Tack & Gear

The Snaffle Bit with Benny Guitron

A horse wearing a bridle.

The legendary California trainer explains the mechanics and uses of the most basic bit of all: the snaffle.

“A bit,” says California horseman Benny Guitron, “is just a device to communicate with a horse.”

Guitron knows bits and horses. He’s piloted horses to wins in events ranging from working cow horse classes and reining to western pleasure. Horses and riders trained by Guitron have picked up dozens of world championships in the American Quarter Horse Association, American Paint Horse Association, and National Reined Cow Horse Association.

Training from his Merced, Calif., ranch, Benny Guitron is an all-around horseman of the traditional school. “I’m in the horse business,” he states, and Guitron Ranch’s 50 or so stalls may, on any given day, house reiners, cutters, rope horses, pleasure horses, English prospects, cow horses, and perhaps even some gentle trail horses.

How does Guitron communicate effectively with his ever-changing inventory of sale and show horses? In addition to nearly a half-century’s experience in the saddle, Guitron’s tack room and its impressive array of bits hold many keys to his success.

Here, Guitron outlines his technique and approach to properly use the snaffle bit.

The legendary California trainer explains the mechanics and uses of the most basic bit of all: the snaffle.
California trainer Benny Guitron. Photo by Suzanne Drnec

Benny’s Bitting Basics

No two horses are alike, so no one bridle will work on every horse. In today’s show horse world, when I’m preparing horses for youth and amateur and open competition, trying to find the right bridle for the horse and the rider takes time and experimenting.

There’s all kinds of theory and talk about ratios and technical aspects of bitting these days, but for me, the proof is between my hands and the horse’s mouth. I don’t care what a bit’s supposed to do in a catalog or in a store; I care what it does on a horse, and the only way to know that is to take time to use it, evaluate, and learn.

I try to make an educated guess about what a horse might like. Trying to find a bit that the horse is comfortable with is my goal, so I consider the variations and shapes of the horse’s mouth and might try four or five bits to find one that fits him physically and psychologically.

For example, a horse with thick lips is probably going to have a thicker tongue, too, and need something with more tongue relief. Most of today’s horses, though, have thinner lips and tongues than we used to see. These horses will respond to a lighter bit, with more subtle signals.

I’ll wait a horse out in a bit for more than a few days before I decide if I want to try something else. As long as I can pick him up and get some feel, then I want to keep exploring that bit completely before I go on to another one. I’m staging a comparison between several bits, and I have to really pay attention to the feedback from the horse to see if I’m on the right track or not. That’s hard to do when we get in a hurry to show a horse or sell him, but I try to accomplish the same result as if I had all the time in the world. In the old days, the horse spent a year at every level of bitting, but that isn’t economically feasible today, so it’s up to the rider to help the horse learn faster.

A horse’s mouth gets shallower with age, which can make his regular bit uncomfortable as his teeth and palate flatten. Dental care is important all along, and so is knowing how savvy a horse is in the show ring. When he’s young and naive and green and hasn’t shown a lot, you might get by with less, versus an older horse who’s a little bolder and needs a little more bridle. That’s why you have so many different kinds of bridles: Every horse is an individual, and the relationship between horse and rider is always changing, hopefully evolving.

The legendary California trainer explains the mechanics and uses of the most basic bit of all: the snaffle.
How do bits work? “Ask the horse,” says Benny Guitron. “He’ll tell you if you’ll listen.” Photo by Suzanne Drnec

I like a little wrinkle where the bit meets the lips, but if a colt won’t pick up the bridle, I’ll hang it a little lower and let him learn to pick up the bit, maybe learn to play with the roller if it has one.

Personally, I’d rather see a horse open his mouth a little when he’s learning to wear a bit instead of keeping his jaw rigidly closed. If his jaw is tight and stiff, then his poll is tight and stiff, and there’s tension along the horse’s neck and spine. That makes for a rigid horse. When a horse uses his jaw, he hinges his poll, so if a horse is a little mouthy it doesn’t bother me. He hasn’t learned how to hold the bit, but he’s trying.

It’s not the bit that’s inherently harsh, but the way it’s used. I mean, you can hurt a horse with anything — you can hurt him with a halter if that’s your intention. You, the rider, still have control over the whole situation. Most people don’t need much more than a simple snaffle, but for high-performance training, bits are like tools to a carpenter; they make the job easier and the finished product more attractive. Use what works and no more, and be aware of the subtle differences with every bit you try.

Buy a bunch of bits and try them on different horses. I do. Invest a lot of time, and learn what each bit does or doesn’t do. Consider the horse, rider, and bit as individual elements that can add up in dozens of ways to create different effects, then pick your favorites and use them. No bit will solve a horse’s problem, but it can help ease you through some tough situations.

Favorite Snaffles

Eggbutt Snaffle

Photo by Suzanne Drnec

This smooth-iron snaffle, made by Jeremiah Watt, is about the mildest bit you can put on a horse. It’s great for starting 2-year-olds: getting them broke, teaching them leg aids, stopping, turning and changing leads. This is also a good bit to go back to with an older horse if you are just going to exercise him, and it would be my choice of the snaffles for a recreational rider.

This design is a modified eggbutt, which refers to the shape where the ring joins the mouthpiece. This smooth design can’t pinch and has a nice weight to it. The mouthpiece is fixed — it doesn’t slide up and down like a loose-ring bit — which some horses seem to prefer, and the mouthpiece itself is straight, which gives a different feel than most snaffles. When I pull straight back on this bit, it makes definite contact with the mouth, instead of just wrapping around the contours of a horse’s tongue like a traditional curved snaffle. This straight mouth gives a definite signal with contact, and I think you have a little bit better chance of developing a good mouth with it.

