Beyond the Snaffle Bit
By Patti Hudson
Western Horseman, April 1996
Trainer and clinician Wil Howe has nothing against the snaffle, but he feels that there is a tendency among today’s western riders to see it as an end, rather than a means.
He sees many horses being ridden for a long time in what he considers primarily a schooling bit. He compares it to holding a child back a grade when the child is ready to move on.
"If you hold someone in a retarded state, they start to resent," Wil says.
With a child, the goal is to progress through the grades and obtain a complete education. Wil applies the same standard to horses. For him, a horse’s education is not complete until the horse is in a leverage bit and willingly responding to rein and leg aids. His clinics and training techniques are designed to advance horse and rider toward a finished horse. Wil sees anything that retards training progress as an insult to the learning abilities of both horse and rider.
The desire to move a horse beyond the snaffle in no way diminishes Wil’s regard for the device. He has competed successfully in snaffle bit futurities and has great respect for snaffle bit trainers.
"In the early stages, I need to pull the horse," he explains. Because the snaffle allows the rider to turn the horse’s head, it lets Wil teach a young horse to let his nose lead his body. "I want my horse to always look where he’s going," Wil says.
When your horse is working well in a snaffle, it’s hard to think of moving to another bit, but Wil believes to reach the final goal (a finished horse) you must advance beyond the pulling stage of a non-leverage bit. Passing to higher level supports and encourages the horse’s overall development. Advancing to a leverage bit, he says, is like moving up to a car with power steering and power brakes. You have more exacting control, the horse is easier to handle, and you get a better ride. It also has the practical application of allowing you to operate the horse one-handed.
Wil doesn’t want anyone to think of a bigger bit as the solution to any problems they might be experiencing with their horse.
"A bigger bit can mean bigger problems," he says. If the horse has a problem but doesn’t have a good foundation, advancing him to a leverage bit may compound the problem.
"The horse needs to operate not though pain, but through willingness and understanding. You can do anything with a horse who is willing and giving," the trainer says. Wil finds that this kind of cooperation comes when certain prerequisites have been met. They are part of what he calls the ABC’s to a finished horse. They are the foundation on which he builds the horse’s higher education. Without this foundation, the horse cannot graduate to higher levels of performance.
Before leaving the snaffle, the horse should be able to give to the bit at a walk, trot, and canter. "Braking at the poll is a change in the horse’s state of mind. A more willing attitude develops, " Wil says. This change helps the horse become more receptive to learning what he must know before advancing to a leverage bit. The horse should be able to work in a circle, his head bent slightly to the inside with his body following it in the arc. Additionally, the horse should stop, back up, roll back over his hocks, and be capable of performing turns on the haunches and turns on the forehand, all with a willing attitude.
"The horse should respond with respect, not fear," Wil says. When all this is accomplished, Wil feels the horse should move on. His education should not be hindered by holding him back in the lower grades.
Wil describes the transition from snaffle to leverage bit as going from pulling to pushing. The transition actually begins in the early stages of training.
First, with a snaffle, Howe uses both hands on the reins to direct side-to-side movements. He refers to the direct rein as his pulling rein. That rein pulls the horse’s head in the direction of travel, while the opposite rein does little more than support. At this stage, Wil asks, then waits for the horse to respond, whether he’s asking for bending or for collection.
"I ask first. If I don’t get a response, I say ‘excuse me.’ If that doesn’t work, I ask with more insistence. People think because they’re dealing with a 1,200 pound animal, they’ve got to get rough, but it isn’t necessary because horses are such sensitive animals."
As the horse progresses, Wil develops the supporting rein into what he calls a pushing rein. Still using both hands, Wil allows the pushing rein to make contact with the horse’s neck, helping the pulling rein to guide the horse. The horse may still be in a loose-ring snaffle, or perhaps in a transition bit that combines leverage with snaffle action, such as a shanked bit with a broken or jointed mouthpiece. As long as the horse needs the aid of a pulling rein, the bit must have loose rings or cheeks that allow lateral pulling action.
As the horse advances, the pushing rein begins to do more and more while the pulling rein does less and less. Wil uses leg aids in conjunction with the rein to give the horse added encouragement to move away from pressures. He prefers to use leg and spur sparingly.
"This will keep the horse light. He won’t come to rely too heavily on leg aids for every move," Howe says.
Eventually, it is possible to direct the horse by holding the reins in one hand. The pushing rein becomes the prominent aid, although some pulling may still be necessary. Pushing and pulling with one hand can be accomplished by holding the reins as shown in the photograph. At this stage, the snaffle might still be in use, but it is more likely that the horse will be wearing a loose-cheek curb.
When a pushing rein is all the horse needs to execute the foundation exercises, he is ready to wear a fixed-cheek leverage bit. The horse is supple and now operates on a loose rein with a willing, energetic attitude. He no longer requires schooling bits.
Wil says that a rider might experience some sort of bitting problem that makes him reluctant to move beyond a snaffle. But the trainer believes that most problems can be solved with a little thought.
"There’s no such thing as a hard mouth; just a hard mind. If a horse is soft mentally, he’ll have a soft mouth." The trainer suggests rebuilding the foundation and working on the horse’s attitude before resorting to mechanical solutions, such as more severe bits or tie-downs to solve behavior problems.
Not all bit problems are mental. Ill-fitting bits, improperly adjusted curb straps, as well as dental problems can cause a good horse to go bad. Wil tells of a gelding about to be shipped to the slaughterhouse who turned out to have a badly abscessed tooth.
Wil Howe doesn’t want riders to get so caught up in the training process that they forget the goal---a finished horse.
For more information on finishing your horse, order From Foundation to Finished© or visit the School of Fine Horsemanship training page.
A native Texan, Patti Hudson now lives near Long Creek, Oregon. She is a full-time free-lance writer who enjoys everything from ranch work to dressage.
Growing up on a farm gave Wil an early exposure to horses, but it wasn’t until he was in his mid-twenties that he first rode in a saddle. In the following years he moved around the West, working on ranches and training horses. He developed a reputation as a fine reinsman, and became known for his finished geldings. For five years running he had the high-selling gelding at the prestigious Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale in Red Bluff, California.
Today he has buyers from all over the country contacting him at his Oregon ranch. He strives to match horse and buyer and guarantees all his geldings, provided that the buyer takes a lesson in which Howe explains his training techniques and shows the new owner how to relate to the horse.
Wil’s clinics and the school he conducts at his ranch grew from buyers wanting to learn more about his techniques and requests from others who had seen his horses. Wil wife, Beverly, assists and teaches right alongside Wil. Together they cover everything from a colt’s first ride to reining and cow work. "I encourage people to ask me anything and I won’t make them feel dumb. The questions that may sound stupid at first usually turn out to be the important ones," he says. He has been conducting clinics for the last 10 years.
If Wil isn’t at his ranch in Oregon, he and Beverly are on the road giving clinics or performing at fairs and rodeos with Blue Boy, a 2,200 pound Brahma steer that Wil trained. Blue Boy is ridden under saddle and wearing a bridle. He neck reins and even picks up the correct lead.