The Curb

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.

the western curb bit

the western curb bit

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.

the curb bit

the curb bit

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.

western riding

western riding

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.

Greeley Hat Works

Trent Johnson

Trent Johnson

Meet Trent Johnson, a master craftsman whose clients include famous riders, past presidents, musicians and movie stars.

How did you get started in hats?

The family that owned Greeley Hat Works before me had a cattle ranch. I lived and worked on the ranch while I was attending the University of Northern Colorado. I tended to normal ranch chores such as feeding cows, calving out heifers, branding, irrigating and fixing fences. The hat shop at the time was on the ranch so I spent my free time learning the trade.    They later moved Greeley Hat Works to a building in town and that is when I started doing more hat work and less ranch work. I was an apprentice for about three and a half years before I had the opportunity to buy the business.   I have owned it for over 15 years now.

How are hats made?



The process to make a custom felt hat take about six hours. The time is spread over several days due to the heating and cooling processes. We begin with the ‘Conformateur,’ an antique head measuring device that was invented in 1843 in Paris. The one we use was built around 1909. The conformateur is placed on the customer’s head and gives a paper pattern the exact shape of the individual’s head. The paper pattern is then placed into the ‘Famillion,’ the sister piece of the conformateur. The famillion makes the pattern life size to create a cast of the client’s head. The pattern is cut out of cedar and the template remains with the hat throughout the process.

Once the colour, quality and style of the hat have been chosen the appropriate block (a wooden form) and hood (hat body) are picked. The hoods are made of different blends of European hare and beaver here at Greeley Hat Works. The hat block that we choose is close in size to the customer’s head. The taper of the block as well as the height of the block are also taken into consideration. The hat body is then steamed and pulled over the hat block. After it has cooled it is hand sanded to take the nap (hair) down and its silky texture is brought to life.

Next, we press (iron) the brim of the hat to make sure it is flat and level before the next step can take place. The hat is ironed in a flange (brim board) and then placed under a sand bag press. The hat is then laid out on the flange to cool and dry. This can take up to two days. Next the hat is taken to have the brim cut to size using a rounding jack. The top and bottom of the brim are then sanded and lured (luring is the process of putting natural oils back into the hair of the hat). While all of this is taking place the hand reeded leather sweatband is cut to the customer’s head pattern. The sweatband is then printed with the appropriate markings.

The back bow and sweatband are then sewn in. The head pattern is then steamed into the hat and re-pressed to the shape of the client’s head in the sand bag press. In most cases, the hat band is made from the excess felt cut off the brim. A buckle is added and a sating line is put in the hat. The hat is now ready to be hand creased to the customer’s liking.

How does the process differ between straw and fur hats?

The straw process is quite different. The straw body, in most cases, is rice paper woven by machines in China. Some other hats are woven palm leaves from Mexico. They are then pressed and cut. They are sized by standard hat sizing and sewn and trimmed.

Greeley Hat Works

Greeley Hat Works

What is the significance of the bow at the back of the hat?

It was once told to me that because mercury was used in the felt making process hatters got mercury poisoning. This is where the term ‘Mad as a Hatter’ came from. The US government wanted makers to label hats with the Jolly Roger (the symbol of poison) but as no one would want to buy a hat with a skull and cross bones in they used a bow in the back as a stylised skull and cross bones.

Which furs are used for hats and why?

Many types of fur are used in hat making - wool, rabbit, European hare, beaver - and all in different blends. Wool, the least desirable, has less ‘barbs’ per hair (projections that lock together to create strength) and is poor in quality. Rabbit has more barbs per hair and beaver has the most and smallest barbs per hair making it thinner, lighter, more weather resistant and durable.

Explain about the ‘X’ labelling system

I hate the X system of rating hats. In the 1800’s X’s were used to communicate between the old world and the new world when we were trapping beaver and shipping them to Europe. X’s were used to rate the quality of the pelts and the more X’s the better.

Jump ahead to the 1940’s. The hat companies were still using X’s honestly. Each X was 10% beaver and $10. You could look in a 10X hat and know that it was 100% Beaver and $100 dollars. When the hat companies started getting wise to the ‘value’ of X’s for marketing and they kept putting more a more X’s in hats even if they had no beaver!

There is a popular brand out there today that now makes a 100X, 500X, and even a 1,000X hat that contains only minimal beaver. At Greeley Hat Works we do not use the X rating system. Our Classic is a good European hare blend and our Competitor Quality is a superior European hare blend. Many of our retail partners compare our Classic to many others manufacturers’ 15X, and our Competitor to other 20X hats. Our Beaver20 is 20% Beaver and 80% European Hare. Our Beaver Blend is over 50% beaver with the remaining being European hare. Our Pure Beaver is just that.

