Horse Illustrated Julie Goodnight Q&As – Bit Tips Logo

Q: I just purchased a seven-year-old gelding. The previous owner was riding him in a single-jointed snaffle bit. Now, I’m looking for a bit for him and he has responded badly to a D-ring snaffle, O-ring snaffle, and a Tom Thumb. He avoids begin bridled then gapes his mouth, yawns and rubs his face on his leg. He won’t bend well to either side and he has even threatened to buck when I ask him to turn. His teeth have been checked. Is he a good candidate for a hackamore? Or what bit would be best?


A: With bits, it’s important to remember that the mouthpiece is what the horse feels, the cheek piece is about how you, the rider will give cues (and how subtle your cues need to be). More simply put, the sidepiece is for the rider and the mouthpiece for the horse. From your question, it seems that you have changed the sidepiece but not the mouthpiece when testing different bits.


The single-jointed mouthpiece can be very unpleasant to many horses. With the snaffle sidepiece (snaffle simply means direct pressure), the single-jointed mouthpiece pinches the jaw and squeezes the tongue. In general, horses hate tongue pressure. Most horses gape open their mouth with the Tom Thumb (a bit that is often mistakenly called a snaffle). The Tom Thumb has the same single-jointed mouthpiece but has a curb-style sidepiece. That means it has more force (leverage) on the horse’s tongue when you pull on the reins.


If this horse has lots of training in the past, I’d look for a mouthpiece that relieves pressure from the tongue. It could be that he is fighting the bit because there is too much tongue pressure with all the bits you have tried. The sidepieces may have made the bits look different, but to the horse, all those bits would feel the same.


Find out what professional training your horse has had. Remember that a bit can’t train your horse or create the movements that you want. Your horse needs to be trained to flex and give to pressure no matter what bit he has in his mouth. Make sure that you’re releasing pressure as soon as he gives at all during lateral flexion work. You’ll need to reward the slightest try when working in any bit.


Since your horse is prone to occasional bouts of disobedience, I’d probably have a bit in his mouth instead of moving to a hackamore. I would be unlikely to use a hackamore on a horse that had refused to turn and tried or threatened to buck.


When getting to know any new horse, it’s great to do some basic, rudimentary training from the ground and the saddle. This time will help you establish leadership from the ground and from the saddle and will help your horse understand how you cue. Take time to make sure the horse understands how to respond correctly to the cues you give.

If you came to me for help, I would use a Myler 3-ring Combination bit with the MB04 mouthpiece. This bit takes pressure off the mouth and puts it on the nose, giving the horse the opportunity to respond before he gets mouth pressure. From what you describe, the horse does not like mouth pressure and needs a relief. The mouthpiece on this bit is double-jointed (so it doesn’t collapse in the middle) and has a very low port, giving a small amount of tongue relief.


Once the horse is responding well and is obedient to my light aids, I would move him to a medium-low ported bit (in the combination format or a snaffle or curb), to give him even more tongue relief. You can change the sidepiece later, but your horse will continue to feel better with the tongue relief.


A side note about hackamores: While many feel that a hackamore is less severe because there is no bit in the mouth, not all hackamores are created equally. There are many different types of hackamores and like bits, they may work either off direct pressure or leverage. The side-pull is a type of training hackamore, like the bosal and is a direct pressure device like the snaffle. It can be used with great effects for horses who are willing and trained. The mechanical hackamore has leverage (like a curb bit) and can be quite severe. The mechanical hackamore is not very useful in training the horse to bend, as you need to be able to work the sides of the horse’s mouth independently as you lift the shoulders.



Issues From The Saddle: Gate Sour Horse And A Tom Thumb Bit Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Julie,

You have a similar question presented to you being great on the trail but terrible in the arena that you have already answered. That statement is also mine but a different problem. This seventeen-year-old Fox Trotter gelding is new to me and is being ridden western with a tom thumb. All tack fits but I believe there is a small amount of barn sour in this horse’s mind due to his speed home on the trail (holding him to a walk is constant) and having to push him in the arena at the gate. He does ok at the walk and trot in the arena until you get to the gate and have to apply more pressure. Asking him to turn half way down the arena, I really have to pull his head around and his hindquarters fall to the outside. The big problem starts when you ask for a canter. He acts like he’s never done it. For instance, he will take the correct lead half way around the arena, as he makes the turn toward the gate (even half way across the arena) he will break. When I attempt to correct him, he picks up the incorrect lead. I tried ignoring leads entirely and just tried to get him to complete a circle without breaking and I have been unsuccessful, I even tried spurs. I decided to go back to basics, meaning groundwork. He will longe at the walk and trot but I am not able to get him into a canter at all. I have tried a round pen and I am unable to put enough pressure on him to go into a canter. I have found myself becoming very frustrated. I realize it is hard without seeing the exact situation, however, any helpful advice would be appreciated.


