Question: I've noticed recently that many jumpers are going in three-ring snaffle bits. What are these strange-looking bits used for, and how do they work?
Answer from Margie Goldstein-Engle with Jay Shuttleworth:
A three-ring snaffle, sometimes called an "American gag," is a loose ring bit with distinct sidepieces composed, despite its name, of four rings. You attach the cheekpiece to the tiny top ring; then you can attach the rein to the big snaffle ring (the one that's connected to the mouthpiece) for minimal effect, the second (small) ring for moderate effect, or the third (bottom) ring for maximum effect. (Some riders attach a rein to the snaffle ring and another to the bottom ring, as on a Pelham; I prefer a single rein because it is easier to use.)
The bit works by providing:
- Leverage. When you pull back on one of the lower rings with the rein, the top ring levers forward and pulls the cheekpiece down, which applies pressure to the horse's poll and encourages him to lower his head.
- Lift. As you pull on the reins, the mouthpiece rides up the snaffle ring in an elevating action. When combined with a strong leg pushing the horse forward into the bridle, it helps to balance him off his forehand. (This effect can be increased by the style of mouthpiece--it's normally smooth but can be a stronger slow-twist or even a custom design.)
- Turning power. The sidepieces function like the shanks of a full-cheek snaffle, helping to steer the horse by pressing against the outside of his face in a turn.
I use a three-ring snaffle on some of my bigger, stronger horses because it helps me keep them lighter in my hand so they rebalance quickly and turn better, enabling us to go faster. Furthermore, it's almost like three bits in one. At a show, I can take full advantage of its adaptability, attaching it depending on how a horse warms up and what the class demands. (I save this bit for shows. At home, my horses usually school in a plain snaffle.) If the horse is light and listening, I use the moderate second ring. But if we have to go fast and turn tight in a speed class or a jumpoff, the bottom ring gives me the maximum effect I need to package and turn him quickly.
I do not recommend this bit for most riders because of its potential for misuse; very rarely does anybody who rides with me use one. If you catch your horse in the mouth over a fence, you can make him stiff and hollow. If you use too much hand and not enough leg, you run the risk of his ending up behind the bit. And those long shanks magnify every motion, both taking contact and giving it. As a result, a big release in front of a fence, for example, can send the wrong message to your horse when the shanks "snap" forward and jostle the bit in his mouth just when you want the mouthpiece to be perfectly still.
A bit with a similar action and much less potential for trouble is the loose ring "loop" snaffle. You attach the cheekpiece to an inward-facing loop at 12 o'clock and the rein to another loop at 5 o'clock. By fixing the cheekpiece and rein in place relative to each other, you achieve the lift and leverage of the three-ring snaffle--but without its severity.
Remember, though, you always want to work toward a "snaffle-mouth" level of training and response. Don't just grab this or any other bit because I've mentioned it. Look for the mildest bit that still gets the response you need at the show, and whenever possible, school at home in an even milder one.
Margie Goldstein-Engle is an Olympic veteran and seven-time AGA Rider of the Year. Connecticut-based bit designer Jay Shuttleworth makes custom bits for Margie and other top riders from all disciplines.
This story originally appeared in the September 2002 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.