I always use a chin strap with a snaffle, which helps keep the bit from slipping through the horse’s mouth when I pull from the side. The chin strap — leather, braided, cord, or whatever material it happens to be — helps keep the bit where it belongs, centered in the horse’s mouth. I also always use a browband headstall with snaffles. It helps keep the bit even, and it’s traditional too. To me, riding a horse in a split eared headstall and a snaffle bit is like going to the opera in your bib overalls — you’re out of place!

Benny Guitron Snaffle

Photo by Suzanne Drnec

This particular bit I designed, so I guess it’s called a Benny Guitron. It has that straight mouthpiece I like, with a heavy, loose ring. I make them with a wide mouthpiece, about 5½ inches and I have a 6-inch one, so there’s not much chance of pinching a horse’s lip with the ring, and it’s made from plain iron. I’m not a metallurgist, but you just couldn’t get the feel, the weight, that makes this bit work if you made it out of stainless steel.

I wouldn’t use this on a 2-year-old for his first few rides, but I recommend it for a 3-year-old or a more experienced horse. It’s been a good bit for me on futurity horses, to help tune them in to subtle rein pressure. My thought, in designing this bit, was that the heavy ring definitely releases on a slack rein. This obvious signal helps teach a show horse to keep his head in a balance point, where he can feel the ring loose in his mouth, and feel it move for sure if I have to pick up the slack in my reins. The pull/release signal that we use to train a horse is heightened by this bit, so it’s really good for a warm-up or training a snaffle bit pleasure horse, reiner, or cow horse.

This bridle has cord reins, but I usually just use plain harness-leather split reins on my snaffles. These are round parachute cord that feels good and a little stiff with the heavier rings of this snaffle — I just like the feel of the combination. I’d say this is the most useful of the snaffle bridles for a professional to use.

Crow’s Foot Snaffle

Photo by Suzanne Drnec

This is a snaffle bit with what I call a crow’s foot noseband. The crow’s foot is iron, wrapped with leather to be softer, and is supported by a string that ties to the horse’s forelock or the browband. The bit is a smooth snaffle with a straight mouth, but I made it from iron stock that is more square than rounded for a little different feel. The rings are stainless and don’t rotate, which I prefer for the crow’s foot. The rings fixed on the mouthpiece create a more consistent signal than a loose ring bit.

This combination of snaffle and crow’s foot works the horse’s nose a little, helps him break in the poll and tip his nose in more than a plain snaffle does. If you want the horse to relate to the pull of a snaffle, but want to stay off his mouth, you can adjust the crow’s foot snugger on the nose so that when you pull on your reins, he will feel pressure across his nose before he gets a pull in the mouth.

This is a great bridie for training a young horse on cattle. It helps him to turn a little faster on the fence without having to haul on his mouth. Because the crow’s foot puts a little pull on the nose, and the bit works the mouth, it’s a gentle way to help the horse learn to turn quickly and correctly. For any horse who has a problem breaking at the poll, the crow’s foot helps encourage that yet keeps the horse in a snaffle, which is something that a more experienced rider sometimes needs to be able to do.

Half and Half Snaffle

California trainer Stan Fonsen designed this snaffle, and it’s a really good standard. The little bit of twisted wire keeps a sensitivity on the horse’s tongue, but the smooth section won’t pinch or cut the horse’s lips. It’s more than a smooth snaffle, but not as strong as a traditional wire snaffle. It can be mild or have more authority, depending on the horse and how high or low the bit is positioned in the mouth

Half and Half Snaffle Bit
Photo by Suzanne Drnec

This snaffle is also iron, with heavy rings like some of my other snaffles and, again, the straight rather than contoured mouthpiece.

I really like the feel of this bit and it works well on a lot of horses who have been ridden in a lot more bridle. We always try to use just enough bit to get the job done, but not intimidate the horse so he is afraid to take a hold.

You can get a lot of training done with something like this, with minimal confusion to the horse. It’s smooth and mild unless the horse doesn’t stay where he should, and then you pick up your hands and there’s a little wire to remind the horse he needs to yield to you. I think this half and half is as good a training snaffle as you can have, for someone who has a good feel in his hands and is an experienced rider.

Gag Snaffle

Gags work in different ways, depending on how they are set up. Gags act on the mouth as well as the poll and behave like a regular snaffle until you apply rein pressure; then the bit slides up in the horse’s mouth, and the cord or cable applies pressure across the horse’s poll.

Gag Snaffle Bit
Photo by Suzanne Drnec

This simple little bridle has a smooth mouthpiece, about the same width and diameter as a snaffle I might show in. The cord that slides through the bit is small and moves freely, and you can put a little Vaseline® on that cord to make the rings slide even more easily for a quick release. Smaller diameter cord moves faster than larger and also puts more concentrated pressure on the poll, and the fairly large rings on this bit also help the cord slide easily.

I might use this bridle to warm up a horse at a show to keep him light, to help him stay off my hands. It’s a little better than a straight snaffle because of the poll pressure effect, and it helps a horse to drop off the bridle and stay round, especially in a stop. stay round, especially in a stop. This also works if I feel my horse is breaking more in his withers than his poll as he stops — again, it helps him stay round. A gag bridle is not for everyday use or for inexperienced riders, but can be a good tool for a professional to help tune a horse.

This article was originally published in the July 2001 issue of Western Horseman.

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