Dwyer on Curb Bits—Part II

This week I quote Dwyer on the inside of the horse's mouth and how that can affect the selection of a proper curb bit. All quotes are from “Seats and Saddles, Bits and Bitting” by Francis Dwyer. Everything in parentheses is my additions, and I put really important things in capital letters.

On pages 136-137, “But if there is very great uniformity in the absolute height of the bars (1.8”), there is, on the other hand, a very great diversity in their shape and texture, some being flat-topped and broad—others, again, presenting a ridge-like surface; some also spongy, soft and comparatively devoid of feeling, while others appear firmer, finer and more sensitive—all this exercising an immense influence on the bitting.”

Still on page 137-- “ The width of the channel for the tongue, or lingual canal...is pretty nearly always three-fourths of the height of the bars' and this being very constantly 1.8 inches, the other will be found to be about 1 1/3 inches (English inch), which gives us the dimension of the MAXIMUM WIDTH OF THE PORT OF A BIT where there is one; because, supposing the mouthpiece to have exactly the proper width, if the port be made wider than the lingual canal, its corners will come on the bars of the horse's mouth and produce INTOLERABLE PAIN...; and this is precisely the reason why it is of so great importance that the width of the bit should coincide so accurately with that of the horse's mouth; as, if it be too wide, and a port exists, every pull of the rein will be sure to bring its angles into painful contact with the bars on the one side or the other.”

The TONGUE itself is what we have next to direct our attention to. This organ will be found to vary very much in thickness and in texture. In some horses it just fills its own canal neatly, rising toward its axis in a gentle curve, whose summit is two-tenths of three-tenths of an inch above the level of the bars; in others it seems much too thick and fleshy for the interior of the mouth, and projects in all directions. Now the volume of the tongue is a matter of very great importance, because the action of the mouthpiece is divided between this organ and the bars of the mouth; and the great nicety in bitting is practically to determine for each individual horse how much of the lever action is to fall on the tongue and how much on the bars.”

On page 143-145-- “those peculiarities of the interior construction of the horse's mouth which, taken together, constitute as far as this organ itself is concerned, what is called a HARD OR A SOFT MOUTH.

There are two ways of expressing what a soft mouth is; we may either say this horse goes well on a light bit—which may be mainly a consequence of good carriage, temper, etc.--or we may say, a light bit will probably suit this horse best, because it has a thin tongue, high and sharp bars, a wide tongue channel and fine lips. But, in truth, the relative thickness or thinness of the tongue is the main point to be considered,, because, as has already been pointed out, the height of the bars is every nearly the same in all horses, and the width of the tongue-channel always bears a certain proportion to it. No doubt the bars have, in some instances, a flat and in others a sharp or convex upper surface, which, together with the greater or less fleshiness of the lips, makes a great difference; but in the end it comes to this, does the tongue fill up its channel merely to the brim, projecting a few lines over the surface of the bars, and therefore permitting the mouth-piece to exert a certain degree of pressure on the latter? And this we would call a NATURALLY SOFT MOUTH, as far as interior conformation goes (at least for a curb bit).

A HARD MOUTH, on the contrary, will be one in which we find a thick, fleshy tongue, not only totally filling up its channel, but protruding over it, and rising high above the level of the bars, which makes the former appear narrow and the latter low, whatever their real dimensions may be; and if to this be superadded a flat surface to the bars, and thick, fleshy lips, we may forthwith set this down as a case in which an ordinary (curb bit) mouth-piece will exert its pressure mainly on the tongue and lips, conveying to the rider's hand THE DULL FEELING OF PULLING AGAINST LEAD.

As a general rule, well-bred horses have the first-named conformation of mouth, and common brutes the contrary one; but it by no means follows from this that the former are all light and the latter all heavy in the hand: for the most aristocratic animal of all, the English race-horse, has generally a good tough mouth of its own, because it is taught from earliest infancy to lean on the bridle, and seek a fifth foot in the rider's hand; whereas on the contrary, we often find a perfectly plebeian brute, with a tongue that overfills its mouth, and everything else in proportion, not only extremely sensitive to the action of the (curb) bit, but, in fact, totally averse to its contact—that is to say “behind the hand” because it has miserable, flabby muscles, unstrung tendons and weak hindquarters*. (*A dishonest horse-dealer that really possesses talent will always avoid showing you a horse with an incipient spavin or other defect of the hind legs, otherwise than on the lightest possible bridle: three-fourths of these arising from “savage bitting.”)

All this shows that it requires a considerable deal of judgment, practical knowledge of horses, and perfect understanding of what is required in each especial case, to enable one to undertake the task of selecting a fitting bits with any chance of success; whereas it is a matter that is most usually entrusted to certain classes of individuals who possess no other qualification--saddlers and grooms.”

Now to my comments: If you have a “hard mouthed” horse whose mouth conformation is combined with improperly strengthened hindquarter muscles, the solution to riding with a curb bit appears to me, from my experiences with this type of horse, is to NOT KEEP CONTACT with the curb bit. On such horses I used the curb bit as a SIGNAL, a twitch of the fingers with an immediate and generous release, to start a virtuous cycle of relaxation of the poll, jaw, and mouth, and I am content with whatever the horse gives me, however “imperfect”, because the horse is giving to me what it can within the limits of its conformation. Trying for “perfection” on such a horse is truly a losing battle, while with finesse I find that the horses WILL become lighter and more responsive to the curb bit, relaxing their jaws, mouth and tongue. If I am using a double bridle I keep contact with the bridoon while doing this, lightening my contact with the bridoon a little bit when I tweak the curb bit. Such a horse, particularly if it is narrow between the jaws or has upper jaws that “jam up” against the neck, can never give its rider a “perfect” vertical face, but will generally do the best it can considering its limitations of conformation. If the rider accepts the horse's limitations everyone is happy, but if the rider insists that the horse perform the impossible (due to conformation) both horse and rider end up totally miserable.

When I read Dwyer's note about spavins it got to me. None of my horses, however imperfectly conformed in the hindquarters, ever got a spavin in their hocks. My first horse was conformed in such a way that spavin seemed inevitable, cow-hocks and sickle hocks, but he did not end up spavined even in this thirties. I never used “savage bitting” on this horse, I rode Forward Seat with no collection and forgiving hands, and I never had to inject his hocks. Nowadays, it seems to me, that a lot of horses more perfectly conformed and better trained than my first horse, end up getting several hock injections in their lives. Could this be from either “savage bitting” OR from harsh, unresponsive hands that can turn even the mildest bit into an instrument of torture? Could the RIDERS be causing a lot of the hock problems of horses?

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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