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A Dangerous Combination - The Combination Bit

Ever seen this 'contraption' in the jumper ring, barrel racing event, or a tack shop, and wonder how the mechanics worked?

Manufacturers state that a "combination bit" or "combination hackamore" combines a hackamore and a curb bit, and even make claims that this more evenly distributes pressure from the reins. There are several different kinds, but functionally they are all similar. In this blog post I will break down the mechanics and the signals it sends to the horse.


Features:

(A) Purchase - this is where the bit connects to the headstall of the bridle

(B) Noseband - similar to a hackamore noseband, but many brands will have this in rope or wrapped metal

(C) Back Strap - note this is not called a curb chain (curb chains are fit lower in the curb groove), although this has a similar purpose, it is more harsh as it acts on unprotected jaw bones.

(D) Snaffle Ring - a rein could be connected here which would change some of the mechanics and of course the severity would be lessened. Unfortunately this is rarely seen.

(E) Mouthpiece - severity and and the effects of pressure in the mouth are highly dependent on the mouthpiece type. The more joints, the more harsh this setup will be.

(F) Stopper - This is a key feature on a combination bit that isn't seen with other bit types. This is an adjustable piece on the cheek piece that limits the gag action of the bit. I will talk more about this in a moment. Not all brands allow this to be adjustable, but it is a key feature nonetheless.

(G) Leverage ring(s) - there are often several options to connect reins to on a combination bit. Anything below the level of the mouthpiece will employ leverage.


Mechanics:

Situation 1 - Stopper is in any position and reins are connected only to the snaffle ring.

  • The mouthpiece, like an ordinary snaffle, will have a lifting effect. This encourages the horse to lift their head.

  • Depending on the combination bit setup, there may be some nose pressure. This particular photo example is a Myler 3 ring combination bit. Due to the continuous connection between the back strap and noseband, pressure on the noseband would vary depending on the adjustment.

  • Depending on the tightness of the noseband and back strap, the bit may relieve poll pressure like that of a baucher snaffle bit.

  • Stopper position may change the effect of the cheek piece. The feel may be that of a loose ring or that of a fixed hanging cheek.


Situation 2 - stopper is adjusted high and reins are connected only to the leverage ring(s)

  • The high stopper will have a gag effect on the mouthpiece until the stopper is reached. The reins will move the mouthpiece towards the molars but pressure will primarily translate to the jaw, poll, and nose until this point is reached.

  • Like a gag or Pessoa bit (covered in another blog), the bit acts as a pulley - mouthpiece is a "floating fulcrum" and force from the reins is translated to the bridle and mouthpiece. Pressure from the reins and resistance from the bridle (poll) will slide the mouthpiece higher towards the molars, which would have a lifting effect on the head, if the downward poll pressure weren't so conflicting.

  • Unlike a gag, however, the bit is also attached to the noseband and back strap. Depending on how this is adjusted, pressure distribution between the poll, nose, and jaw will vary.

  • Loosely adjusted back strap will act most similarly to a gag. Rein pressure will cause the mouth piece to hit the stopper sooner, and pressure will be more concentrated on the poll and mouth.

  • Tightly adjusted back strap will translate pressure to the bridle more quickly. Mouthpiece may not hit the stopper.

  • Once the mouth piece contacts the stopper, the effects will be virtually the same as situation 3 below...


Situation 3 - stopper is adjusted low and the reins are connected only to the leverage ring(s)

  • The low stopper will nearly eliminate the gag effect of the bit. Therefore, the majority of the rein pressure will be translated to the mouth.

  • However, because of the setup, there will still be pressure distribution to the jaw, nose, and poll. Even more so if the back strap is adjusted tightly.

  • You could think of this as a pelham with reins only on the lower ring and the purchase connected to a noseband.

  • In this particular example, the addition of a cavesson noseband, running martingale, compression face mask, and ear bonnet is adding a significant amount of poll pressure, independent of the bit's mechanics.

  • The overall effect of this setup would theoretically encourage the horse to flex at the poll and lower their head. However, with the number of opposing forces, the actual response of the horse may differ, and hyperflexion (rollkur) is more likely.


