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.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Tom Thumb Bit (what it is, and is not)

This bit is a Tom Thumb bit..  The Tom Thumb is considered a very severe bit, and should not be put into the hands of a novice, or hard handed rider.

Now, yesterday I posted a slightly different bit.  A broken mouth, or jointed mouth curb.  At that point, people said that it was a tom thumb, and conversations (which are a good thing) began about it's usefulness and severity.  My teaching in bits has always been based in English riding, but in recent years I have begun to cross over.  So, with that in mind, I went and started reading up on what is now a tom thumb bit.  It seems that things have changed a bit (not much though) and the category has grown.  I think this is both good and bad. 

So, I have to publicly do a correction.  The bit I first posted yesterday, is now included in the category of Tom Thumbs.

And I have to apologize right here at the start.  I didn't exactly have a ton of free time, but I wanted to make sure I got that correction out there.  So, while I'm at it, I thought I'd clarify a few things about the tom thumb bit while I was at it.  (This will not be my most clear and instructional post ever.  Just think of it as a stepping stone to good things yet to come.) 

Let me begin by explaining what a tom thumb is.

 A true, old style (and rather harsh) tom thumb bit has rings that attach to the bridle (red circle) with the curb chain attaching at the same spot.  This ring, or set of rins, as in the picture shown here, results in a large bulky area.  When the bit is engaged laterally (i.e. pull out to the side) the rings pivot and stick into the horse's face.  No one wants to be jabbed in teh side of the cheek, including your horse, and this is considered uncomfortable.

Secondly, the bit attaches to the mouthpiece with a pivot (green circle).  Especially important here is the shape and style of the connection.  When the side of the bit is pivoted, but the mouth piece isn't, a lip or other facial skin can very easily get caught and pinched.  Again, pain is not a good training device.

Third, the shank is straight, not curved like most curbs (blue lines).  This means that each pound of pressure exerted gives that much more pressure on the face, without long shanks.  You have to have a bit of physics knowledge here to figure out the true numbers, but I'll make some up to use as an example.  If you push on the lever shown at the left, on the empty side, with one poind of pressure, you will move the side with the orange triangle with 5 pounds of pressure.  If the lever was longer, it would exert more pressure.  Twice as long might give 10 pounds of pressure for every 1 pound the person pushes. 

Now, if you look it it the other way, and you push down on the side with the orange cone, you are not gaining an advantage (or not as much, I was NOT a physics dork).  At any rate, using a curved shank, rather then a straight one, means that a portion of the lever action is reduced.  So, you spend more time pivoting the lever on itself, rather then applying the pressure on the end.

Not the best description, I know, but the easiest thing to do is to try it at home.  So, lets just go with this, straight shank, means bit pulls harder on horse's mouth for every inch of shank then a curved one.

Lastly, the simple joint mouthpiece (pink circle).  When used with a curb, this causes a strong nutcracker effect on the horse's jaw.  A 3 piece mouth piece can reduce the pinch effect, but it depends upon the shape of the middle link.

So this was the bit I posted yesterday which was called a tom thumb.  You can see it does fit some of those criteria, but not all.It has the rings that would poke in the face, the hinges that might pinch, but it also has a three piece mouth piece, and curved shanks.

But I have a problem with calling anything that has lever action and a jointed mouth piece a "tom thumb".  That would mean that my pelham bits are tom thumbs, my gag bits are tom thumbs, my "argentine snaffles" (which are NOT a snaffle) are tom thumbs.  All of these bits are very different, and have different uses. 

Now, I happen to own a tom thumb bit, and I actually use it.  On ONE horse, and only I am allowed to ride him in it.  Boo goes well in my tom thumb, and works nicely in it.  Keep in mind that this horse is very highly trained, and I spent years with an instructor who liked to whack my hands if I did anything that could cause the horse problems.  I have VERY soft hands now.  I ride Boo in one to get him engaging his back.  I can tickle a finger for a lateral cue (which will not pivot the mouth piece causing poking or pinching) and I use the curb action to put a wall in front of him so he stops pulling his "I'm an Arab and my nose can point sky high" thing.  (No, not all arabs do that, but Boo sure tries to play the stereotype at times).  He takes most of his aids from my seat and legs, but the bit is severe enough that he knows it is there, and carries it lightly.  This is a great way to recondition him from a long time off.

So there's one example of a horrible and evil bit being used in a perfectly kind and gentle manner.  It works for that horse, and it's actually one of the bits he prefers.  Like all training tools though, it's not just about what the horse needs, but also what the rider can control.  I have seen people try to grab my bridle with the tom thumb on it, and I have a mild panic attack.  It's not an "every day" kind of training aid.

