Full cheek snaffle bits are popular in both English and Western riding. They are allowed and legal for most horse sports including the AQHA and USDF dressage competition (the latter being one of the most bit-restrictive horse show organizations).
In 2009 I had the opportunity to visit a stable in Germany where the Olympian Isabelle Werth kept her competition horses and trained, and I was impressed to see how many of these horses- which are required to compete in double bridles with curb bits in competition- were trained in either loose ring snaffle bits or, like discussed in this article, full cheek snaffle bits.
Full cheek snaffle bits are a popular choice for ponies and for horses that are ridden by children. Although any bit can be painful for a horse if used improperly or with too much pressure, a full cheek snaffle is generally understood to be one of the gentlest bits. It is particularly gentle because the “full cheek” shaft on either side of the mouth transfers some of the pressure of the reins onto the side of the mouth, rather than sensitive teeth, lips, and tongue inside the horse’s mouth.
Horses that are ridden with a full cheek snaffle bit learn to respond to pressure on the side of their face– often before any significant pressure is applied on the reins. For this reason, a horse that can be ridden in a full cheek snaffle bit is often a very well-trained, enjoyable horse to ride. (The type of bit that a horse is typically ridden in says a lot about a horse and its training, which is why we included in our list of 10 questions to ask before buying a horse).
Like many bits, the full cheek snaffle bit is produced in various forms and has some potential accessories available. For example, as shown in the pictures here, a full cheek snaffle bit is often used with a “bit keeper.” The keeper is a tiny leather loop that attaches to the horse’s bridle’s cheekpiece on both sides of the horse’s face just above where the bit connects to the bridle. The loop then secures to the upper portion of the shaft of the full cheek snaffle bit. The purpose of a keeper is to stabilize a bit in a horse’s mouth.
With a full cheek snaffle held in place with a bit keeper, the bit can’t slide back and forth in the horse’s mouth, but instead is held in a stable position which helps the horse feel and respond to more subtle cues from a riders hands and the reins. A bit keeper has an additional purpose as well: safety.
Some riders use full cheek snaffle bit keepers as a “bit” of an insurance policy to prevent the long shafts of a full cheek snaffle from catching on something in the barn, arena, or trail. This bit of extra caution can prevent a potential injury, bolt, or fall that might result from a horse getting a bit caught on something and panicking.
Like most bits, the full cheek snaffle bit can be found with lozenge, keys, or copper rollers attached. All of these are different ways of making the mouthpiece of a snaffle bit just a bit more complex.
Why would a mouthpiece with more complexity be a good thing for a bit? Well, in some cases a complex mouthpiece can alter the action of a bit, making a bit that looks soft from the outside rather harsh in the way that it responds in the horse’s mouth, but in the case of keys and copper rollers added to a full cheek snaffle bit, these are generally added for the sake of young horses who like to mouth their bits.
Something soft, flexible, or spinning can keep a horse’s mouth engaged while the bit is in place. This is a good thing because it promotes salivation, and when horses are salivating they are more relaxed and able to learn, condition muscle, and carry their bodies in a way that supports long-term soundness- rather than fighting a bit and developing muscles on the underside of the neck that can turn into a ewe neck.
Full Cheek Bit Keeper
Leather or nylon bit keepers help stabilize the bit in the horse’s mouth. With the cheek connected to the headstall of the bridle, the bit is less likely to jostle during typical riding (which can confuse or frustrate a horse) and less likely to slip-of-place or even into the mouth during an emergency (such as a horse bolting or another behavior that might require a one rein emergency stop)
Full cheek snaffle bit keepers are slightly more secure if they surround the entire cheekpiece.
In the photo below, as you can see, only part of the headstall is holding the keeper in place. Attaching via this method, however, is much faster and handy if you need to use your bridle on more than one horse using different bits. This attachment method makes the keeper faster to put on and remove.
Why use a Full Cheek Snaffle with Keepers?
Stability – Full cheek snaffles can be used with or without keepers, but the keeper changes how the bit moves in the horse’s mouth. A keeper stabilizes the bit and prevents it from rolling forward or backward in the mouth in response to external (reins and bridle) and internal (tongue, mouth, and teeth) movement. Most horses prefer the stability that the keepers provide, and keepers may help horses that are easily distracted to focus.
Safety –Many horse trainers and Pony Club leaders believe stabilizing the keepers may prevent the extended pieces of a full cheek snaffle from catching on things.
Keepers generally come in only one size but many different colors (and, like most leather items, can be dyed to match your existing tack).
Most bits, like the curb bit above, don’t need a keeper. Keepers were developed as a way to make the full cheek snaffle- which is young rider-friendly- even safer for young riders and even gentler for horses.
Full Cheek Snaffle Cheekpieces
Sometimes, the length of the cheekpiece of a full cheek snaffle can make people think that a full cheek snaffle works using leverage – similar to a pelham bit, kimberwick, or western tom thumb bit- but the cheekpiece of a full cheek snaffle does not use leverage.
In the case of a full cheek snaffle bit, the wide bars on either side of the horse’s mouth help stabilize the bit and help add an additional cue (pressure on the side of the horse’s mouth) to the way the full cheek but it translates between a horse and rider.