Not what it first seems
From reading elsewhere on this site, you will not be surprised to learn that all is not what it at first seems when it comes to the western curb bit. The perception is that it is a cruel piece of hardware. Something that just gives you lots more leverage when it comes to hauling on the poor old horse’s face. Hopefully, you have gathered that a well trained, well ridden western horse does not need any “hauling” at all. Indeed, if you are seen “getting into his face”, a judge can ask you to leave the arena.
Unfortunately, once again, we are skirting around an enormous subject. So, I apologise to those reading already with a good working knowledge of bits and bitting if you find nothing new here. My aim is only to introduce people to what we are about.
To recognise the various components in a curb bit, see the schematic picture of a very basic bit below:
The Curb Strap
The curb bit works with a curb strap which passes between the headstall or cheek rings under the horse’s lower jaw and rests in the curb groove there. The mouthpiece fits over the horse’s tongue and rests in the bars in the horse’s mouth. It works by literally clamping the horse’s lower jaw between the mouthpiece and curb strap at the same time as putting pressure on his poll.
Although the shank allows this to be possible with considerable force, the shank’s length is such that there is a considerable amount of movement with a gradually increasing pressure. Therefore, the horse gets much more warning that pressure is about to be applied and the opportunity to avoid it.
Positioning of the mouthpiece on the bars is critical. This is because the horse’s lower jaw bone tapers and is thinner at the lower end of the bars. To get this positioning right, adjust the headstall carrying the bit so that the mouthpiece is barely in contact with the corner of the horse’s mouth. The curb strap adjusts so that it hangs clear when the bit rests in the horse’s mouth. It only engages as the shank draws back through a rotation of about 45˚.
But all this comes quite a long way down the horse’s road in training towards the complete article and you will often find separate classes in western competition with the only distinction as to whether the rider is using a curb bit or a snaffle.
Progression to curb bit
Finesse comes with progress towards use of a curb bit. At this stage, horse and rider must be sensitive enough not to need the full force a curb bit can give. Instead, it allows small increments in pressure so that an altogether lighter touch is possible. Remember, in western riding body position, leg cues and reining have the most significance and the bit becomes a means of signalling rather than control.
The design and configuration of the curb bit are endless. There’s higher or lower porting in the mouthpiece according to the size of the horse’s tongue. And different ratios between the purchase and lever sections of the shank and various formations of rotating cheek pieces. To name but a few. And that’s before you start applying the “bling”. But the same considerations apply to the sparkly bits as they do to adornment on the western saddle. They might look good but don’t add anything to the western horse’s performance.
Compare the Bosal
To get the horse to the happy stage of comfort in a curb bit, you cannot beat a traditional bosal.
Many believe that this is just a crude form of hackamore. It’s true that the hackamore developed from it. However, to call it crude misunderstands how it works and how it’s best applied. Even many of its proponents don’t understand the working feature of the bosal. That is, it strokes the trigeminal nerve in the horse’s cheek. That tickles the nerve and encourages the horse to turn its head away from the tickle.
At the same time, the rider is bringing the mecate (a rope made from horse’s mane hair and quite spiky) into contact with the horse’s neck. This is on the side where the bosal is in contact. The horse learns to move his head away from the touch on his neck. Thus, you have a horse that turns from the touch of the rein on its neck.
So, there is not a lot of hauling around with a bosal either. They are made in different combinations of thickness and flexibility and get thinner/softer with progress in the the horse’s training.
For a comprehensive review of the various western bits, try A Bit About Bits