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5 Mistaken Kindnesses

There are a few things I commonly see that, while with either can good intentions or naivety, can have negative effects on the horse. I hope this blog post helps dispel some myths and can help you on your journey with your horse!

  1. Loose Curb Chain

Curb chains (or curb straps, but I will call them chains for simpicity sake) on a leverage bit can look a bit intimidating, especially those made from chain instead of leather or those wrapped in padding. It may be tempting to adjust the chain on the looser side in an effort to be more kind to your horse. You may have also heard that curb chains should be adjusted so that you can fit 2 fingers between the horse's jaw bones and the chain at rest. This is an unfortunate myth and a common mistaken kindness.

However, the curb chain is not there for decoration or a safety feature. It is an essential element to the lever system which curb/weymouth/pelham bits operate. The curb chain's function is to prevent over-rotation of the bit and stabilize the "floating fulcrum" of this lever system. It is to be adjusted so that the cheek piece (shank) does not rotate more than 45 degrees upon contact. This prevents excessive poll pressure exerted by the purchase (part of the cheek piece above the mouthpiece) and also ensures the mouthpiece of the bit does not significantly change its working angle. In the event where the mouthpiece has a port, a correctly fitted curb chain will also prevent this port from damaging the horse's palate.

On the flip side, a curb chain fitted too tightly will too quickly transfer the rein tension to the curb before its action can be effective, exerting a tremendous amount of pressure on both the lower jaw, tongue, and bars.

There are many types of curb chains and straps on the market. If using a chain, a double linked variety will conform to the horse's anatomy better than a single linked type and will therefore more evenly distribute pressure. There are synthetic and leather guards that can be fit around curb chains if one is concerned with chafing. Curb straps made from elastic and leather are also available.

On this topic, it is important to note that curb chains should always be fitted with a lip strap to secure it in the "curb groove" (close to the horse's chin) where the jaw bones are more protected. While this is considered standard practice, this is rarely seen, unfortunately.

2. Using a "Poll Relief" Crown Piece

If your horse has a sensitive poll or was diagnosed with a poll injury, your first reaction may be to explore one of the many "poll relief" bridles on the market to alleviate pressure in this area. While you have all the right intentions, this is not a recommended route to relieve your horse's poll.

What these crown pieces do is "bridge" over the poll and support with extra padding on either side. The problem with this is that the extra padding and reduced surface area creates more pressure on either side of the poll, which is often just as sensitive. These also create quite a bit of bulk behind the ears which are sensitive and can create discomfort.

There are a tremendous amount of nerves that originate near this area and run alongside the poll and TMJ. Avoiding excess pressure in this area is key for the horse's comfort and well being.

If bridging the poll itself isn't going to help, then what are your options? My recommendation is always the following:

  1. Remove the noseband or loosen considerably. A tight noseband is a significant contributing factor to poll pressure when bridled.

  2. Use a bit that does not create poll pressure from its action. The Neue Schule Poll Pressure Guide (click HERE) is a great reference. My go-to cheek piece types for poll pressure relief are a baucher (hanging cheek), loose ring, eggbutt, and D-ring.

  3. Eliminate the use of all gadgets and attachments - including but not limited to: fly bonnet, standing martingale / tie-down, running martingale, draw reins, chambon, neck stretchers and the like.

  4. Utilize the help of a certified bit & bridle fitter to ensure the bridle you are using does not create additional pressures in sensitive areas including the poll and ensure the bit is adjusted appropriately in the horse's mouth.

3. Using a Thick Mouthpiece

Most equestrians have heard at some point that a thin bit is more harsh than a thick bit. But what constitutes a thick or thin bit? If you are subject to FEI dressage rules, you may be under the impression that anything under 12mm thickness is too harsh. And since so many bits on the market today are over 16mm, you may not consider what an upper limit is on mouthpiece thickness. The harmful effects of using a bit that is too thick are not often discussed.

An overly thick bit (18mm+) will compress the tongue even at rest, and will contact the palate. For horses with a large tongue, this may be especially uncomfortable and prevent the horse from closing his mouth and relaxing his jaw. Your horse may try to tell you this by leaning on the bit, trying to get his tongue over the bit, lolling his tongue out to one side, or other strange behaviors.

But what is too thin? It makes sense that a thin bit is harsh, as all the pressure from the reins are distributed over a smaller surface area within the mouth. It is generally accepted among lorinery scientists and accredited bit fitters that anything below 9mm is too thin and anything over 18mm is too thick.

How did we come upon this? I will go over this important topic more in another blog post, but the short version is this:

A formal study was conducted with 554 horses to determine oral dimensions related to bit size which showed the average space inside a horse's mouth (between the tongue and palate) available for a bit is 14mm with a standard deviation of 3.2mm (check out the article here:,causing%20compression%20of%20the%20tongue.) . This means the majority of horses can accommodate a bit with thickness between 10mm and 17mm, but a safer bet is to have a certified bit fitter out to assess your horse and determine the best thickness for them as an individual.