Do hats go through fashions? 

Hats do go through some fashion trends. Both the western hat and the Fedora have gone through waves of popularity and style changes. We have been on the cutting edge of hat stylings for years! We proudly make fashion, western and dress hats in retro and contemporary styles.

Greeley logo

Greeley logo

Are all hat shapes good for all disciplines?

The stylings for all different breed classes are all based on the quarter horse crease.  The Cattlemans Crown is basically the same for all breeds and disciplines but the brim styles do change a bit more depending on the discipline, trainer and the region you are from.

What are your top tips for looking after a hat?

It is very important to brush a felt hat off each time you wear it. It is also equally important to brush the top of the hat (both crown and the top of the brim) counter-clockwise and the bottom in a clockwise manner. This is the way the nap is laid down when the hat is made.

Who are your most famous clients?

I have had the honour of building hats for many famous people. I have also built hats for music videos and movies. A few at the top of the list would have to be President Bush (twice), Vladamir Putin, the Amir of Kuwait, Michael Crighton, Steven Tyler and Charlie Sheen!

Visit and check out Trent's incredible creations! Available in the UK exclusively through Rhinestone Clothing.

AQHA Equipment Rule Changes

Western Bit

Western Bit

AQHA Rule changes concerning the use of curb chains, draw reins and other equipment at shows will be in place from November to coincide with the 2012 AQHA World Championship Show. The following training equipment, in addition to that listed in the AQHA rulebook, will not be allowed at any AQHA show:

1. Prohibited training equipment at all AQHA shows include riding in a curb bit without a curb strap, wire or solid metal curb straps no matter how padded; wire cavessons; wire or cable tie-downs; bumper bits; metal bosals, no matter how padded; chambons; headstalls made of metal (even if encased in a protective material); twisted rawhide; or rope (3/8-inch rope may be used with a slip (gag) bit with a smooth mouth piece only); running martingales with curb bits; or draw reins attached between or around the front legs.

2. No one is allowed to ride a horse with a curb bit without a properly adjusted, approved curb strap or curb chain.

3. A running martingale may be used with a snaffle bit only.

4. Draw reins may be used on the show grounds as a training device so long as they are attached no lower than the elbow of the horse.

'The greatest danger to our industry is the inhumane treatment of our horses during their training and the resulting appearance in the show ring,' said Jim Heird, executive professor and coordinator of the equine sciences initiative at Texas A&M University, and chairman of the AQHA Animal Welfare Commission.

For full AQHA equipment rules, click here

Gaited Gear

Beverly Whittington explains the structure of the western saddle and what to look for when fitting a gaited horse. One difficulty gaited horse fans face is finding and fitting tack. The gaited horse physique is not the same as that of its non-gaited brethren and many issues can arise by assuming tack will work for both types of horses. It would take a book to cover all the details in fitting tack to a gaited horse but I will cover some of the main points here.

Basic tack consists of headgear, bit, saddle and saddle pad. Saddle fit is a hot topic and crucial for the gaited rider, especially the heavier rider and their mount. Below I will explain the structural elements that affect saddle fit and the considerations that must be made when fitting to a gaited horse.

Saddle tree

Gaited saddle tree

Saddles are built upon a frame called a saddle tree. The shape of the tree determines the way the saddle conforms to the horse’s back. It will also impact comfort for the rider. Each tree has two bars that straddle either side of the horse’s spine and rest on the longissimus dorsi muscles. These bars must mirror the shape of the horse’s back (with the weight of the rider placed upon them) through the saddle seat.

Gullet and spread

Most western saddles come in Quarter Horse bars. That alone should tell you they were not designed with the gaited horse in mind. Semi Quarter Horse bars fit higher withered horses and these saddles typically have a 6 inch gullet to a 12 inch bar spread. Full Quarter Horse bars have a 7-8 inch gullet and a 13-14 inch bar spread - this fits a more flat or mutton withered horse

Gaited Horse saddles

Gaited horses tend to be much narrower than Quarter Horses and their bar angles are very different. Narrow western trees are hard to come by and rarely offered, except by custom manufacturers. into this market, the gaited horse saddle has emerged. Not all gaited horses require a special saddle and gaited horse saddles will not fit all gaited horses. You need to take into consideration the shape, size and condition of your horses back to get the correct fit.


