A Pelham bit is a horse bit that functions as both a snaffle bit or a curb bit, depending on how it is used. A Pelham bit is essentially a plain dressage-legal snaffle bit, but with an second rein connected to the bit at the end of a short shank. This shank, which creates curb action, makes this bit illegal for dressage competition. Despite this, the Pelham bit has some application in training horses, in training rider’s to handle two sets of reins, and as a “Snaffle bit with an emergency brake” that can be judiciously used in some non-competition settings. At high energy events such as parades, breed demos, or even warm up rings, it can be helpful to have the snaffle rein for primary use and the second curb-connected rein just in case a sharper correction is needed in order to control the horse and keep rider and onlookers safe.
Riding with a Pelham BitA Pelham bit is often viewed as a harsh bit, but when used with double reins, the Pelham is actually a very humane bit. When you are riding with a Pelham, contact should be taken on the snaffle rein, and the curb rein should be left just a bit slack (not so loose that it flaps, but loose enough that it doesn’t hold tension between the hand and the bit).
Recommendation: Use reins made for double reins. Standard reins have the same hand-feel when doubled up, which can make them harder to manage. Special reins made for use as the curb set of reins when using double reins have a narrower cut, making it easier to handle the reins and know, based on how they feel between your fingers, how you are managing each set of reins.
Using Converters to Simplify Riding with a Pelham: Pelham bits are sometimes fitted with converters or “roundings” which allow a rider to use a single rein with a pelham bit. In this writer’s opinion converters are not appropriate for any horse or rider, as they turn a sophisticated (and ideally, nuanced) bit into a bit that is consistently sharp and painful for the horse. If a horse indeed needs that amount of control all times, a Kimberwick bit is a more appropriate choice for an English rider.
History and Modern Use
The Pelham bit has been popular with show jumpers for some time but is increasing in popularity as a bit for schooling dressage. The benefit to schooling dressage in a pelham bit is that the horse can be collected on the snaffle rein, but the shoulders can be lifted and gaits improved with judicious use of the curb rein.
Transitioning to a Double Bridle
For the rider who hopes to transition to dressage levels where a double bridle is used, a pelham bit can be a less complicated way to accustom yourself to holding and handling two sets of reins.
Addendum: In some organizations, a pelham bit is allowed in upper levels, but only on ponies who lack sufficient space in their mouth for a double bridle.
Alternative Use: Decorating
Pelham bits have a surprisingly aesthetic form that lends well to equestrian decor. One site even demonstrates how to use retired Pelham Bits for simple metal wall hangings using fishing line and tacks.