When do you transition from the snaffle to a shank bit?

Chumley bit from SpillerQuestion: I’m a little confused about the timing for changing bits. I have been using an O ring snaffle for almost 2 years. My gelding is 5. He knows basic stuff – stop, forward, turns and I can ride him on the road and trails. I may want to show him some day and I know I can’t ride him in a snaffle for western. How do I transition into a harder bit? When do I do that?

Answer from April Reeves: Thanks for the good question. I suspect lots of riders are at this crossroad.

If you never plan to show your horse, I see no real reason to move into any bit with shanks.

Horses should be able to perform every movement you want without changing bits, as long as you have kept the horse light and responsive; in other words, a trained mouth. In western, they should be able to stop, slide, turn, rollback, spin, change leads, neck rein, rate speed, stay between the reins, cut cattle and anything else you want him to do.

In English, they should be able to stop, turn, rollback, change leads, neck (bearing) rein from pressure, stay between the reins, change gaits and speed, jump, engage and elevate with connection and the beginnings of collection.

Once you move into a bit with shanks you begin to refine what the horse already knows. Along with understanding hand to bit aids, and being obedient through each movement, the horse should have some degree of safety to his personality. I don’t like to see a hot horse with a spooky, unpredictable attitude, move into a tougher bit to calm him down, even though he may be well trained.

So to answer the ‘when’ part, when the horse has met the above conditions, he is ready for refining into a shank bit.

What bit is simply a matter of being able to try various shank lengths and mouthpieces. Below is a short list of bits I like (or don’t) and how they work.

Tom thumb Bit

Tom thumb Bit

Tom thumb snaffle – don’t own one, never will, don’t like them and this is why. They provide just enough pressure to peck and poke at the mouth without giving true, direct communication.

Shank bits are meant to be direct in what they ask the horse to do. Tom Thumb bits do not have this ability. They confuse the horse, and they have no place in my tack room.

‘S’ shanks – as long as they have a solid mouthpiece, I don’t mind the shorter

S Shank bit

S Shank bit

shank, but again, if they have a broken snaffle mouth and short shanks, I have no purpose for them. Otherwise, they are good choices to start with.

Shank lengths – again, if the mouthpiece is solid, I can try a shorter shank, and when the shank gets longer, I will experiment with broken and solid mouthpieces.

The Curb bit

The Curb bit

Curb mouthpieces – most horses work in a curb of various sizes and shapes. You may want to try a Mullen mouth; they have a gentle lift in the middle, to accommodate the tongue.

When I drive or need to use a Pelham, I like to use a straight bar mouthpiece. I have had good response from them especially on horses that could not handle high ports.

Higher ports – there is purpose in high ports. They give very direct communication, and are for very

Mona Lisa Mouthpiece

Mona Lisa Mouthpiece

trained horses and riders (although all shank bits are).

When you get into high ports with copper rollers and covered fronts (see first photo), you are now asking something very specific to the horse. While they appear to be ‘evil’ or for hard mouthed horses, the opposite is true. They help to keep a horse vertical and soft, as when the horse elevates his head, the weight of the bit naturally puts pressure on the upper palate of the mouth, and encourages the horse to drop his head. There is no need for the rider to add rein pressure; the bit does the work for you, if the horse is soft and educated.

These are my favorite bits to show in. I have had 5 that I have used on almost every horse I have shown throughout the years. Their sizes vary, a few shanks are longer, but the mouthpieces are mostly the same. It is the rare horse that won’t accept them.

Twisted wire snaffle bit

Twisted wire snaffle bit

Twisted and chain mouthpieces – I have used twisted mouthpieces in the past, but that was the past, and they now collect dust in a corner. I may find a horse that could use it for the odd tune-up, but that would be the only purpose for it, and the tune-up would only last for one ride. Chain mouthpieces are just plain cruel. Get lessons.

Myler bits – if you don’t know what Myler bits are, go to their site (Mylerbits.com) and get educated. They have some very well made shank bits with interchangeable mouthpieces. Some tack stores have a rental program that allows you to try the bit.

Chain Mouthpiece

Chain Mouthpiece

Do be warned, and I need to repeat this, they are meant to be in skilled hands on educated horses.

When it comes to advanced bits, you often have to experiment a lot. If you have worked a lot of horses in your lifetime, you get to know what the horse will transition into. There is no science to it; it’s trial and error.

Don’t just put a new bit on your horse and get on. Stand on the ground beside him and pick up the reins. Ask him to give laterally, and bend both sides laterally. Watch how the horse releases to the pressure. If the chin strap is too tight try adjusting it until it’s not too loose or too tight.  When you do mount for the first time, stand there for a minute and do the same exercises before walking away.

Don’t try gag bits; they are for riders who either have no interest in learning how to get a horse soft and educated properly, or for riders who have a high degree of ability and softness and control; Professionals. These bits only exacerbate the problem in the wrong hands. You need to address the source and fix it.

Futurity bit: one of my favorite for starting a horse

Futurity bit: one of my favorite for starting a horse

Keep your riding style the same when trying a new bit for the first time. You can scare a horse easily if you ride rougher in a harsher bit, and set yourself back in your training. If I think the horse is not ready that day for the transition, I listen to that. If it’s windy and all the horses have lost their brains that morning, I will wait. I would rather they lose their brain in a snaffle.

As for how long to ride in this new bit once you found one – I like to use them about once a week or so. I use them for shows mostly, and continue to work in the snaffle, especially when I take the horse out on trails. I have not found a reason to ride a horse full time in one once they are familiar and comfortable with their advanced bit, other than the odd reining horse.

So, to recap, keep your horse in a snaffle for most of his life. Use a bit stronger snaffle such as a twisted wire to tune him up once in a while, for one lesson (unless you are not good with your hands, or inexperienced). Use a shank bit once a week or when he needs to be reminded of it, especially before a show.

I also think from your question, that you have a bit more training to do before you make the transition. I feel you may have some holes in your training.

3 responses to “When do you transition from the snaffle to a shank bit?

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