Snaffle versus Pelham

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Or more specifically jointed loose ring snaffle versus vulcanite half-moon pelham.

I have been reading Tom Roberts’ Horse Control and the Bit. This is the first of his four books. It has been excellent. Also great revision for me since I had forgotten what an F. M. snaffle was and how it was different to the Tom Thumb, and why either was desirable. Ready to give a lesson now though!

I do not have a lot of expertise with regard to bits, however I have learnt to understand horse behaviour and training principles and since Tom explains everything in these terms I have taken on everything he says. I’m not afraid of being wrong, but I will consider what he says to be right until I’m given reason to think otherwise. In addition, I mean to go looking for research regarding bits and am keen to see what has been verified.

Tom Roberts also has a great personality in his writing, with strong opinions on all his topics. He puts the welfare of the horse first, and adheres to the principles I have learnt from science – but with different words, words meaningful to horse people. He figured it out intuitively and Equitation Scientists are recognising that (see the new book Go Forward, Dear).

One of his strongest opinions is with regard to training, and how the faults of a horse is often the fault of the rider/trainer. Hear hear! This is why it is so important to understand how you train your horse, intentionally or otherwise. As for bits, interestingly the focus is more about the horse’s mouth and its unrecognised injuries.

With topics I already have an opinion on, I find him agreeing with me. Of course, those moments are very memorable (confirmation bias much) and so of course I like him a lot. If you will disagree with me, you may very well not agree with him either. But I’d love to discuss what you think he’s right with and I am wrong – because I’m likely to learn from the experience. Tom was like this too as he actively sought out other trainers and talks about their methods which he adopted himself.

Another thing I like about his writing is that he is not biased towards or against any particular discipline. He recognises that there are individual situations to be treated separately. With regard to bits he emphasises that you must consider (a) your horse and his way of going, (b) what activity you are doing, and (c) your own (the rider’s) hands.

I paid attention when he spoke of when the snaffle is appropriate and when it is not. The snaffle can be quite harsh on a horse’s mouth when in rough hands – and hands are likely to be rough when riding in polo, and thus by extension polocrosse, my family’s sport. This is simply because you cannot give your horse 100% of your attention AND you are riding with a loose rein that suddenly jerks to tension for a hard stop. In other words even the rider with soft hands cannot be as soft in the game. Tom Roberts has an example in his book about how a string of polo ponies changed their behaviour in the game, showing distress when they were otherwise perfect in practice. He concluded that a change of bit (removing the snaffle) would improve their performance.

And he suggested the pelham (fyi not legal in polocrosse).
nb. there are other bits with more in common with the pelham than with a snaffle which you may also consider, dependent upon your individual situation.

In general the horse community regards snaffles as the perfect bit, which is inappropriate. It is ideal for most situations and especially for flatwork and training. It is inappropriate for the abrupt changes of speed and going from loose to tight rein as one might do when needing to stop from a gallop in a sport like polocrosse.

Tom Roberts makes the point that because so many riders think the snaffle is a mild bit, they then are not afraid to use it roughly. This is a mistake. Used roughly, the snaffle becomes quite severe. This can be used with discretion and good timing to deal with deliberate resistance and misbehaviour (provided the rider can determine the unwanted behaviour was not their own fault).

Why could it be inappropriate sometimes? Because excessive rein pressure pulls the bit up into the mouth where it can hit the teeth, and because it can be pulled through the mouth. Rough hands will unintentionally train a horse to resist the snaffle because with a mouth injury they will begin to anticipate pain, even after the injury has healed.

This is also why you must never allow your reins to drop to the ground (there is an exception to this if you are training them to ground-tie, but don’t you dare let an accident happen). If the horse steps on their reins then they can cause injury to the mouth. This may not be obvious to you (except with close inspection aided by a speculum), but as you continue to ride your horse learns of the pain the bit can cause to the injured mouth.

When a horse anticipates pain they will brace against the bit, often carrying their head too high and/or at an angle. They will also run through the bit and generally be difficult to control whilst resisting any pressure you put on their mouth. You could try and fix this problem with a tight noseband, martingales, running reins, and rougher hands, but you would only be forcing your horse into submission. It is important to recognise the underlying problem and fix that with patient retraining (perhaps with the use of non-restrictive martingales and running reins).

Running through the bit and holding his head high and angled is what my old horse was doing and he had previously been played in a snaffle by a very strong young male rider. It is actually quite unsettling to be in a large area and ask for a canter during which he runs through the bit. I could take up even a soft contact and he would set his head to the side, up, and brace against me. Any pressure I applied to the contact was then resisted. There was no yielding from him.

Before I read this book I knew enough to see that something was not right and that it was likely a training problem (as it was). But I wasn’t sure if it was his back, or neck, or general old-manliness. He often is stiff, so it was consistent to assume he was finding correct bend difficult and therefore resisting.

Reading the book I realised very quickly that it was his bit.

Testing this hypothesis was easy: I just had to change his bit. So I did, to a vulcanite pelham I had used years before on another horse.

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Note my nice loose noseband. When changing to this bit I didn’t want him to feel restricted. I could ride him in this pelham without the noseband if I wished.

This bit is preferred is for several reasons:

  1. the pelham does not pull through the mouth thanks to the bars
  2. this horse resisted the bit, so the leverage action would make him safer to ride because it adds strength to the pull on the rein.
  3. the bit rotates when pulled upon (I was using a single rein off a link joining the two rings, see picture) and this rotating produces a graduated pressure increase. In other words, the horse feels the rotation before the chin strap applies an increasing pressure and thereby learns to respond to the cue of the rotating bit, thereby becoming lighter
  4. because the bit rotates, it does not pull up high into the mouth (this avoids reminding the horse about the pain against his teeth he doesn’t want) and does not apply immediate hard pressure to the bars of the mouth.
  5. because the bit has a half-moon mouthpiece, it does not have the joint the horse is used to from the snaffle. This means the horse found the bit very weird in his mouth, but again there was no reminder of how the snaffle used to hurt. Tom Roberts has a whole chapter on the benefits of half-moon and port-mouth mouthpieces.
  6. the vulcanite is unnecessary for this horse, but it does make the bit feel very different. And the more different it is, the less likely he will be to respond with the same unwanted habits. He may even associate the vulcanite with the nicer bit in which case it would assist the rider to use vulcanite bits when trying types other than a pelham.

Remember that the snaffle doesn’t always hurt, and I certainly had a light rein BUT he had learnt to anticipate the pain and therefore tried to avoid it by resisting the bit. This resisting actually perpetuates the whole problem because the horse becomes harder to control so we use more pressure. Tom Roberts addresses this. You must remember that the horse will always resist pressure and we have TRAINED him to yield to it. But in pain he will go back to resisting.

The first thing I did with him after he stood mouthing the bit for a few minutes was to gently pull the reins back to his chest. As soon as he began to step back I released the pressure. I was rewarding him and showing him that the bit pressure is predictable and understandable. He understood that pressure meant stop/backwards, and that I would predictably release pressure when he responded.

Then we had a very happy horse. His head was low, the contact was very light. There was no head tilt and no resistance. He yeilded to any pressure, turning and stopping on a light rein. It was fantastic. Out in a large paddock he was no longer running through the bit. I could half halt and he would come back and hold his pace steady.

He was equally good with the novice rider. Success. The pelham was the better bit in this situation. And if he plays polocrosse again I will make sure it won’t be in his old snaffle.

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