Gaited horses are prone to short ‘functional’ backs with more curvature to the spine from the withers to the lumbosacral joint. This results in less area for the saddle to distribute weight, it also means that they require a bit of ‘rocker’ to the bars to mirror the horse’s shape or the saddle will bridge. Where traditional stock horse saddles will bridge and pinch, a saddle with the correct degree of rocker will follow the contours of the gaited horse back. Most modern western saddles are manufactured for wide shouldered Quarter Horses with extended bar length in the front to function safely in roping events. The bar shape is incorrect and too long for most gaited horses. The longer bar length usually causes the rider’s weight to be too far to the rear. Since this puts the rider behind the point of balance they compensate by leaning forward placing their weight on the front of the bars, which results in impeded shoulder movement.

gaited western saddle

Flair and twist

Flair and twist affect the ability of the horse to use its shoulders and loin correctly. On a gaited horse tree the bar edges usually gently taper away from the horse with the front of the bars having a bit more bend so the muscle can move freely under the edge of the tree.


Rigging keeps the saddle from turning over on the horse’s back while allowing as free a movement as possible under it. ‘Hanging Dee’ rigging is very durable because the ‘dee’ hangs and both ends of leather are fastened directly to the tree. It can be adjusted to prevent interfering with the horse’s ability to bend and turn.

Check your fit

To see if your saddle fits your horse, first be sure you are placing it in the proper spot. The tree should sit immediately behind the horse’s scapula (not over it) although it is fine if the leather part of the saddle extends over it. To find the scapula, walk beside your horse with your hand on the shoulder as someone leads him. As the horse moves, the scapula rotates about its axis and you should be able to feel and see it.

Place your saddle just behind the scapula and girth it sufficiently to hold it securely in place. Too tight a girth can make your horse uncomfortable. Too loose, makes the saddle unstable, allowing it to shift. Many gaited horse riders tend to place the saddle too far back on the horse, in the tradition of saddle seat equitation. Wisdom holds that placing the weight behind the centre of gravity forces the horse to pull his hind legs under himself and to ventroflex (head up, back lowered) his body. In actuality, this more often hinders the natural gait of the horse and places undue strain on the back and kidneys. Multiply this by a heavier rider and the horse may well suffer needless pain and damage.

It is easier to fit a horse properly in summer coat. Rest the saddle on the horse’s back without padding and look at it from all angles. Avoid those with gaps around the withers or spine. If the tree is not close in fit, padding will not correct a poor fit. Do not try to fill in or build up with padding where you see shrinkage (atrophy) in the horse’s muscles. If you are conditioning a horse, then these muscles will develop under the saddle as the horse’s fitness level improves. Otherwise, realise that trying to level the saddle with padding is like buying a pair of size 12 boots, when you wear nines and compensating by wearing four pairs of socks! Most saddle fit problems involve the withers and points that encounter the bars of the saddle. This is often belied by white hairs growing in the affected areas. Problems such as early fatigue, unexplained body soreness, crankiness, tail wringing, refusals, uneven leads, weak hindquarters, loss of lateral flexibility and more, can all be caused by the muscle fatigue and strain of a poorly fitted saddle.

A properly designed saddle affects not only the rider’s comfort but also balance. The stirrup bar of the saddle must allow the stirrup leathers to hang approximately 6 or 7 inches forward of the deepest part of the seat. This corresponds roughly to the measurement from the ball of the foot to the heel. The twist of the saddle is the narrowest portion of the seat, located just behind the pommel or cantle. Generally, saddles have either a narrow twist or a broad twist, with great variation possible. The twist you need depends on the shape of your pelvis, the way the femur is attached and the shape of the inner thigh muscle. Because of the shallower/wider shape of their pelvis, women tend to be more comfortable in a broad twist, whereas most men prefer a more moderate twist.

Gaited saddle fit

Gaited saddle fit

Does Your Saddle Fit?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to any of the questions below, it might be time to take a look at your horse’s saddle fit, writes Maria Owens.

The initial signs of pain from poor saddle fit can be exhibited in various behaviours when catching, tacking up and riding. Horses only have behaviour to communicate with, so if your horse’s expression changes for the worse when you approach with tack or he tries to bite or kick when putting his saddle on, it may be because he is experiencing pain. Other behaviours under saddle such as bucking, rearing, napping and stiffness may also indicate pain. Of course these symptoms can also be caused by other issues including mouth problems, training issues, unsympathetic riding etc. Therefore it is vital  that you eliminate saddle fit from the list before undertaking any form of remedial training.