4. Fly Veils / Bonnets & Nose Nets to Prevent Head Shaking

Fly bonnets are very common among english riders and trail riders. They are designed to keep insects out of the horses ears (and sometimes eyes - like the old fashioned ones with "frill") to reduce head shaking.

Unfortunately, bonnets can cause more problems than they solve. As with any extra bulk added under the crown piece, this will add extra poll pressure. In the jumper ring, it is not unusual to see two bonnets layered on top of one another to help muffle the sound of the crowd. As you can imagine, this further increases the poll pressure and doubles the chances the fabric will bunch and cause discomfort.

A few more causes of irritation:

  • restricted ear movement

  • heat retention underneath bonnet which generates more sweat that can cause itching

  • bunching/sliding, as bonnets are typically unsecured in any other way than pressure from the crown piece and brow band

For all these reasons, it is reasonable to conclude that this may cause the horse to shake their head more than without.

If your horse frequently shakes his head, try removing any fly bonnets and apply wipe-on insect repellent around the ears. If this still does not work, check the bridle fit around the ears, poll, and TMJ. A tight brow band or poorly contoured crown piece can often be the culprit. If your horse is still shaking their head frequently, this could be due to nerve damage or a neurological condition that may be termed "head shaking syndrome" - can't hurt to have a vet take a look once you've eliminated some of these common variables and it is still a persistent problem.

A similar gadget gaining popularity in the jumper ring is the nose net. The intention is the same, to reduce head shaking from insects around the muzzle. A nose net is a thin mesh that attaches to the noseband and drapes over the muzzle. This is rarely effective as it brushes against the whiskers of the horse that can "tickle" and any shifting around the point of attachment can cause irritation, so head shaking upon use is likely. There is another unfortunate reason for their use which you should be aware of - nose nets can act as a subtle psychological restraint. Some horses feel that their breathing is restricted (and it certainly may be if this mesh is dirty) which can make them reluctant to forward movement. A horse that is prone to bolting may be discouraged from doing so by the feeling of the nose net. This does not work on all horses and some riders may use it as a distraction for a busy-minded horse during competition. For whatever reason it may be used, know it is more likely to cause head shaking than relieve it.

5. Padding on the Bridle is More Comfortable for the Horse

The biggest bridle fad right now is anatomical crown pieces with extra padding. It is so easy to market these over-engineered bridles, claiming they are more comfortable for your horse. And who doesn't want their horse to be more comfortable?

I apologize for sharing more bad news for you, but 9 times out of 10 this extra padding is actually less comfortable for the horse...

Extra padding means stiffer leather - any time you sew padding onto leather, its overall suppleness decreases. This means that the leather will not conform as easily to the horse, and the increased pressure distribution from its extra width is null and void. This is even more true with patent leather and rope nosebands that are already stiff. Sewing padding onto these only increases their stiffness and decreases the surface area which the bridle will make contact - creating pressure points. Supple leather will conform best to the horse's anatomy.

Look at the photo above - the crown piece is casting a shadow where it is gapping. This is not from a lack of poll pressure, I can assure you (just look how tight that noseband is!). This gapping is not something you will see with a plain 1" traditional crownpiece made of supple leather. This extra padding on the crown is, in the vast majority of cases, not providing the comfort and relief they are intending (similar to the poll relief crowns as explained above.

Particularly in regards to nosebands, additional padding increases the likelihood these will be over-tightened. An over-tightened noseband will restrict your horse's natural movement, significantly increase poll pressure, and may create nerve damage or mouth ulcers (yes, even with the padding!).

Dressage bridles with crank nosebands are a frequent culprit. In this second photo you can see this snug noseband and observe a few things:

  • Gapping at the side of the face,

  • Pushing bridle to the back of the ears and creating additional pressure at the poll,

  • Pressure point directly adjacent to the molars where the crank hardware rests.

If you use a crank noseband, even if it is loose, this extra bulk directly adjacent to the molars can create enough pressure to cause ulcers within the mouth, or even lacerations if your horse is due for a dental float or has some dental asymmetries or trauma.

Recently I conducted a poll on my Instagram to ask crank noseband users why they used a crank - 45% claimed it was for the additional padding! Know that padding on a tightly cranked noseband is not going to make the setup humane; this sewn-in padding can only compress by a few millimeters. Horses need at least 1.25" free space between the noseband and their nasal bone in order to naturally chew and mouth the bit without pain or damage to nasal structures and nerves.

Now, not all bridle padding is bad. If it is thin and the leather can be supple, it can be a fine option on a show bridle. And of course a loosely fitted padded cavesson is going to be better for the horse than a tightly fit thin (<3/4") leather noseband of any variety. However, if any part is bulky or stiff, you can be guaranteed it is adding pressure points.

I hope this is able to dispel some common misunderstandings and mistaken kindnesses, and clear the air on some recent "fads" of the industry. Are there any more you can think of? Drop a comment below!

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