Western Bits

I am not great in the area of bits. I am used to riding my mare in an O-ring snaffle. The bit is a little too small for her size wise so I have been experimenting around with different bits.
I asked my trainer for advise. She had me using a shanked bit which I learned now is a tom thumb which is a lot harsher than I had wanted for my mare. I knew tom thumbs were bad but I never understood why. I cannot get anyone to really explain bits and how to use them and pick the best one for my horse.
I feel kind of lost because I cannot get anyone to explain or help me with what I should be using. Everyone says “no dont use that” but will not tell me what I am supposed to be doing instead.
My mare is mostly just a trail horse, I ride her direct rein, shes pretty responsive most times but can sometimes ignore my cues. I liked the regular snaffle but was told that I shouldnt be riding her in one without a chin strap or nose band. Ive read things that say I cant use a chin strap with any snaffle.
Please help. Any suggestions?

Why not just a mild snaffle that fits her?

Western riders like chinstraps on snaffles, no idea why. I ride English in a snaffle without a nose band or chinstrap. Works fine.


I asked why they use a chin strap with a snaffle and they said it’s for keeping the snaffle still and stable

All of us have questions and ask, then get so many confusing answers because names and uses of tack are not that standard, may change by discipline, region and person that uses them.

All we may use with a horse always depends on the skills of the one using that tack, bits included.
Some bits are easier to communicate with the horse with, others are for horses and riders more skilled and all require a kind and considerate person that uses them carefully and always respecting the horse.

In the tradition I learned to ride with, under a military officer, horses came first and their mouth was sacred, any rough handling, like pulling hard on the reins, meant you were set down, off that horse and watch and learn from those that are skilled how to always be polite to the horse.
That was long 50 years ago and sadly, still today, there are many that work and ride horses that fall way short, is painful just to watch them.
Thankfully slowly more and more are asking questions and learning to be aware around horses.

Snaffles are generally considered direct rein bits, you pull on a rein, the horse gets the message directly in it’s mouth.
Bits with shanks, when you pull, you have leverage as the bit rotates and the chin strap works with the bit to cause a nutcracker effect on the lower jaw to signal the horse what we want to ask.
How much leverage will depend on the bit, the length from the mouthpiece down, called the shank, from the mouthpiece up is called the purchase.

Best to learn what is best bit for a horse and how to use it is to learn from a good trainer and ride many horses, as each one is different.
That knowledge and skills come from what OP is doing, asking questions, reflecting on the answers, even those that may at first not make sense.

I had never seen anyone use a chin strap with a snaffle, even after years of riding and competing and training and being an instructor in English disciplines.

First time I saw one used was in Western race stables and by some general western type disciplines.
I too wondered why, didn’t seem to do anything hanging there but bang, bang, bang on a horse’s chin.

Someone explained, we use one so the snaffle won’t go thru the mouth.
That didn’t make sense, you are not supposed to use a snaffle with so small sides it can slip thru or use it in such a rough way it will slip thru the mouth!
Bits are not to manhandle a horse thru their mouth, but to nicely ask the horse what we want them to do next and train the horse to respond to a light touch of the hands on the reins.

OP, keep asking and then thinking if what you hear makes sense, use it if required and it is harmless, or as I did, just realize everyone has different ways to go about things and is ok, as long as the horses’s comfort is first.


^^^^ THIS.
Bluey it sounds like you were trained like I was in regard to the horses’ mouths.

It is so unfortunate that the old cavalry men have died off, and their students are now older and probably won’t be around for much longer (me included.)

The horse comes first. The horse’s mouth is a sacred trust. Humane treatment of your horse. Good horsemanship as a “religion”.

Yes, we learned how to do it RIGHT (and the horses we ride tend to agree.)

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Okay, I was reading that once your horse is better trained that it is important to move up from a snaffle to something with ports. How true is this and what should I be looking at?

It is to keep the bit from pulling through the mouth. Yes, that would be extreme but on a young horse it could happen.


