Snaffle Bits for Gaited Horses

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Snaffle Bit

Q: I grew up riding stock horses but have transitioned to gaited horses. I now have a Fox Trotter gelding that I ride in a snaffle bit, but other gaited riders tell me that I shouldn’t. He has a nice fox trot and has never been out of control, but I have been criticized for “riding him like a Quarter Horse.” What am I missing?

A: Gaited horses can, and do, gait very well in snaffle bits. Just like any other horse, they should be trained to give to and follow a snaffle during their early training, and only move into a leverage bit as their training progresses.

The “ask and release” of classical training is very successful in communicating what we want our horses to do. This includes softening and yielding his posture from poll to tail in response to traditional seat, leg and soft hand aids. The “ask” of classical aids allows our gaited horses to voluntarily assume ideal posture and balance for gaiting; the release of those aids rewards their effort and encourages them to self-maintain a movement that is not only very pleasing to us, but also increases their own comfort.

Because of the influences of the show ring rewarding speed and flash for the last 70 years, the gaited horse industry has lost the essentials of riding and developing natural gaits, as they have relied more on forcing man-made, artificial gaits. However, gaited horses are currently going through a renaissance, coming full circle back to the pleasure and using horses of the past. And we are coming out of the dark ages to slowly realize that the fundamentals of gait are produced from the muscle systems throughout the horse’s body, not his feet or his mouth. We are linking sound equine biomechanics to those gaits and developing the natural abilities from riding back to front, rather than forcing, framing or fixing gaits in order to ride front to back.

We are also rediscovering the very significant fact that gaits have already been bred into the gaited horses. Plus, they can be achieved voluntarily and comfortably by asking the horse to correct his own carriage rather than using mechanics to force a posture commonly called “headset” in order to break up a pace resulting from poor balance and a locked topline.

Gaited horses are not different creatures but simply have more gears available in their repertoire that they can tap into by altering their balance and posture. The idea of self-carriage is being reintroduced to the gaited world and is quickly becoming recognized as the most successful answer to gait problems for the soundness, comfort and longevity of our horses.

I’m happy to hear you and your horse are working nicely on a comfortable, humane bit, and encourage you to not let others sway you from your enlightened path.

Liked this article? Here are others you’ll enjoy:
HorseChannel’s Online Bit Guide
Video: Tennessee Walking Horse Gaits

ANITA HOWE is the author of Freedom to Gait. For more information, visit www.anitahowe.com.


This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe!

9 COMMENTS

  1. We ride our Peruvian horses with no bit using a very simple hackamor…they are awesome,willing and responsive….We ride through very diverse areas including beach,rivers,mangrove swamps…and they gait beautifully.

  2. You bring a great commentary for any type of riding. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Soft hands are primary in all training as well as a “soft” mind set. Time is your best friend.

  3. I train Paso Finos with a single snaffle bit. They respond to the snaffle very well. Lightness is not just the bit, that is just one element. It has to be everywhere in your horse and you. And it comes with proper training.

  4. I’m pretty sure that’s my horse in the picture. We were doing a gaited dressage class at the KMSHA International. I usually ride her in a kimberwick but she did just as well in the snaffle. She is very light in the mouth so a light hand is important in keeping her happy. She gaited just as well in the snaffle as in any other bit I’ve ridden her in.

  5. I had a Peruvian who never had a bit in her mouth. Each horse is different. If a snaffle keeps your horse happy I don’t see any issue with staying withvit.

  6. Now that I had a chance to read through the article properly I’m very pleased to hear a reasonable point of view. I wish there were more people who this way in many of the different worlds of riding, especially Western with their forced frames!

  7. I have two gaited horses, ride one in a snaffle and the other one in a bit less bridle and they both gait well.
    I asked a natural horsemanship clinician when to put a horse in a leverage bit and the answer I got was “when they know everything they need to know in a snaffle first” and when I got to that point I went without the bit all together

  8. Lovely reading. I have a gaited standardbred, and in lack of access to the gaited world with trainers and stuff, I went with a good non-gaited trainer. Now my horse performs a flatwalk, saddle rack, rack, trot and canter. On cue. He started out with a nearly dead pace. We have used various bits and bitless options, however it has never been with regards to gait, or to get ”brakes” or flex the poll on him. He’s currently in a mullenmouth o-ring. Never been shod in a ”gaited” manner – it’s regular shoes or barefoot for us.
    He’s a horse first, gaited second.

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