Dwyer on Snaffle and Bridoon Bits

Most of Dwyer's writings on bits concentrate on the curb bit, but he does have some words to say about snaffle bits, fortunately. As before all the quotes are from “On Seats and Saddles, Bits and Bitting” by Francis Dwyer. All the underlining and parentheses are mine.

On page 140 Dwyer lets us in on the secret of snaffle riding--”being independent of the reins for his seat, his hand is light; this is the secret of snaffle-riding.” Just because a snaffle is a gentler bit does not mean that it is gentle enough to reduce the horse's suffering if the rider used the reins to keep his seat. Heavy hands with any bit turn that bit into an instrument of pain for the horse.

On page 147 he writes “The great value of the snaffle, is that by its use the horse acquires confidence and insight into the means by which the rider proposes to direct its motions, and that it willingly assumes a steady and regular feeling, the action of the mouth-piece being gentle and capable of graduation...

It is precisely for this reason that the simplest form of snaffle—neither too long, too thin, nor too much curved, and with only one joint in the middle—is the best;”

On page 148 “Let us suppose the length (width) of such a snaffle to be just sufficient to allow the cheek-rings to come clear of the lips on either side, and we shall have nearly the whole action of the instrument (snaffle) exerted in the same direction as the pull on the reins—a matter of no small importance, because it is the only true basis for an understanding between the horse's mouth and the rider's hand.” (I am presuming, since he does not include any clear pictures of snaffle bits, that his snaffles were loose ring snaffles.)

Then he gets into snaffles that are excessively curved or too wide “to increase the curvature; or to increase the length (width) of the whole snaffle, so that it projects an inch or more at each side. Now either of these plans will, no doubt, increase the painful action on the bars; the latter (width) especially,...if exaggerated, will convert the snaffle into an instrument of torture; but the result of this increased action is in a wrong direction—it ceases to be a fore-and-aft pull, and is converted into a pincer-like twitch on the lower jaw, which becomes so painful that the horse tries to get the mouth-piece on his teeth...restiveness being the most common result.

Some riders have recourse to a double jointed snaffle, others again, to a double mouth-piece the joints being place right and left of the center; but these two forms produce the pincer-like twitch, and are, therefore, to be avoided, if possible.”

On page 149-150 “A snaffle twisted on both sides...may be safely used by a well-tempered and judicious rider who has a firm seat; it should, however, be scarcely ever necessary to resort to this or any of the above-mentioned methods of increasing the painful action of what should be as nearly as possible a painless instrument, because there are other and better means of attaining the same object.

Better means, because they are more durable in their effects, although they may require more time in the first instance; for, apart from all other considerations, there is this great objection to all the contrivances referred to here, that when you take them out of the horse's mouth you find yourself at best just where you were before, and still more likely not nearly so well off, because the animal's temper will have suffered.” (I presume Dwyer's “other means” include proper training of the horse and the development of an independent seat by the rider.)

On page 153 Dwyer gets into where the snaffle bit should be placed in the horses mouth. “It is scarcely necessary to remark that the snaffle should neither be puled up too high in the horse's mouth, nor suffered to hang down so low as to interfere with the tusks or front teeth; its proper place will be about one fourth of an inch below the angle of the mouth; and in this position a plain, smooth mouthpiece...will be found to answer every purpose and afford the best possible means of mouthing young animals.”

As to the bridoon, the snaffle bit of a double bridle, on page 189 Dwyer writes “The bridoon...should never interfere with the (curb) bit; therefore it should be neither too thick nor so absurdly long as it sometimes is; and instead of hanging down in the horse's mouth as to impede the action of the (curb) bit, it should be drawn up so as to fit lightly into the angles of the lips without disturbing the natural position of the latter; here it will be out of the way and still perfectly available when needed.

To conclude, lightness, accuracy, easy motion, a total absence of stiffness, constraint or painful action are the characteristics of good bitting; and if these are to be obtained, ready obedience to the rider's hand and heel will be the result.”

I have tried many snaffles, starting out with a single jointed full cheek snaffle, through a Fulmer heavy weight single jointed snaffle, then to the dog-bone copper roller snaffle (my first horse's favorite bit), to the Dr. Bristol, to the lozenge three piece snaffle mouthpieces, through the JP curved snaffle mouthpieces both single jointed and Dr. Bristol. With the single jointed snaffles I cannot really FEEL the horse's tongue, which is why the double jointed snaffles “seduced” me away from the single jointed snaffles, especially with the Dr. Bristol mouthpiece (when put on the bridle properly.)

However through my experimentation I have noticed that the horses do not read advertising copy! The horses wanted my hands to be lighter when I used these supposedly gentler bits. I did not understand this until I read Dwyer—that the double-jointed snaffles cause a 'pincer like twitch” on the lower jaw, and I can see how that could be more painful to the horse than a single-jointed snaffle. (While it may be that some single-jointed snaffles will hit the roof of the mouth, after reading Dwyer I suspect that this problem may arise from the snaffle bits being TOO WIDE for the horse's mouth. If the bit is not too wide, the sides of the horse's head will limit how much the center joint can close, which should keep the center joint from the roof of the mouth with most horses.) It is certainly good for the horses' mouths that my hands are independent of my seat, as in I never pull on the reins to keep myself on the horses' backs. Because of this I was able to lighten my hand enough to content the horses with the double-jointed snaffles, until my MS got worse and the horses started objecting vehemently to these supposedly gentler snaffle bits.

Reading Dwyer has changed my viewpoint on bits. I think I will be able to consign many of my bits to my “local” tack store, maybe eventually I will get enough money from them to cover buying a few more single-jointed snaffles of as many different widths that I can find. Then, maybe, just maybe, the horses will be happier with contact even though my hands are worse with my MS.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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Comment by Jackie Cochran on December 24, 2018 at 11:12am

Thank you B. G..  I am glad you enjoyed the post.

Comment by B. G. Hearns on December 24, 2018 at 12:27am

His comment about the firm seat is key. My teacher likes to say, it's like the roots of a tree, everything else depends on it. Another horse quote is "if you can't get your horse to change gaits up and down on a loose rein, then you're not using it for communication, you're using it for control." Which also requires the pelvis be firmly in the saddle, not on it.
Love your comments.

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