A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Is it a Snaffle, or is that a Curb bit?

Since I'm rained out for a bit, I'm going to talk about tack a bit.  I asked on my facebook page, and quite a few people were interested to learn about bits.  So, here's the first big lesson:  what makes a bit a snaffle or a curb.

Most people look at a bit like this, see the mouth piece with multiple parts, and assume that means it's a snaffle.  I have heard them called things like "Shanked snaffle" or in one case a "Western Snaffle" but that's completely wrong.

That bit, is a curb bit.

The difference between a curb bit and a snaffle bit, is whether or not it has leverage.  It has nothing to do with what goes into the horse's mouth.  A shank is leverage.  It causes the bit to pivot around a central point, and this puts pressure onto different parts of the horse's face then a direct pressure, or snaffle bit, does.

Here is my pretty orphan baby (not so baby any more) Cayenne.  The bit in her mouth here is a curb because it has a shank, and shanks mean leverage.  What you can't see, is that it has a mouth piece very similar to the one above.

Now, in all honesty, I can't recall if she had a curb chain on for these pictures, as they were just for pretties (and she hates bits for riding) but lets assume that she does, and we just can't see it.  I'm pretty sure it'll be all in our imagination though.

So, the way a curb works is to pivot around a central point, the mouth piece, and create pressure to guide the horse.  When the rein, which is attached to the lower ring is pulled back towards the rider, the upper ring will push out toward the horse's nose.

The blue arrows (because I don't want to type out turquoise over and over again, we will call them blue) show you the direction the rings move.  Now, if those rings move that way, they will pull on the leather they are attached to.
That causes the leather to move in the directions of the yellow lines.  The reins move back toward the rider, and the crown is pulled lower toward the horse's mouth as the bit pivots.
That will put pressure on these areas.  The pink arrow shows the pressure of the bit in the horse's mouth.  The green arrow shows the pressure of the curb chain against the horse's chin. The blue arrow shows the pressure of the leather crown piece against the horse's poll.

This is how lever action works on a bit.  And the harder you pull, the more you pivot the bit, and the more pressure is applied at all of these points.

Now, compare that to a direct pressure bit.  This is what we normally call snaffle bits (although, it's horse tack, so we can always get more detailed.  We like our complex names for everything!).

This is Poko in a snaffle bit.  You can see how the rein attaches directly in line with the pull on the bit.  The bit does not pivot in the horse's mouth, rather it simply goes where it is pulled.  The resulting pressure on a horse is much more simple and straight forward.

Can you see now how a snaffle might be considered a more simple and direct aid to a horse?  There's no pressure across the head, just a simple and plain pressure on the mouth.

The blue arrow shows where the pressure is exerted on the horse.  From the rein, through the rein.

Now, of course there is some shifting of the bridle, and you can see that in this picture, but the shifting puts minimal pressure on the horse's face.  It's minimal enough that we can discount it as an aid in most horses.

And as you can see here, there are many ways of attaching a bit to the bridle.  Gag, D rings, O rings, multiple rings.  I am going to get into all of that later.

Today I just wanted to talk about the 2 classes of bits.  Now, not all bits fit clearly into one of these categories.  Some bits, such as a Pelham, can fit in both depending upon how they are used. 

The Pelham has rings at both the bit, and on a shank.  This means that depending upon where you attach your reins will determine what type of bit pressure you are using on your horse.

Katy here has the rein attached to the curb ring.  If she was ridden like this, then the bridle would only have leverage action, and would be no different then a normal curb.  The mouth piece on the particular pelham is exactly the same as the above, with a broken mouth and french link, or dogbone.

If I moved the rein up to the larger ring that is adjacent to the mouth piece, then the bit would work exactly like the snaffle bit.  The leverage action would never be called into use, because the pressure would always be from a point inline with the mouth.

The beauty of the Pelham though, is that you can use multiple sets of reins on it.  I love using these bits to bring a snaffle horse up to using a curb.  While some horses take the change easily and in stride, others do not.  Cayenne is one example of a horse that had NO interest in the multiple pressures of a curb bit on her face.

I also like this bit for hot headed horses.  My darling jumper mare, Ash, used to ride in a Pelham when she was still jumping (she's retired now).  I rode mainly on the snaffle rein, but after a combination, she would get so excited that she locked her neck, hollowed out, and blundered around.  A touch on the curb would send pressure across her crown and chin resulting in her ducking her head back and coming onto the bit again.  Now, Ash was not a fancy mover, and her main style of going was to lock her neck straight out like a 2 x 4, so for her, a duck back into the bit was necessary to keep proper contact on her bars, not her lips.