Moving up to a bit with shanks is traditional for some western disciplines like western pleasure. You don’t move to a curb until your horse has excellent neck reining.

Lots of western riders including team penners and cutters stay in snaffles forever.

Trail riding, snaffle is fine.

OP, it might provide you a lot more clarity if you take all the “advice” you’re being given from your barn mates with a large grain of salt and instead focus on the following:

A) Learn the mechanics of different types of bits so you understand what type of effect they have on the horse’s mouth and posture. There are many good books on the topic out there but my favorite by far is actually not a book but an 8-hr DVD called “The Anatomy of Bitting” by Dr. Deb Bennett. It is available from the Equine Studies Institute, you can purchase it here. It’s worth every penny as it should help you clear up all of the “why” behind choosing a bit.

B) Get your mare really good about responding to your rein aids 100% of the time. If your current trainer does not know how to do this without putting a bit with a sharper signal in the horse’s mouth, find someone else. “Bitting up” is not how you teach a horse to be more responsive: I’ve yet to meet a horse that has been unable to learn to go quietly, softly and responsively in a simple snaffle bit. You should understand that there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” bit - it all comes down to function. An ill-coordinated, heavy-handed rider can do an incredible amount of damage to a horse’s mouth riding in a simple snaffle bit, but the choice of bit should match the horse’s level of understanding of how to respond to rein aids as well as the rider’s skill and ability to keep their rein aids as tactful as possible.

C) If the issue of your current bit is not the function but simply the size, then it stands to reason you should stay with the same style of snaffle and just buy one with the proper mouthpiece width for your horse.

D) You will hear a thousand different “should and shouldn’t” recommendations when it comes to everything horse related. Unless there is an actual safety issue, it’s pretty rare any of these are true 100% of the time. Again, ask yourself, what is the “why” behind the suggestion? What is the function of the piece of equipment you’re being told you absolutely must use or not use? That will give you a far better understanding of whether you need it or not.


Was going to edit my first post, but figured this was a separate response. Regarding the use of a curb strap with a snaffle:

A well fitted curb strap is something I put on every single snaffle when I’m working with a horse I don’t know well or a horse that is being started for the first time, and they’ll wear that curb strap for a while until I am pretty certain I can ask for the horse to yield their face to one rein and know it will happen every time. It doesn’t matter the discipline the horse will eventually be going into.

The reason for this is that when first starting out, it is confusing to a horse to use both reins together in any manner. It is much simpler for the horse to learn how to give to one rein a time and develop the horse’s understanding of bend from a direct, single rein. Later on, you can start to use the outside rein to support the action of the inside rein - which is to say you can use the outside rein to help keep the horse from overbending - but not until the horse has a very clear understanding of how to direct rein off of a single rein. In some horses, especially restarts that are pretty hard-mouthed, you might need to get pretty firm at times to teach them how to yield and to quit leaning on the bit. The curb strap, in these cases, help stabilize the bit for a horse that hasn’t learned to carry it yet so you have the ability to get firm if needed without risking destabilizing the bit in the horse’s mouth.

As an aside, I’ve noticed curb straps grow in popularity with riders that follow certain “Natural Horsemanship” gurus, specifically those that advocate learning the one rein stop. The thinking here is if you have to haul on one rein to get the horse to stop, you could pull the bit through his mouth. The problem with this is A) your average ammie rider trying to use a one rein stop at speed is more likely to seriously throw a horse off balance and cause a wreck than anything else, and B) that was never the intention behind the curb strap. I’ve never actually seen a one rein stop save anyone in a runaway situation, but that’s exactly what it’s taught for. Those riders would be better off learning how to get their horses more in tune with them during rides instead of relying on a quick fix in case things get dicey.


I should add that when I have ridden her in a snaffle trying to get her to stop can be a little hard as she opens her mouth and tries to fight the pressure. Turning her can be a little difficult because she’ll open her mouth and ignore me.
Today we tried a bit like this image
She did really well in it and relaxed on the trail. I was told this bit is more harsh than a Tom Thumb. I am lucky that my barn has a lot of different bits I can try it just seems whenever I find one that I like someone has something to say about it.

