Tack Recommendations

Regarding Martingales: In my opinion, although martingales are often useful tools for training purposes, they are not appropriate or safe tack for use when hacking out where a horse may become spooked then "brace and run". When a horse is braced and running the rider may be prevented from raising the horses head in order to break the brace and then turn the horse to redirect energy if the horse is wearing a martingale.

Generally , no wrinkles are needed in the corners of your horse's mouth for bits, when a bit is not too high in the mouth, there would generally be no need for TIGHT nose bands and especaily no nose flashes to keep the mouth closed (loose nose bands for aesthetics reasons is another matter). Pulling a bit so tight as to cause wrinkles in the corners of the mouth is a main cause for gaping and horse's putting their tongues over the bit. Generally, with a more loose bit (not dangling but fitted into the correct space in the mouth - midway between the molars and the incisors or wolf teeth and/or tusks) the horse will carry it on his tongue, keep his lips shut creating a soft vacuum, sucking on it and will not need to clamp down on it with his teeth nor gap.

Use softer bits, ie. smooth mouth snaffles and the bits being made to prevent pinching the tongue (due to full collapse), such as Mylar, French Link and Billy Allen styles as well as not too high ported single straight bar bits (named grazing or pelham, etc) Riders should use a "chin strap" in order to prevent accidentally pulling the bit though the mouth. Later on, curb straps, shanked bits (double bits where required for competition like Dressage) may be introduced once the horse already has a good idea of the feel and follow of bits, reins, etc. and light handed rider instruction can be used.

Riding from time to time in rope halters (or hackamores, etc.) without a bit will give the horse a break from bits and also serve to soften the mouth.
Generally, there should be no need for double bits or heavy bits and no need for martingales and tie downs, draw reins, etc. to control horses, as these mechanical means are meant primarily for training purposes, not riding.

Regarding Bits

As a trainer I am always being asked a variety of horse-related questions. I think the single most common one asked is "what kind of bit should I use on my horse?". In my opinion, when doing any training whilst using a bit, use a simple snaffle bit (either straight bar or jointed). If the horse is well-trained and responsive, he stops, backs, and neck reins all on a light cue/aid, then a curb or grazing bit may be used.

Some bit materials cause electrolysis when the metal touches the teeth (much as for humans when we touch tin foil , like gum wrappers, to our teeth). To avoid this uncomfortable situation to our horses most bit manufacturers will accept our request to have the teeth contact part of their bits made from sweet iron, copper or brass (for both jointed bits and fixed bits) -- none of which generate the uncomfortable feel as does chrome or stainless steel. There are also companies such as Happy Mouth that make their bits from a malleable plastic to give nervous horses something to chew on. These bits are also good for starting horses and I like to initially use a straight bit for this. 

There is one bit that you may wish to avoid , with problems such as unresponsiveness while stopping, backing, or turning, or even more severe problems like head tossing, shaking their heads, or rearing. The bit that may often be the source of such problems is the Tom Thumb snaffle . These three bits shown are not made of the most comfortable materials and are for bit shape identification purposes only.

Shown from left to right are a full cheek snaffle bit, the Tom Thumb bit, and a grazing type curb bit with a leather curb strap.

The Tom Thumb snaffle was originally designed as a transition bit. When a horse was far enough along that perhaps a snaffle was no longer necessary, but not far enough along to be moved into a curb bit, the Tom Thumb would be used. This would be great, if in fact, it made the transition simple and easy, which it doesn't. The Tom Thumb is commonly termed a snaffle bit because its mouthpiece is broken, or hinged, which is a trademark common to the true snaffle bits. That is where the similarities end.

On a true snaffle bit, the reins are attached to a relatively small, swiveling ring which could be considered a working part of the mouthpiece itself. When the rein is pulled, as you would do when asking the horse to turn, the ring that the rein is attached to moves completely away from the horse's mouth. The mouthpiece itself slides in the same direction, which causes the ring on the opposite side of the horse's mouth to apply pressure on that side. Because the horse is taught to go away from pressure, it then makes sense that if you are pulling to the left, and the pressure from the bit is on the right side of his mouth, he will naturally turn his head to the left. It is also a principle that is almost impossible to perform properly with the Tom Thumb, due to its design.