So think of the categories of bits as a broad concept.  One of the analogies I like is the categories of dogs in the AKC.  You can have a "herding" dog, or a "sporting" dog, but that doesn't necessarily tell you the exact breed of dog.  If the herding dog a border collie, or a corgie?  Snaffle and curb bits are the same.  Inside each of those categories are other sub categories, such as the type of ring attachment (O, D, Eggbut) or style of shank (elevator, grazing, etc).

We'll talk about all of that stuff over the next few days, and possibly months.  And of course, please let me know if you want me to talk about something in particular.


  1. I had always heard the "snaffle with shanks" called a "Tom Thumb" bit. I have no idea where the name came from...


  2. love the explanation on the two types of bits (curb vs snaffle) which I totally understand. But, explain why you would choose a curb type vs a snaffle type. What's the advantage and disadvantage? If training a horse that has it's nose way out, do you go straight to a curb type bit or start in a snaffle with other devices, like draw reins, martingales, etc?

  3. It is, and it's not necessarily. A Tom Thumb is a specific style of bit with a broken mouthpiece and shanks. It's one that gets a lot of bad press, and is often called "harsh" so you can be sure I'll cover it specifically.

  4. Just as people learn differently, so do horses. Some horses might need strong physical pulling (snaffle) to explain the commands. Others might need soft subtle persuasion (curb) instead. Strong pulling in a cub can very quickly become painful.

    A great example is the filly I show wearing the curb, Cayenne. She hates anything touching her mouth at all. I start all of my babies in a very gentle snaffle, and change depending upon their reactions. Cayenne put on the brakes hard when I picked up even the mildest contact. So, since she's bred to be a western horse, and very sensitive in the mouth, I moved her to a curb. With a "more severe" bit, I could guide her on a loose rein, with a much more subtle command. When we began to pick up the trot work, the reins would bounce, putting gentle pressure on her mouth, and again, she began stopping at the wrong times. So, I moved her into a Dr. Cook's. She's now going very nicely for me.

    On the flip side, I have Ash who prefers to have very strong and solid, consistent contact with her mouth. Basically, if you aren't hanging on her face a bit, she loses her confidence. This mare wants to feel every nuance of the command, and have it screamed at her through the reins. If I tried to put her in a curb, I would be giving her a head ache, and pinching her chin between the bit and curb chain at every stride. After 10 years of jumping, I was finally able to work her up into a Pelham, with two reins (a snaffle rein in line with the bit, and a curb rein on the shank). I was able to maintain the contact she wanted with the snaffle rein, and give more subtle and advanced commands with the curb rein only when I needed to.

    The curb bit is actually a much more advanced bit. Mainly, it requires more skill from the rider, but it should be used with softer, and less obvious contact. When riding on a loose rein, if you want to use an aid right at the mouth (rather then simple neck reining) you would want a curb. The severity of the curb allowed a minimal movement to translate to something that makes sense to the horse.

    In my opinion (and it's nothing more then a personal opinion) I think all horses should start in a snaffle, move into a curb, and finally graduate back to either a snaffle or even a bitless bridle. That would be the utmost progression of commands and controls through the seat, in my mind. unfortunately, the show committees do not agree. The highest levels of dressage expect a double bridle, and a "finished" reining horse is expected to be in a curb. But it just makes sense in MY mind, that the highest excellence in training would be the removal of all artificial aids that are not designed solely for the horse's comfort (like a saddle which spreads the weight evenly across the horse's back)

  5. Personally, if I'm going to use a curb, I prefer one with a solid mouth piece. I'm not a fan of Tom Thumbs. While they were originally designed as a transition bit for a horse ready to move from a snaffle to a curb, they are actually quite severe and have a "nutcracker" effect on the jaw and tongue. I feel like they send mixed messages to the horse and are not a smart choice for inexperienced riders with unforgiving hands (but at buy the same token, any bit can be harsh in the wrong hands). The fact that they are incorrectly referred to as a "tom thumb snaffles" or "shanked snaffles" really just confused people who don't understand how bits work. But that's just me, many people have had success with them...

    Great post!

  6. I'm not a big fan of broken mouthpieces in curb bits - I think it creates a confusing signal - I prefer either a snaffle, with a broken or straight (perhaps ported) mouthpiece, or a curb with a solid mouthpiece.