Sounds like you could benefit from some time with a good coach/trainer.

I once thought horses could have permanently hard mouths. Now I know that it’s very often just a lack of training.

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OP - what you are describing with your mare opening her mouth, fighting the pressure, gaping when you try and turn her, etc, tells me she doesn’t not understand what pressure from the bit means. This is where her issue lies, not in the choice of bit itself.

The shanked bit you attached a picture of is not “more harsh”, nor is a Tom Thumb bit “harsh”. What they ARE are bits that incorporate leverage, which is just a fancy way of saying they take the amount of pressure the rider exerts through the reins and amplifies it. So, for example, if a simple loose ring snaffle bit like what you were using has a pressure ratio of 1:1 (meaning for every ounce of pressure you put on the rein, the bit acts to put one ounce of pressure on the horse’s mouth), the bit you attached a picture of has a ratio of more like 1:4 (for every one ounce of pressure you put on the rein, the horse feels four ounces in their mouth).

A bit like this, used appropriately, does not cause any discomfort, hence why it is no more harsh than any other bit. The problem with putting a bit like this in unskilled hands is it’s very easy to overuse and thus cause discomfort to the horse because of the fact that the leverage action of the bit amplifies the signal you put through from the rein. Bits like this require you to have MORE finesse and skill with your hands and yet they are often used exactly as you are describing, by riders who have a hard time getting their horse to respond in a non-leverage bit or a bit with a more equal pressure ratio.

You said your mare is “pretty responsive most times” in a snaffle bit in your first post but then what you described in this most recent response suggests she is not very responsive at all. Which is it? You asked about moving up to a ported bit when the horse is more advanced, which many people do, but by your own admission your mare is not advanced enough in her understanding of the bit to really be ready for a more advanced bit - advanced bits that incorporate ports, shanks, leverage, etc are more advanced because the horse has learned how to carry himself without leaning on the bit or the rider’s hands, and so a more advanced bit allows the rider to continue the horse’s advanced education with a mouthpiece that gives much more subtle cues and corrects with much less pressure from the rider’s hands because the horse has learnt to work more off of seat and leg.

What that shanked bit likely did for her in your ride today is give her a much stronger, more uncomfortable signal that she couldn’t ignore and push through like she does with the snaffle. It did nothing to clarify for her how she should carry herself so she doesn’t HAVE to lean on the bit to stop and turn. THAT is the whole point of the bit in the first place - to help the horse understand how to shape themselves so they carry themselves (and you) with maximum efficiency and correctness.

Sorry for being confusing. I never really considered her habits to be bad they are just little things we could work through. Its not that she doesnt listen or does anything bad in these it just takes more effort to get her to do what I ask of her. She was more responsive in a single jointed snaffle opposed to the double jointed one. She was an amish horse so we figured she is just not used to a snaffle. I am just confused.
Her head carriage was a lot nicer and lower today in the bit we used which I liked.
I do have a trainer who is around. She liked the bit I had used today but she never says anything negative about any of the bits I have tried. I was feeling confident up it until I got back in the barn and got the opinion of others.
My trainer isnt worried about me being too hard handed for these bits and thinks I ride pretty light.
She is going to 30 day training in August which is probably more for me than her. Shes gaited she just needs to learn how to use those gaits.
Edited to clarify better

Ditto what AbbieS said about learning the basics about how bits work. You can find a lot of information just by Googling, but here’s a good article from the University of Georgia: https://extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.html?number=B1379&title=Bits%20101

When I got my horse I knew almost nothing about bits (and I’m still no expert), so I first bought a bit like the one his previous owners had used. It was a Tom Thumb type, and it was ok but not great. I didn’t like the way the broken mouthpiece poked his palate. I next bought a bit similar to the one in Brokegirl’s picture, and my horse went ok in that one too but I didn’t like that the shanks didn’t swivel because that made it hard to use a direct rein. I thought about what I did and didn’t like about both bits, and finally settled on a nice Myler bit that has a port style mouthpiece that is broken in the middle with a roller over the joint. The shanks also swivel. I mostly neck rein, but I can use a direct rein too if I need it. I now have both a snaffle and a curb bit, and my horse says he really likes the curb bit best. But like others have said, the horse first has to know how to respond to a bit, and the rider has to know how to apply the pressure.