So.  Did any of you know that this bit is also called a tom thumb?  It is a completely different style of bit all together.  This mild snaffle has both the gentle blur of the O ring, with the full cheek effect.  I don't know a thing about it, have never seen one in person, but it looks like something that might be a wonderful tool for starting out babies.  And yet, it has the same name as a bit that is often said to be simply horrible.

So lets also look at what a tom thumb is NOT.

There's the jointed mouth pelham.  I personally LOVE this bit.  It gives me a lot of flexibility when training (this is not a bit I start horses in, but rather one I like for finishing work).  I can use the snaffle rein for lateral commands (side to side pulling stuff) and the crub rein for impulsion.  In some cases, I like having that curb rein there just as an "emergency brake".

In fact, that is the bit I used to retrain Poko to stop pulling through the bridle, and start listening to my seat.  A short necked, strong muscled, physically fit half draft can easily out pull me.  Adding in a bit of an emergency brake allowed me to get him listening to the snaffle rein.  Within a month, I had transitioned him back down to a "baby snaffle" (I like to use a fat mouthed, soft french link, O ring snaffle).  I also like to use this bit, with two sets of reins, when teaching a horse to move into a curb.  They can feel the pinch and head pressure that a curb applies, while having the sinple snaffle commands that they know and are comfortable with.  So if you go through and see a horse wearing two sets of reins, it is likely that I have the horse in one of these.

But, there is also the Argentinian snaffle, which is a misnomer. This bit has leverage action, and so it is a curb. It has curved shanks that reduce the pressure, a 3 piece mouth piece (hmm, this sounds kinda familiar, maybe like the bit I had yesterday?) and a simple and soft ring to attach to the bridle.

Look closely, and you can see that the pivot point between the sides and the mouth is a longer shape.  The way this attaches in the horse's mouth makes it harder for the horse to get a lip pinched.

Basically, the major flaws in a tom thumb have been slightly redesigned, and corrected.  This is still not a bit that should be used lightly though.  Depending upon whether this bit is used with, or without a curb chain makes a world of difference in how it is perceived by a horse.

If used with a curb chain, the rider must have soft and gentle hands.  The flexible mouth piece along with lever action and a pinch between the mouth and chin (curb chains do that) would mean that a little bobble on the head gives the horse a very bit OUCH.  I tend to think of this bit as the little sister to a tom thumb.

Next there is the gag bit.  Now, I'm a bit weak in all the mechanics of this bit, but let me show you 2 different styles:

The top one looks a lot like that tom thumb, doesn't it?  The big deal with these bits is that they are NOT used with a curb chain.  That completely changes everything about how they affect the horse.  (And before you ask, I will do an entire post on gag and elevator bits.  I just need to do a little research first to make sure my limited knowledge is correct)

Now, when you look at all those bits, you can see that they are very different.  They work in slightly different ways, and have different pros and cons.  No piece of tack is with out a downside, and anything can harm a horse if used wrong, but none of them are evil on their own.

So, as I go through the various types of bits, and all the parts that go with them, you may end up seeing some very serious hardware.  Before you close your mind to the usefulness of any training aid, just remember, in the right hands, with the right knowledge, and used on the right horse, it might be the difference between mastering a technique, or being sold on.

Because I do so much work with horses that have bad training (much worse then no training IMO) I often have to un-teach things.  Some of the tack I will be talking about is used for just that purpose.  My goal through the next few days, is to make horse owners understand what those strange devices are for, and even more importantly, be able to recognize when they are being used wrong.

I've always felt that no training device has ever hurt a horse on its own.  It's not the tool that can be bad, it's the human behind it.


  1. This is so interesting! What you say flies in the face of all that I've been taught by trainers in the past - but I like how you explain yourself. Food for thought! I really appreciate it!!

  2. I think true Tom Thumbs (not that nice snaffle - who knows why it's called a Tom Thumb?) are too often found in the hands of beginners or poor riders, for their stopping action. I actually don't like broken mouthpieces with shanks, in general, since I think the bit gives confusing signals to the horse (Mark Rashid did a nice write up on this on his web site), but I can see how in the hands of someone experienced, like you, a bit like that can be effective and useful. I stick to plain snaffles - either single jointed or three-part, and usually with a D or full-cheek to reduce the chances of pinching - or a simple solid mouthpiece curb with short curved shanks. That's all. I used to use lots of bits of all types and configurations, but I basically only use three snaffles now - a simple single-jointed Myler full cheek for Dawn, a full-check KK with a three-part lozenge mouthpiece for Drifter, and a Myler solid ported D (with roller) for Pie and his large tongue. I own a simple western ported curb with curved shanks, but rarely use it.

