Which to Choose and How to Use Them: Quite a Bit About Bits in Western Dressage

by Debbi Sullivan with Ann Marie Avansino, Kathleen Elliot, Nicole Chastain Price, and Katrina Sanders

As a Western Dressage rider, I’ve had some questions about bits and how they should be used in a Western Dressage show horse. I asked some of our CAWDA riders, trainers, and judges for advice and opinions on this topic and as usual received some great, in-depth answers. Thank you to Nicole Chastain Price, Katrina Sanders, Ann Marie Avansino, and Kathleen Elliot for your input!

First Things First – The Rules
For information on what bits and other equipment are legal in Western Dressage, please visit the Equipment Guide: http://westerndressageassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/WD_Equipment_Guide.pdf

First Things Second – The Bits
A quick review of how the snaffle and curb bits work, provided by Ann Marie from the Classical Stock Seat School of Arizona:
The Snaffle is a non-leverage bit where the reins connect at the same level as the mouthpiece. If 5 lbs of pressure are put on the reins, the bars of the mouth receives 5 lbs of pressure. The snaffle bit delivers excellent sideways control.

The Curb is a leverage bit, where the reins connect below the level of the mouthpiece. When the reins are pulled with 5 lbs of pressure, the horse receives an increase of pressure on the bars of his mouth. Depending on the length of the shank the ratio is usually 3 to 1. Meaning 5 lbs from the reins equals 15 lbs of pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth. The curb is a stopping bit, not a sideway control bit.

Overview  – Why Are the Rules the Way They Are?

In most western disciplines, a snaffle bit is allowed only until a certain age, at which point the horse is transitioned into a curb bit – but Western Dressage allows the snaffle at any age or level. Western Dressage also allows riders to use two hands on a curb bit, which is again different from many western sports that allow one hand only.  Why the differences, and is one way better than another? Is two hands on a curb, or prolonged use of a snaffle ‘not western enough’?

Judge Nicole Chastain Price provides one explanation, “The Western Dressage horse is a horse who develops as it is trained up the levels. It is different than a horse that is a rail class horse or learns a few maneuvers at a young age and then can be ‘finished’. She adds, “This, like regular dressage, is a process of building an athlete by building balance, suppleness, straightness, collection and self carriage. To me riding one handed or “one up” in the bridle is the finished product of correct training which can not be done by taking a short cut and using the bit to create any of these elements.”

The California Vaquero Tradition has a similar ideal, and trainer Katrina Sanders advocates bringing horse and riders up through levels of training, ending in the pinnacle of Vaquero training: a bridle horse (a horse using a curb bit) ridden in one hand.  Katrina likes to see novice riders using a snaffle as they learn balance, because of the amplified signals a curb can create.  She believes a rider with educated hands and an independent seat is better equipped to handle the more advanced tool of the curb in one hand.

When questioning the idea of riding a curb in two hands, though, trainer Kathleen Elliot reminds us that Western Dressage is not unique. Traditional dressage horses in a double bridle and the two handed saddle seat horses are other examples of a curb ridden this way.  Kathleen says, “We are looking for our horses to be ridden in a soft contact without having to pull the horse into frame.”  Since Western Dressage is seeing many different breeds coming from other disciplines to participate, it may be too soon to expect everyone to jump in to one handed.

Trainer Ann Marie Avansino agrees. “Our Western Dressage rules have been set up for inclusion rather than training timeline. As our organization grows I hope we continue to have conversations surrounding one handed or two, snaffle and curb. I would like us to strive to stay truly Western with the solid foundation of Classical Dressage.”

On the subject of a training timeline, Ann Marie says, “In every classical school of thought a horse is started in a snaffle and as a horse moves up the training levels into self carriage we then begin to add the leverage of the curb. The model of a finished bridle horse working cattle begins his training in a snaffle, then bosal and finally a curb is an art guided mainly by time.”

While Nicole Chastain Price agrees with open classes allowing any bit at any level and two hands on the curb, she also suggests a timely progression in our sport as it grows and gains popularity. “The western tradition dictates that the final finished horse is based on a working horse.  You will never be able to have a horse you can do anything off of like rope or open gates or mend a fence or doctor a calf if you have to constantly be managing the contact with two hands.  Like a war horse which was the purpose for Dressage training, Western Dressage horses must be taught to develop self carriage within collection.  The tradition, I feel, should continue in this relatively new sport.  I would like to see the rules evolve to include classes for horses starting in a snaffle or bosal and then moving into two reins and bridles as they progress including classes for straight up bridle horses to compete on a level playing field.”

Katrina Sanders’ Vaquero training has her feeling the same way. “Because my focus is on training horses to respond to my seat and leg aids as early on in training as possible so that I may utilize one-handed riding, I would never exhibit the practice of two-handed showing in any bit other than a snaffle.  Probably the most important stage in California Vaquero horsemanship is the two-rein stage which allows us to help a horse transition from two-handed to one-handed signals in the bridle.  This consists of a small bosalito underneath the bridle with the horse being primarily guided with the hackamore and becoming accustomed to slight signal from the bridle reins.  This would be the only time that I would allow two hands while the horse is wearing a shanked bit and even with this configuration, both romel (bridle) reins are in one hand only the entire time.” 

The Snaffle and Its Relation to Frame and Collection

The level of contact a rider can maintain when using a snaffle can be improperly used to create a false ‘frame’ or level of collection. Is the snaffle really the way to a better score? Should we all be using a snaffle all the time?