Brokegirl, first make sure your horse is well trained for the bit. Then try various styles of bits to see what she likes best. You can ask others for advice on what to try out, but your horse is the final expert.


OP, the only way to evaluate what “people at the barn” are saying is to read up and educate yourself. If you have a coach you trust, then take their advice.

Every barn has a whole lot of knowitalls who will give you unasked and unwanted and contradictory advice just to hear the sound of their own voices.

Your best bet is to smile, say thanks this is what my trainer wants me to try now. And keep walking.

There may be someone at the barn who is very knowledsble and can guide you. But guaranteed they are NOT the people at the barn giving you unwanted advice. The people who know stuff tend to be quiet unless asked.

If you really admire someones ridjng and horsemanship go talk to them privately.

Otherwise you just need to deflect and disengage with the barn rail birds because they will drive you crazy over time.


Just from my experience breaking and training a gaited horse, this mare was a Paso Fino.

She went sort of OK in a double jointed snaffle. Then I experimented and she picked the Kimberwick (with a port on the mouthpiece) from my selection of mild bits.

But I had been in a car wreck and got really weak. I just could not pull her head up when she dove down for grass by the trail.

I ended up getting her a Walking Horse bit. The tack store had 50 curb bits and I tried every single one on my arm. The Walking Horse bit I got was the one that did not hurt my arm but still was powerful enough to give me more control when her desire for grass overcame her obedience.

Since the bit moved up and down the cheek pieces around a 1/4" AND I could sort of give a direct rein aid with one rein I decided it was my best bet.

After that we rode out on trails for years with no problems. Direct reining was sort of a problem but I made it work by using leg aids too when I pulled LIGHTLY with one rein (if I pulled hard this mare got really ticked off.)

Often gaited horses do not do particularly well in just a snaffle, this is up to the individual horse and my mare would dive her head down, set her jaw to being rock hard, gaping wide (I do not use a noseband), and otherwise telling me how unhappy she was with the snaffle bits. Of course other gaited horses do just fine in a snaffle.

I am not surprised at all that your gaited mare went better in the mild grazing curb you showed. When she gets trained to reliably neck rein you may end up being quite happy. Just do NOT try to keep contact (constant tension on the rein), the grazing curb is made to be used with slightly sagging reins. The key is to give the rein aid and to immediately loosen the reins. If she does not obey the first time repeat the aid, and you can gradually increase the pressure AS LONG AS YOU RELEASE THE TENSION ON THE REINS between your repetitions of the rein signals.

Hopefully your riding teacher can help you with this.

Isn’t figuring out a horse “fun”?


I appreciate everyones advice!
@Scribbler youre right about that! They have been great in some aspects of horse ownership but when it comes to something more controversial like treating wounds or bits I end up with a head ache. I want to do whats best for my girl. There is someone who is at the barn who I am most confident with stuff like this but I feel like such a nag with all my questions.
@Jackie_Cochran I see what youre saying about keeping less contact, my trainer and I had spent some time on that as well. I did originally think that her behavior came from being uncomfortable with the bit, she is able to ride in a halter for me just fine so what she showing me may not be from bad behavior.

I am going to put her back into a snaffle tomorrow for our ride and try to get some pictures or something so you guys can get a better idea

If your horse was an Amish horse she likely would be used to a snaffle. In my experience, the Amish usually use snaffles.

Just curious what type of baited horse she is?

As for the curb strap on a snaffle, I’ve always thought of them as a safety strap, just in case things go sideways on a ride. At least you know your bit is good to stay where it’s supposed to.