Q: I recently bought a 12-year-old mare. She has a very soft mouth and is easy to control in a plain snaffle bit. In fact, that’s the bit her previous owners always used on her. But several people have told me that I should switch her to some kind of curb bit for trail riding. Is that really necessary? I don’t want to toughen up her mouth, but I also want to be safe.
A: Trail riding certainly presents more challenges than riding inside an enclosed arena. Your mare—or any horse—could suddenly spook into oncoming traffic or become rambunctious and bolt off into the hills. That’s why many riders opt for a bit with a little more stopping power when they hit the trails. Keep in mind that doesn’t mean that these riders are hanging on their horse’s mouth all the time. The reins can remain soft and loose, but the curb bit is there as a sort of emergency brake, just in case. In other words, it’s not the curb bit itself that toughens up a horse’s mouth; it’s the way the rider uses that bit to communicate with their horse.
That being said, you are the one who has to decide which type of bit is best for your horse. If your mare remains light in your hands and obedient and calm on the trails, even in her snaffle, then perhaps that’s plenty of bit for her. Because of its design, a snaffle allows you to use a direct rein to bend your horse’s neck to one side and turn them quickly. That maneuver alone can help stop a horse abruptly in an emergency. Also, snaffle bits are available in a variety of mouthpieces. You could have a mild, smooth snaffle for arena work and one with a little more “oomph” (such as a slow-twist) for trail riding. Ultimately, it’s not the bit that determines how well your mare performs in the Great Outdoors. It’s her schooling and training.
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