Western Saddle

Western Saddle

Your first port of call should be to get your horse’s back checked by a professional and get your saddle’s fit assessed by a saddle fitter. The need for gadgets such as martingales, nosebands and anything else that help tie the head down may also be an indicator of poor saddle fit, as pain in the back will cause a horse to raise its head up. A horse which has had back pain for a while will often have a hollow on the top of the neck and may also have a hollow triangle on the side of the neck, due to having to use incorrect muscles to carry itself. Although your western saddle should be checked for fit without a saddle pad, it is essential that you use a pad when riding and that the pad also fits properly. Unlike English saddles, which have their own shock absorbency built in, in the form of flocking, western saddles need a pad. Western saddle pads provide balance, shock absorption, protection for the saddle and the horse’s back, and takes the sweat away from the horse’s body to aid with cooling.

Questioning Saddle Fit

Does your horse try to bite or kick when tacking up?Does your horse buck, rear, nap under saddle?Do you need ‘gadgets’ to help keep your horse’s head down?Does your horse have uneven muscle tone or muscle wastage?Are there uneven sweat marks under your saddle after work?Does your horse have any newly acquired white hairs under his saddle?Do you need to over tighten your cinch to stop the saddle slipping?Is your horse reluctant to go forward under saddle or does he rush his transitions?Does you horse have difficulty with leads, flexing or lateral work?Do you find your horse hollow backed and unwilling to stretch down?

Tools to help

Saddle pressure testing pads are available to hire or buy. These illuminate to show uneven pressure. Malleable templates are also available and have the added benefit that you can form them to fit your horse’s back. Comparing the shaped template to your current saddle will give you an indication of any differences in shape.

Maria is a UK based western saddler based in Hampshire. She travels nationwide to fit saddles and stocks a wide variety of treed and treeless models. Visit for more information.

Mecate Reins (Part 1 of 2)

Clinton Anderson explains about Mecate reins and how to attach them correctly. Pronounced ‘Muh-caw-tee’ or ‘McCarty’, the mecate rein is a line of 20-25 feet made of rope or braided horse hair, which is attached to either a bosal noseband or Snaffle bit. One or both ends of the Mecate have one or two thin leather straps called a popper. They are used a lot in natural horsemanship and in the training of young horses when used with a bosal (a braided rawhide noseband that acts upon a horse’s nose and jaw and is often used as a precursor to a bit).

Mecate reins create a looped rein and a long free end that can be used for a number of purposes. It is coiled when a horse is under saddle but can be released and used as a lead rope or long line when working a horse from the ground. When used with a bosal, Mecate reins can be used to adjust its fit around the muzzle of the horse.

Attaching Mecate Reins

1 With shiny side of slobber straps (used to protect the reins from saliva) to the outside, fold and put through snaffle rings.

Mecate Reins Step 1

Mecate Reins Step 1

2 Standing with the front of the snaffle bit facing away from you, take the thin popper end of the rope and thread from left to right, through all four slobber strap holes so that there is approximately six inches of rope hanging past the right slobber strap. The mouthpiece of the bit should curve away from you when positioned correctly.

Mecate Reins Step 2

Mecate Reins Step 2

3 Form a half-hitch with the right rein around the right slobber strap. Take the rein on the outside of the slobber strap, under the strap towards the centre, over the top and down through the loop. Make sure the end points down.

Mecate Reins Step 3

Mecate Reins Step 3

Mecate Reins Step 4

Mecate Reins Step 4

Mecate Reins Step 5

Mecate Reins Step 5

4 Pull through 10 feet of rope in the middle to form the reins.

5 Form a half hitch with the left rein around the left slobber strap. Take the long lead rope on the outside of the left slobber strap under the slobber strap towards the centre, over the top and down through the loop. Tighten the knots - you will have a long length of rope on the left side.

Mecate Reins Step 6

Mecate Reins Step 6

6 The chin strap should be attached to snaffle so that it is between the slobber straps and the bit bars. The buckles should face down.

7 The headstall should be attached to snaffle rings above the slobber straps. To get the reins the correct length, sit on your horse, hold the middle of the reins and pick up to your sternum bone. When the reins touch your chest, you should be making light contact with the horse’s mouth. If you pick up to your sternum and there’s still a lot of slack in the reins, it means your reins are too long. If you pick up and make contact with the horse’s mouth before you even get to your sternum, it means your reins are too short.

8 Be sure that the loops around the horse’s neck are not big enough for a hoof to get through if the horse should lower his head to the ground, nor should the loops be so loose that they are able to come off over the horse’s head. The easiest way to prevent this is to either shorten the reins before you start or simply tie another half-hitch or two to snug it up a bit - not too tight, of course.