What I've Learned About Curb Bits

After hurting all weekend I went to my MD on Monday. He ordered X-rays and found two cracked ribs. I am also bruised from my left hip down my thigh, my lower back from the edges of the protective vest, and my left rib cage hurts. I asked the doctor about riding and he said 6 WEEKS not riding, I told him about Mia (32-33, arthritic, freezes instead of bolting so far) and he said if I was really careful I could try it in a month but only at a walk. Bummer.

So I cannot ride for four weeks, which means I am deprived of my primary exercise, physical therapy and social life. I am bored.

I decided this would be a good time to go back and re-read a book I picked up decades ago, with the unwieldy title of “On Seats and Saddles, Bits and Bitting” with the sub-title “The Prevention and Cure of Restiveness in Horses”, by Francis Dwyer, originally published in 1869. Francis Dwyer was a Major of Hussars in the Imperial Austrian Service.

Since I am not interested in riding like a nineteenth century cavalryman I sort of skimmed over the first part of this book. I did notice one place where he said that the Hussar's mounts were effectively required to carry a THIRD of their weight, the horse's weight. Those poor horses!

This book got really interesting to me when he started writing about bitting. After a discussion about how the horse's neck joins with the horse's head and particulars about the horse's mouth and lower jaw, and how a horse's conformation can affect how the horse responds to the bit, he starts writing about curb bits. He gets really technical and precise about the placement of the curb bit in the mouth, about the proper width for the curb bit, and the shape of the mouthpiece of the curb bit. He quotes another author, Lieutenant-Colonel von Oeynhausen, who measured the mouths of “a very great number and and variety of horses.” Dwyer then went on to measure the mouths of 400 horses belonging to “certain squadrons of light cavalry.”

Dwyer says that the only place in the horse's mouth where a curb bit can work properly is RIGHT ABOVE THE CURB GROOVE, and that is where they measured the horses' mouths, not where the snaffle bit goes. And out of these 400 horses “the width of the mouth (vertically just above the curb groove including the lips) was for the smaller ones exactly 4 English inches, and for nearly the whole of the remainder 4.2 inches, one or two only reaching 4.3 inches. The other author, von Oeynhausen, also included some “very heavy draught animals,” who measured 5.185 inches across.

I just looked in my Dover catalog, and their narrowest Weymouth curb bit is 4 3/4”. Lately I have been on-line trying to find narrower Weymouth curbs and dang it, narrower Weymouth curbs are hard to find.

Dwyer goes into other particulars of fitting a curb bit properly, the height from the bottom of the mouthpiece to the curb hook (the purchase), the shape and width of the port, the thickness of the mouthpiece, and how the curb chain should lie on the horse so that the curb works properly with little pain for the horse. He also goes into the correct length of the bit shank, good curb chains, how the horse's tongue affects the action of the bit, and other considerations. It is complicated. His general conclusion is “that light bits (curbs) accurately fitted are more to be relied upon than the most atrocious instruments of torture ever invented, and of which but too many are in daily use.” If you ever ride with a curb bit you NEED to read this book! (Warning, Dwyer uses “Austrian inches” in a lot of his measures, he only means English inches if he specifically says so.)

After reading all this over several times I started to make sense of the bewildering number of Weymouth curbs available now. I now look for a specific type of Weymouth bit, with 5” to 5 1/2” side pieces, NO sliding curb mouthpieces (the purchase is not long enough), a regular mouthpiece that is not very thick, and a normal sized port (no extra wide ports). Since I do not ride heavy draft horses I am looking for Weymouth curbs that are less than 5” wide, and these are not common at all. After hours of looking on the internet at Weymouth bits I finally succeeded in finding the above bit in 3.5”, 4”, 4 1/8” (105mm), 4.5” and 4.75”. Most of these are made of stainless steel though there is an expensive one available in a copper alloy.

Now, when I look at the mind-numbing number of different curb bits available for purchase, both Weymouth curbs and Western curbs, I wonder how many of their “innovations” were made necessary because the curb bits are put in the wrong place of the mouth, the curb mouthpieces are too wide, and that the curb chain is not acting on the curb groove but going back to the very sharp lower jaw bones. Maybe if we all made sure that our curbs were put on right, and were of the proper width, we could easily make do with the most basic of curbs instead of all the bewildering varieties of mouthpieces. Considering that many of the more “modern” curb bits are EXPENSIVE we all could save a lot of money by following Dwyer's advice.

Since my fall I have decided I would be a fool to try jumping since I KNOW I will inevitably fall off sooner or later. I do not feel secure enough in the saddle to do trail riding either. Since I had been thinking about trying a double bridle on Coach I decided that, now that I know how to set up the double bridle bits properly, that it may be a cure for my boredom and the horses' boredom if I start riding in a double bridle. I will still be riding Forward Seat, using Forward Control, and I do not aim for collection at all (unless the horse volunteers.) All of this will be done under the eagle eyes of my riding instructors who will tell me each and every time the horse protests how I handle the bit. I might be fooling myself like I did with my dream of jumping and trail riding again, but at least I know enough to back off if the horse protests how I use a bit.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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