lean into it—leaning in the opposite direction that you are trying to turn. Besides that, the single-jointed snaffle (which most full-cheeks are) put excessive pressure on the horse’s tongue as well as poking into his palate, making him very uncomfortable.
Most snaffles put an excessive of pressure on the tongue—which is what horses hate the most. In fact, all of the evasion tactics that horses employ are in an effort to release pressure off of the tongue. Both the single-jointed bits and the three-piece snaffles put excessive pressure on the tongue. While you may occasionally need that on a very green horse—for who control is an issue—for most trained horses, you can make them more comfortable by relieving pressure from the tongue. This is one of the main reasons I only use Myler bits—they are designed with the horse’s comfort in mind; after all, the horse can only relax and do his job when he is comfortable. Myler does not make any single-jointed mouthpieces and all of their bits have an ergonomic shape that relieves pressure from the tongue.
If the full-cheek is used, it should definitely have full-cheek keepers—a little figure-8 looking thing that attaches to the cheek piece of the head stall and loops around the top of the bar to keep the bit balanced in the horse’s mouth. If the keepers are not used, that single joint presses down relentlessly on the tongue and the keepers help keep the bars in control. I have seen a horse, through the rider’s carelessness, step on a rein and poke the bar of the full-cheek right through his cheek. Although this would be a rare occurrence, the keepers will help prevent this.
Just last weekend at a clinic I had two well-trained western horses in full-cheeks. Both horses were leaning heavily on the bit and rooting the reins; defensive rather that responsive to bit pressure. I switched them to Myler eggbutts with a mouthpiece that had extra tongue relief (33 mouthpiece) and they were instantly improved. While a bit will never fix a training issue with a horse, making the horse more comfortable in his mouth will definitely help him do his job better. For more information on Myler bits, visit www.mylerbitsusa.com.
So, in short Alice, you are right—at least in my opinion. There are so many misconceptions out there about bits and most people really don’t know why they use the bit they do, other than someone told them it was the right thing to do. Good for you for questioning!
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