    Also I call something different a gag - when I use the term gag bit I mean a bit with holes in the (usually) round side rings that special round cheekpieces run through to a ring below the bit, where the reins attach. You pull on the reins, the cheekpiece pulls through the bit with an upwards action. Some people also put another set of reins on the main side ring as well. A pretty severe bit, sometimes seen in the jumper ring, often with a running martingale on the reins attached to the main bit rings, since the gage action tends to cause horses to put their heads up. Not a bit I use anymore.

  3. Lots to take in , my only addition is the one 5 from the bottom.Is what we call a Full Cheek snaffle .Words jsut about the same as an O ring or D ring. I presonally don't love them ,as the can poke the horses face now and then , but overal they are a reasonable , gentle bit .I believe the cheek peieces are in place to prevent the bit sliding through the mouth. My all time fav bit of all is a simple eggbutt snaffle

  4. It's a bit different from a full cheek. The North American full cheek has the side bars attached to the rein ring, as a solid side piece. That Australian Tom Thumb has the side bars on the mouth piece.

  5. The gag bit you've seen is the most common, but those above actually work in a similar manner when used with out a curb chain. It's actually the lack of curb chain that gives them the gag action (pulling up onto the mouth, rather then squeezing the chin).

    I found M. Rashad's article when I was checking myself earlier. It's a great piece. I wish I had thought to link it. Ah well, I'll find it again, and link it in one of the next blogs I do. =)

  6. I have, and only one thing I teach my friends, students, and riders. "Think about it for yourself, because every horse person will have a different way of doing things". We all take bits from here and there, and add them up to create a new whole. Of course, being horse people, we are all convinced that our way is THE best way. I feel, that so long as some one has their method based in fact, and grounded in logic (not anger or ignorance) then there's a good chance it is a sound training philosophy for THEM.

    In reality, there is no one best way for every one. When you mix a unique human with a unique horse, you get a different set of needs, then you would for a different pair. I find that my way of working with a horse changes, based on the individual before me, and it's different still when a different person works with my horse. Changing one aspect of the relation ship (human, horse, tack, environment) can mean that the mentality behind the relationship needs to evolve as well.

  7. Thanks for the explanation on gags.

    Here's the link to Mark Rashid's thoughts on the Tom Thumb:


  8. "Think about it for yourself, because every horse person will have a different way of doing things". We all take bits from here and there, and add them up to create a new whole."

    No truer words have been spoken. A good friend and great horse man recently asked me which "training style" I was using with Rosie, my draft mare. My reply "Fairness, consistancy, and whatever works to get the result I'm after."

  9. Many years ago when I purchased Bonnie, she came with her very own bridle and Tom Thumb bit. I quickly removed the Tom Thumb, and replaced with a very thick eggbutt snaffle.

    The friend I purchased her from rode her recently for the first time since I purchased her. I ride her bitless, he wasn't comfortable with that so I grabbed her snaffle. He was skeptable said "I always had to use a tom thumb with her". I held my ground and said snaffle or bitless your choice.

    He went with the snaffle and was impressed with how light he could be with the reins. He is a very experienced rider and would not abuse the tom thumb, but my point is, horses are happier in certain bits (or without in Bonnie's case).

  10. I envy your knowledge and your skill. Oh, how I wish I were closer.

  11. So true. When I was young, training a colt as a 4h project, I remember it being easy - you started a horse with a bosal, then the rubber snaffle second, then egg butt snaffle, then the curb. (Yes, I know I just aged myself - back in the day when the curb was the most popular bit! At least it was where I lived. I feel ancient just typing that!) Anyhow- my colt was such a sweetie- he did fabulous with the bosal! I went ahead and gently used the succession of bits on him, as I wanted him to be considered well trained - but then I quickly went to a hackamore, as he & I were happiest in that.
    I have always had very "soft hands," (each trainer I've worked with has noted) and so I can work a horse in any bit - but my preference is a hack of some kind, since I do fun sports and really mostly just trail riding - so my horses and I are happiest with hacks. (& I still use "soft hands.")
    What I have found so fascinating about your posts here, is the fact that good ol' cowboys are the ones who have told me to use a tom thumb, as it's simply the cowboy's version of a snaffle. Uh, NOT! I was told it was a soft kind bit. I had no idea that it's actually what you've described here! I really appreciate that knowledge!! I always thought that if I had a horse who just really needed a bit, even for a little while, I would be comfortable using the tom thumb!! So again- thank you! I have learned a lot!

  12. Just come across this blog now :) interesting how you havent heard of the tom thumb snaffle, its quite common among ponies here and i havent heard of this severe tom thumb before, but here is a picture of the more common one I see around, you learn something new every day :)