Severity

The severity of this combination bit depends on many factors, like all bits, but with additional complexities. Its use by the rider, mouthpiece suitability, material selection, adjustment of the components, and any "gadgets" added will change the degree of severity and fairness to the horse. Because of the high risk of error in adjustment, so to speak, and a number of conflicting aids, this is generally considered a harsh setup and even manufacturers agree should only be used by a highly skilled rider. I say, a highly skilled rider shouldn't need this at all...

Nevertheless, for education sake, let's unpack what might make this bit more or less harsh on the horse:

  1. Mouthpiece - A mouthpiece that does not suit the horse's interdental conformation, is overly thick or thin, or has many joints will be a painful setup for the horse, likely even before rein pressure is applied.

  2. Adjustment of the stopper - as covered above, stopper adjustment more changes the mechanics of the bit. Depending on the many other factors in consideration will determine the severity with each setup. Generally speaking, however, a high stopper adjustment will distribute pressure more to the bridle than the mouthpiece (until the stopper is reached). A low stopper will translate most of the pressure to the mouthpiece, with a near-direct downward effect on the mouth (see Situation 3 above).

  3. Noseband material - If the noseband is anything but leather, this will be especially harsh on the horse and the addition of the back strap will have a tourniquet effect on the nasal bone and jaw bones. Unfortunately these are most commonly seen with rubber-covered metal, PVC-covered hardened rope, or thin knotted rope nosebands. With the metal and hardened rope nosebands, as you can imagine, all the rubber/plastic covering is doing is preventing hair loss from chafing and making it appear more comfortable. A rigid noseband will apply pressure to the outside edges of the nasal bone plate, which is fragile and susceptible to permanent nerve damage. Thin rope nosebands are an improvement in terms of contour to distribute pressure more evenly, but the rope is thin, often knotted, and has no "give" like leather does.

  4. Back strap material - Padded leather is the best option here. Nylon will suffice as well. A chain back strap is certainly the most harsh choice. This will create pressure points on the jaw bones.

  5. Rein attachment - as shown in situation 1 above, use on only the snaffle ring will operate like a snaffle, with some additional pressures acting on the bridle. The lower the ring attachment, the more harsh its effect - period.

  6. Gadgets - the addition of a running martingale, side reins, draw reins, or any other gear that increases the mechanical advantage of the rider on the horse's mouth or head will certainly increase its severity. Running martingales, of course, only come into effect once the horse's mouth and/or riders hands are high enough for the martingale to break the straight line of the reins from bit to hand. Then, increased downward force of the reins will result thus increasing the downward pressure on the mouth, poll, and in the case of a combination bit, the nose as well. These types of "gadgets" should never be used on a bit with leverage, so addition of these with a combination bit will add insult to injury (to the horse).

  7. Use by the rider - unless the rider is using this on a loose rein, it will be considered harsh. I am sure everyone has heard "a bit is only as harsh as the riders hands" but in truth, a bit is as harsh as the mechanics allow it to be, and the rider must know what level of contact is appropriate for the type of bit. Snaffles are an easy concept to gather (see my blog on Snaffles) but any bit or bridle that operates on the principles of leverage requires the rider to know exactly how much force from the reins apply x force to the horse's mouth and y force to the horse's head, and what is considered fair or pushes the limits of cruel. Unless you participated in a study with force sensing resistors or have a degree in physics, you probably cannot answer that with confidence. "Soft" hands in constant contact with a long shank bit or hackamore sounds acceptable, but curb bits are not meant to be ridden with in full contact. Picture the "scary" western spade bits - not so scary when you realize they are carefully crafted to maintain a balance point in the horse's mouth that just the weight shift of the slacked reins alone will provide enough signal to the horse. These riders do not maintain direct contact with the horse's mouth when using these bits. The double bridle even, is not intended for constant direct use of the curb rein.

As stated before, these come in many shapes and sizes and at first glance may not even appear to be a combination bit. Now that you know how they operate, you should be better able to identify them and gauge their severity. If your trainer has ever suggested the use of one of these on your horse, please have a questioning attitude and always utilize the help and guidance of a professional bit and bridle fitter before you make a purchase.


Questions? Comments? Drop a note in the comment section below!


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