Answer: Charlene,

The problems you describe are certainly very common and while that might not make it less frustrating for you, at least there is some hope in knowing that you are not alone and that you can resolve these issues with your horse.

Your horse is certainly gate sour (or barn sour) and this is simple disobedience that he has learned he can get away with. All horses go through this stage but when a skilled rider is riding them, these problems go away quickly because the horse learns it doesn’t work or it is not worth the effort. Sometimes when we think we have won a certain battle (because we got the horse past the gate, for instance) the horse also thinks he won (because maybe he got to pause momentarily or break gait).

One of the best ways to resolve these types of issues is to simply think ahead of the horse. You know exactly where he is going to cause a problem each time around so instead of waiting for the problem to happen and then taking action, be proactive and do something ahead of time, like make the horse speed up before you get there. Also, make sure you are not reinforcing his behavior by stopping him at the gate or dismounting at the gate or, heaven forbid, riding him out of the gate. I always make sure not only that I dismount as far away from the gate as possible and lead my horse out, but also that I work the horse extra hard when he is near the gate so he comes to associate the gate with a not so pleasant place to be. If your horse is disobedient in these areas, chances are he is disobedient in other areas as well, whether it is leading, standing, staying on the rail, staying at a steady speed, or whatever. This is generally one symptom of a horse that is not subordinate to you and does not think that you are in control of him. So, as always, more groundwork is in order.

I prefer to use a flag to do ground work with a lazy horse. A flag is simply a 4’ long stick with a plastic bag in the end. Often, the lazy horses that do not respond to the physical pressure of while, rope or spur will run off easily with a shake of the flag. There is more info on this in an article on my website called “Understanding Natural Horsemanship.”

One final thought: the Tom Thumb is a very harsh bit and not a very useful training tool. There is a Q&A on my website that explains the Tom Thumb that you may want to take a look at.


Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Talk About Tack: Using A Tom Thumb Bit Logo

Question Category: Talk about Tack

Question: I have a horse that constantly tosses her head and fools with the bit. I use a tom thumb with her. Please give me a short education on bits. Any suggestions? I tried riding her with just a halter to entertain the idea of a hackamore. She was difficult to stop. What would be the next step?

Thanks, Sue

Answer: Tom Thumbs are VERY harsh and a commonly misunderstood bit (this bit is sometimes called a western snaffle or shanked snaffle). People tend to think they are mild because they think it is a snaffle, because the mouthpiece is jointed. In fact, it is a leverage bit, not a snaffle at all, and when you pull back on both reins at the same time, the joint pushes into the roof of the horse’s mouth, causing a gaping mouth, and the sides of the bit squeeze the jaw in what is referred to as the “nutcracker” effect. Almost all horses with this bit will open their mouth and try to evade the pressure and pain. A true snaffle is a “direct-pressure” bit (as opposed to a leverage bit), meaning that the rein is connected directly across from the mouthpiece of the bit allowing direct contact with the corners of the horse’s mouth; a pound of pull on the reins creates a pound of pressure on the side of the horse’s mouth. A leverage bit has a shank, which stretches above and below the mouthpiece, with the reins attached at the bottom of the shank. A pull on the shank creates leverage with the horse’s mouth as the fulcrum. The ratio of shank above the bit to shank below the bit dictates the amount of leverage created. If there is one inch above the mouthpiece and two inches of shank below the mouthpiece, the bit has a one to two ratio; one pound of pull creates two pounds of pressure on the horse’s mouth. In a leverage bit, the horse feels pressure on the poll, cheeks, chin, mouth and palate. The only time I would use a Tom Thumb is with a small child riding a big insensitive horse that needs the extra leverage. A regular curb bit is milder. I would suggest using a regular snaffle or a side-pull or if you need a little extra brakes, try a kimberwicke.

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.