Katrina Sanders says, “It is my philosophy that contact should have no bearing on collection and is, in fact, a pitfall that plagues modern sport riding of any discipline.  In my opinion, we should also move away from the idea of “frame”.  It is a concept that promotes a false sense of connection that, while may be visually appealing, is contrary to creating a horse that can end up in true self-carriage and collection.” Katrina believes that proper biomechanics supersede the notions of “frame” or collection

Nicole Chastain Price agrees that a snaffle bit with constant contact for a Western Dressage horse should NOT be the standard. More contact may be required at the lower levels while a horse is developing balance, but there is no real collection at these levels.

Katrina goes on to explain, “Contact is merely reflective of the level of communication that the rider has with the horse.  I use the snaffle as a signal tool to be used in the corners of the lips.  If I am working on collection and feel that I am not achieving good communication, I usually go back to a snaffle or hackamore to review foundation work. “

The Curb and Proper Contact

Is the curb bit a better choice? And can there be contact when using a curb that is NOT pulling? How?

With her Vaquero background,  Katrina Sanders promotes having a slight “float” in the reins, no matter which equipment is used, while also avoiding overly draped reins which are as poor a communication as pulling or holding.  She says, “I would like to see that the horses my riders are guiding are achieving appropriate self-carriage for the level which they are competing while the riders are tactful enough with their hands to be able to communicate clearly with minimal movement from their hands.   As mentioned above, pulling or holding with a shanked bit with a curb can cause tremendous discomfort and possibly pain in the horse and should be avoided at all costs.”

Kathleen Elliot reminds us that any bit can be severe in the wrong hands. She advises riders to really do their home work on the best suited bit for their horse. There are many options to choose from, and her goal is always to use the bit that helps to create a great partnership .

Knowing how a bit functions, says Ann Marie Avansino, is the key to choosing that right one for the job.  And the right bit for the horse may change depending on who is riding. “In every classical school of thought a horse is started in a snaffle and as a horse moves up the training levels into self carriage we then begin to add the leverage of the curb. The model of a finished bridle horse working cattle begins his training in a snaffle, then bosal and finally a curb is an art guided mainly by time. A snaffle delivering sideways control functions at its best two handed. It is my opinion in Western Dressage, whether it is the horse or the rider the Introductory and Basic levels should be riding two handed in a snaffle. If and when the horse is at a level of training to carry the curb bit it should be done one handed as to show the level of training of a finished Western horse and rider. A finished horse is able to move easily between a snaffle or a curb, as self carriage is not solely dependent on the bit. In an ideal situation I would have an Intro rider use a snaffle and on the same horse, if trained to a higher level, a Level 3 rider ride one handed in the curb.”

On how to achieve contact without pulling, Nicole Chastain Price has this advice for us. “The key is to remember to half halt and release and not allow the horse to lean or depend on the bit to control the speed or direction.  By using your seat, weight and leg aids to consistently support a rein aid the hope is that you will gradually replace your rein aids with your other aids in the same progression that your horse is understanding to control his body and balance. I also tell my students to engage the back of their arms, their legs and their core to maintain contact without ever engaging the biceps or backward pulling muscles- the horse may choose to lean into us when they are developing their balance but that is very different from us engaging our biceps and pulling.”

From the Judge’s Perspective  – The Curb

How can a rider tell if they are using their bit correctly? How does a judge tell?

Judge Nicole Chastain Price understands that any bit may need to be more engaged at one time or another, and, “To judge what is happening in a split second or picture is not a fair assessment of what happens during the whole ride, nor is the mouth the only point of reference to determine what is going on with the bigger picture.”

To determine if too much pressure is being applied, she says, “I see the curbs engaging past 45 degrees as I am judging. Often times a horse will be mouth gaping throughout the ride and the curb is well engaged.  Sometimes I can tell the horse is just tense and locking in his back or neck but sometimes the riders are using the curb as crutch to hold the horse together to make up for a lack of correct collection, balance or control. This, of course is going to take each movement down in points and will be noted in the collectives at the end of the test with a comment and also reflected in the scores there as well. Many times I will circle the purpose of the test to draw rider’s attention to the objectives such as “light contact”. This is not regular dressage and it is not ok for horses to lean on the bit or to be being pulled around. Not that it should ever be ok in any discipline.”

 

It’s clear from their responses that our CAWDA professionals are passionate about our sport and where it is going! It is wonderful to know that our members  are out there, putting the sport to the test and knowing that as it grows and develops our organization has experienced, educated people to help guide it along.  Like we all keep hearing, It’s About The Journey, so keep riding!

The trainers who participate in these articles do so in response to my often frantic, late arriving questions, and they never fail to step up and shed some more light into our Western Dressage Journey. For more information on the folks who helped me find the words for this article, please visit them at their sites:

Ann Marie Avansino: http://www.cawda.org/ann-marie-avansino/ and http://www.wildwinefarm.com/index.html

Nicole Chastain Price: http://www.cawda.org/nicole-chastain-price/ and http://www.nicolechastain.com/

Kathleen Elliot: http://www.cawda.org/kathleen-elliott/ and http://westerndressagetrainer.com/

Katrina Sanders: http://www.cawda.org/katrina-sanders/ and http://www.ksclassicaleq.com/