Differences Between English and Western Snaffles

Is It a Snaffle or a Curb Bit?

Female rancher placing bridle and bit on horse
Bits like this Tom Thumb are erroneously called snaffles because they have a jointed mouthpiece. Hero Images / Getty Images

 You may hear of someone say they ride their horse in a western snaffle. Most of us would picture  something like a half-moon snaffle, or simple loose ring. And then you might notice the horse wearing a bit with shanks, sometimes long shanks. What kind of snaffle bits have shanks? The answer is none. What these people are doing is calling any bit with a jointed mouthpiece a snaffle bit.

 The confusion comes because the word snaffle is sometimes incorrectly used to describe some western bits that are actually curb bits.

If you ride Western, any bit with or without shanks and a jointed mouthpiece may  incorrectly be called a snaffle. But that doesn’t make it a curb bit. A jointed mouthpiece does not make a bit a snaffle bit. There is a very big difference between snaffle and curb bits, and one can't be the other regardless of what the mouthpiece may look like. 

Western "Snaffles"

Sometimes you will hear of a common bit like a Tom Thumb bit called a snaffle. This is because the Tom Thumb often has a jointed mouth. But the Tom Thumb or any other bit with leverage action is never a snaffle. There are many types of bits that have specific names and some, even though they are really (leverage) bits, might be referred to as a snaffle bit because it has a jointed mouthpiece. Many people refer to any bit with a jointed mouthpiece as a snaffle. This is incorrect. The Tom Thumb and any other bit with shanks are curb bits, which use a leverage action.

  So, if the bit has shanks, it is always a curb bit, and never a snaffle. 

The shanks on a curb bit do not have to be long to put some pressure over the top of the horse’s head, and behind the chin. That is how a curb bit works. So even a bit with two or three-inch shanks is a curb bit. A snaffle bit only puts pressure within the horse’s mouth, and some may put a small amount of pressure on the lips when the rein  aids are used.

English Bits

This doesn’t apply just to western riding bits. The Kimblewick or Kimberwick looks a lot like a snaffle. But, bits like a Kimberwick are not snaffles since they are leverage bits even though they have very short 'shanks' and look very similar to a loose ring English snaffle. Snaffle bits do not have shanks, nor do they use leverage action. And even though the Kimberwick may not have a lot of leverage action, there is still some. Any bit that has shanks, or uses leverage in any way is a curb bit. To call any sort of leverage bit a snaffle is erroneous.

How to Tell The Difference

So here is how to tell a curb bit from a snaffle bit. A snaffle bit will have one ring that both the headstall of the bridle and the reins attach to. It may have a straight, jointed, rolled, wired or any other type of mouthpiece. The most important feature, however, is that there is no pressure applied to the top of the head, or under the chin by means of a chin strap or chain.

A curb bit has shanks, and the reins and headstall attach to different rings or slots on the bit. When the reins are pulled back, the bit works on the horse’s mouth, over the top of the head, and under the chin. Again, this bit may have any type of mouthpiece.