Unlike a true snaffle bit, the Tom Thumb has shanks similar to the ones found on a solid curb bit. It is to the bottom of these shanks that the reins are attached. The headstall is attached to the top of the shank, as is some type of curb strap which fits around the bottom of the horse's jaw, in the chin area. These shanks swivel and are attached to the bit's mouthpiece.

It is that one flaw in the bit's design that renders it almost totally useless when it comes to any kind of training which involves direct reining. Again, using direct reining in a snaffle bit, the horse is taught to move away from pressure. To turn to the right, the pressure is on the left side of the horse's mouth. To turn to the left, the pressure is on the right. There should be no other pressure being applied by the bit that could cause the horse to become confused.

Unfortunately, confusion is precisely what happens to a horse when the Tom Thumb is used. Because of its shanks, any attempt at direct reining results in pressure on several different areas around the horse's mouth. For instance, if you are asking the horse to turn to the left, you will be pulling on the left rein, with the idea that the pressure from the bit will be on the right side of the horse's mouth, thereby turning the horse left. However, because the rein is attached to the bottom of a swiveling shank, pulling on the rein results in the shank turning and tipping into the left side of the horse's face . When the shank tips, it also shifts the mouthpiece, which, in turn, puts pressure on the right side of the horse's mouth by pulling the right side of the bit into it. You now have pressure on both sides of the horse's mouth, as well as a shifting of the mouthpiece inside the mouth. Tipping the shank also results in the tightening up of the curb strap that is under the horse's chin. Suddenly, the simple act of asking the horse to turn to the left is no longer a simple act. The bit is applying so much pressure in so many places, that the horse has no clue as to what you were asking for in the first place. He then tries to tell you that he doesn't understand what you want by twisting his neck and shaking his head. Of course, we look at this as him being belligerent and not wanting to do what he was told. So, we simply apply more pressure to the rein which results in an even bigger fight on his part. Eventually, the horse does finally turn to the left - but only as a last resort. Before he does, he will first try several different options. Among these are: 1) turning to the right, because the left shank tipping into the side of his face is forcing him that way; 2) lifting his head as high as he can get it; 3) dropping his head as low as he can get it; 4) backing up. Rearing is also an option which sometimes happens as well.


Asking the horse to stop or back up, using a Tom Thumb, often results in confusion. The reason for this is, again, the bit's design. Pulling back on the reins causes the hinged mouthpiece of the bit to collapse and jut forward and then downward inside the horse's mouth, putting pressure on the horse's tongue. At the same time, the bottoms of the shanks (where the reins are attached) tip backward, causing the top of the shanks to tip forward. This, in turn, causes the curb strap to tighten under the horse's chin. Again, pressure is being applied in several different areas and this results in total confusion for the horse.

Neck reining with the Tom Thumb can also result in confusion on the horse's part. This is because the idea behind neck reining is to be able to turn the horse by applying light pressure on his neck from the rein. To turn to the right, the rein is laid on the left side of the horse's neck. To turn to the left, the rein is on the right side of his neck. When done properly, there should be no movement or involvement whatsoever on the part of the bit. The solid curb bit, because of its design, lends itself very well to the act of neck reining. When laying the rein on the horse's neck to turn him, even if slightly heavy pressure is being applied, the curb bit usually will not move in the horse's mouth. This helps to eliminate the possibility of mixed signals which could confuse the horse as opposed to the Tom Thumb bit's movements.


It is not meant to imply that the use of one of these bits is the only cause of unresponsive behavior in horses, or that the Tom Thumb is the only type of bit that will cause it.

After all, any kind of bit in the hands of an unknowing or uncaring rider can easily be misused and cause problems.

What is true is that this particular style of bit has been the cause of more problem behavior than any other and is definitely not recommended.

However, if you are currently using a Tom Thumb snaffle or any other type of similar bit and you are happy with the way your horse is responding, then by all means, don't switch it. If however, you are experiencing some or all of the problems mentioned and are currently using - or are thinking about trying - a Tom Thumb, then you may want to reconsider its use.