Friday, 26 December 2014

Bits & Martingales

There are a huge variety of bits available and several different types of martingales. Bits and biting is an extensive and complicated subject.   However, following the 'basic' level of information I have been sharing so far in these blogs I am going to stick to the SNAFFLE today.  Next year I will be progressing to more of a BHS Stage 2 level with the blogs. 

Horses' mouths are sensitive (like our own) therefore, we must take care with our hands when riding and when choosing a bit.  Once damaged the effects are difficult to remedy.  Careless riding, rough handling and riding will make a bad mouth, horses are not born with 'bad mouths'. 

The main point to remember is that the thinner the mouthpiece the sharper the action! The pressure points that bits are designed to work on include (not all bits work on all points):

  • The tongue 
  • The bars (the flesh covered jaw bone between the front and back teeth) where the bit rests 
  • The lips 
  • The curb groove (chin groove) 
  • The poll 
  • The nose 
  • The roof of the mouth

The SNAFFLE bit is the most common, however, there are a huge number of different ones available now.  The snaffle with a straight mouthpiece or mullen mouthpiece are the kindest. These bits do not allow independent control of each side of the mouth.

 Eggbutt Mullen Mouth

Snaffles can also be jointed and the severity will depend on the thickness of the mouth piece, the shape of the arms and the tightness of the joint.  The greater the curve of the arms and the tighter the joint the less sharp the 'nutcracker' action will be on the tongue.

The eggbutt snaffle has fixed rings which ensures the lips are not pinched, the rings are usually large enough that they cannot be pulled through the horses' mouth.

 Although, both eggbutt snaffles the one below is more severe as it has a thinner mouthpiece.


The twisted snaffle below, is a much more severe bit as the mouthpiece is rough and can cause damage if used by an inexperienced or rough rider.

Snaffles can also come with 'loose rings' which encourage a relaxed jaw and mobile tongue, the disadvantage is that they can pinch the lips between the ring and the mouthpiece.

Snaffles can also have 'cheeks' which ensure the bit cannot be pulled through the horse's mouth. These have the added advantage of putting gentle pressure on the side of the horses head, which can help keep the horses head straight.  This can also help with turning a horse and so is useful for training young horses.  The disadvantages with these is that the long arms can get caught on all sorts of things!

The half cheek snaffle has similar advantages to the full cheek above, however, without the upper half it is less likely to become caught up.

The 'D' ring snaffle falls between the eggbutt and the full cheek snaffle.  The arms provide the external pressure but they are not able to get caught up.

 This is a 'D' ring mullen mouth snaffle.

Hanging snaffles are another type and it is the bit I use for Basil.  I have seen contrasting information on these as some people insist they can exert pressure on the poll, others say they can't because there is no leverage from where the reins are attached.  I have not seen any poll pressure exerted on Basil when I pull the reins.  The 'cheek' sections act in a similar way to the cheeks on the bits above by exerting some external pressure on the side of the cheeks. However, the design means there is no possibility of the bit getting caught.

 This hanging snaffle also has a french link!

French link snaffles have a flat spatula between the 2 joints (not to be confused with the Dr Bristol) which lies flat on the horses tongue.  This limits the nutcracker effect but allows the rider independent control of each side of the mouth.

For comparison you can see that the Dr Bristol also has a spatula but it is angled so that the edge can push into the horse's tongue.

Once you have some knowledge of bits and an understanding of their actions you will be better able to appreciate how your riding affects the horse.  Always remember though that horses are individuals and some horses will go better in a particular type of bit ... sometimes trial and error is the best way.

Fitting a bit
When fitting a bridle it is important that the bit is in the correct position, it should just cause a wrinkle at the corners of the mouth.  The bit must not be too low as it may bang on the horses incisor teeth but if it is too high it will cause damage to the lips or may bang on the molars. 

As mentioned in last week's 'Bridles' blog you should ensure that the cheekpieces are fastened equally on both sides so that the bit is level in the horse's mouth. 

The size of the bit is also important as a bit that is too wide will be uncomfortable, will move around too much and will have the wrong action on the mouth.  A bit that is too small will pinch the lips or the ring may be pulled through the mouth.  To correctly size a bit you should straighten it within the horse's mouth and then be able to place your thumb tip on either side of the mouth between the lips and the bit rings (approx. 1/4 inch or 3/4cm).

There are several types of martingales available, the purpose of a martingale is to prevent the horse from raising his head high and past the point of control.  They consist of a neck strap with an additional strap with a loop at one end that attaches to the girth and the ability to be fixed at the top to either the reins or the noseband depending on the type.

 A running martingale.

A running martingale has 2 smaller straps at the top which each end with a metal ring, a rein is passed through each of these rings (see above picture).  This means that whilst the reins are held correctly the horse will be unable to lift their head past the level of control. There should be rubber or leather stops on the reins to ensure the rings don't slip forward to interfere with the bit.

Fitting: to fit a running martingale ensure that the neck strap allows one hand's width between the strap and the horse.  If it is too tight it will restrict breathing, too loose and it will hang too low.  The girth strap should also not be too tight or too loose. The girth is put through the loop ensuring it is in the centre and lying flat.  The straps which attach to the reins should be long enough that they can reach (or almost) the level of the withers  if held up either side of the horse (when not attached to the reins).  Too short straps will interfere with the normal action of the reins, too long and they will have little or no effect. 

Putting on: hold the martingale with the buckle on the near side (left) of the horse, the girth loop furthest away.  Place the neck strap over the horse's head onto the base of the neck.  Undo the reins and thread each through the appropriate ring and re-buckle ensuring no twists in the reins.  The girth is then passed through the girth loop before being fastened. 

A standing martingale has one strap at the top which fixes to a cavesson noseband (these MUST NOT be attached to drop or grackle nosebands).  This type of martingale has a more restrictive effect on the horse than the running martingale.  As can be seen in the picture below this martingale prevents the horse lifting his head or stretching his neck and so should not be used whilst jumping.

 A standing martingale.

Fitting: the neck strap and girth straps should be fitted as for a running martingale.  The strap which attaches to the noseband must be long enough that it can follow the horses neck up to the throat and down to the noseband when the horse has its head in a normal position.

Putting on: as before the neck and girth straps are the same as for a running martingale.  The noseband should be looped through the other strap as can be seen in the picture above.

Tack for horses is quite a broad subject and in the future I will cover more variations that are available, but this and my previous blog which covers noseband types is a good place to start!

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Until next time!

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