Making the transition from a snaffle to a curb bit with Patrick Hopgood.
A curb is a leverage bit which has shanks coming off the mouthpiece. When rein pressure is applied, the bit acts on the poll, chin groove and mouth intensifying the pressure from a rider’s hand many times over depending on the length of the shank.
Shanks come in a variety of types which may affect the action and how much ‘warning’ a horse gets before the full effect of the bit comes into play. In this way a curb bit can act as a fantastic aid for refinement allowing a horse to respond to the slightest cue. Given the relative severe action of a curb, it is essential that the rider has a good feel.
All curbs should be used with a curb chain or strap, which is attached to the cheek piece rings and applies pressure under the chin. It should lie flat against the chin groove and only come into action when the bit shank is rotated at about 45 degrees. The action of the bit will be dictated by the curb chain as it acts as a hinge, tightening as the cheek ring moves forward when the shank moves back. A loose curb chain will allow the shanks to rotate more before it comes into action and act as a ‘heads up’ to the horse. A tighter curb provides less finesse in signalling the horse.
Curb bits are generally placed lower down in a horse's mouth than snaffle bits, touching the corners of the mouth. Note that the bars of a horse’s mouth get thinner the lower down you go so the lower the bit, the more severe its action will be.
Before you consider if your horse is ready to advance to a curb bit, you must assess where your horse is at in a snaffle. A curb is a leverage bit which intensifies the pressure from a rider’s hands. It is used as a refining aid for riding one handed and is compulsory for most showing classes for horses over the age of five.
A horse is only ready for a curb when he is completely soft in a snaffle. By this I mean you must have complete body control of your horse in a snaffle and they must be able to perform each manoeuvre correctly every time you ask. Only once you have reached this point in your horse’s training should you move on to a curb bit. This does not mean that your horse has to be sliding 20 feet and turning like a bullet but they do have to be stopping correctly every time you ask, even if it is only five feet.
Do not step your horse up into a curb bit to get them softer or to tackle other problems as this will only be a quick fix. It will work for a few days but once your horse gets used to the action of the curb they will soon start doing whatever they were already doing in the snaffle. Going to a larger bit before the horse has mastered the snaffle will just amplify and transfer the problems you were already having.
Which One? I like to use a short shank snaffle for a first curb bit. The reason for this is that the shorter the shank the less leverage there will be, thereby making it less of a transition for your horse. I also choose the short shank snaffle because of the snaffle mouth piece, this too keeps the bit fairly similar to the horses original snaffle bit.
After around six weeks I will then step up into a short shank correction – a double jointed mouthpiece with a low port. This bit will allow me to soften the horse through the body more than a snaffle curb.
The First Three Rides When in a curb bit you should ride the same way you would in a snaffle but with increased feel. That said, it is important that you do not pull ‘out wide’ like you can with a snaffle bit as the shank is designed to be pulled backwards and only works well when used in this manner. If you pull out wide your horse will not get soft and will most likely shake their head and fight the bit.
I start by riding two handed with the curb bit. Do not attempt to go one handed until the horse does everything correctly with the curb bit you still want them to respond the same as they did in the snaffle. If you have them soft in a snaffle this will not be a problem.
You need to be very soft and slow with your hands and do not expect your horse to feel like they did in a snaffle straight away. The first step is to teach your horse to give to the curb bit, so at a walk pick your horse up with a lot of bend either to the left or right. I like to use my inside leg more than my outside leg as this will help soften your horse to the inside, just like when we were teaching our horse to soften to the snaffle bit for the first time.
If you are softening your horse to the left you want to pick your left hand up higher than your right and bump a little bit more with your left leg. Your horse is most probably going to put their head up and worry a little. Don’t panic, just hold your hands still until your horse drops their head down and comes off the pressure. Immediately release all the pressure by giving back your reins. By the end of the first day you should be able to pick your horse up and have them immediately drop off the bit and soften at the walk. Once this has been achieve at a walk move on to the trot and lope. However do not try and lope if your horse is not collecting at a trot. Get your horse relaxed at each gait then progress to the next.
If your horse is not liking the shank at all I would go back to a snaffle and get your horse to soften better in a snaffle first. Do not try and do anything difficult. I just like to trot and lope around softening my horse, letting them get used to the curb bit. Over the next couple of weeks I will slowly perform all the manoeuvres I was doing in a snaffle. Be patient and your horse will build confidence, becoming comfortable in the curb. I do not like to stay in a shank snaffle curb bit for over two months. I like to progress to a short shanked correction bit. The correction bit has a port which is new for your horse and will take some getting used to again. I like the correction because it has more movement in the mouthpiece which helps soften and bend your horse’s body where as with the shank snaffle/curb the horses can become stiff and straight. However, all this knowledge will be useful in the future, because if you have a horse that gets too bendy through its body when being ridden one handed and will not straighten out, a straight style bit with no movement will be useful.
Now your horse accepts the curb bit, giving to it straight away when you pick up the reins, you can start to prepare to go one handed If you followed my ‘Start to Finish’ series you will have already been preparing your horse a lot to go into one hand by using the outside rein as well as the inside. However, now we want to close our hands together as if riding one handed. I do this by slowly bringing my hands closer and closer together and really making sure I pull to where I would if I was riding one handed (a little bit up the horses neck and straight in the middle). I do this when just trotting around and loping circles. I do not do this when performing more complicated manoeuvres like the turnaround or stops. I also will use my hands ‘as one,’ meaning that even though I am riding with two hands I will ride and move both my hands as if they were one. For example, if my left hand is moving to the left I will want to keep my right hand the same distance from my left hand the whole time. I also want to use the same amount of pressure with both hands. If this is a little confusing just think you are trying to simulate holding the reins in one hand.