History of Bits, Evolution of the Double Bridle

The history behind the upper-level dressage bit configuration. By Gerhard Politz for Dressage Today magazine.

In the August 2008 issue of Dressage Today magazine, trainer Gerhard Politz teaches you how to use the double bridle. Here, he shares the history behind this upper-level bit configuration.

The earliest records of metal bits used with horse bridles date from roughly the time between the 14th and eighth centuries BC, which falls within the Bronze and the Iron Ages. These discoveries were made in a region called Luristan, in ancient Mesopotamia, now present day Iran.

| Illustration by Sandy Rabinowitz

Prior to that, and also concurrently used by more primitive tribes than the Luristans, were bridle bits made of vastly diverse materials, such as horn, bone, wood, sinew, rawhide and rope. Naturally, these materials tended to wear out rather quickly and were eventually replaced entirely by metal.

It is quite surprising that metal bits found in Luristan are in principle very much like the bits we use today. They consist of the mouthpiece, usually a single bar without a joint and cheekpieces that were often quite elaborate. The quality of the work suggests that smelting must have been developed to a very high standard.

Judging by the width of the mouthpieces (approximately 5 to 6 inches), the horses must have had rather large and coarse heads, especially considering that the average size of the horses was around 14.2 hands. It is assumed that the riding abilities of the warrior tribes were quite basic. Their main skills were: controlling the speed of the horse, slowing it down and turning. Horses were ridden bareback and therefore their riders must have had superb balance in order to maneuver in battle.

Bas-reliefs as well as paintings of riding and chariot horses in Assyrian and Egyptian tombs and temples show that the same types of bridles and bits were used for many centuries.

The writings of Xenophon, a Greek general who fought in many wars, most notably against the Persians, provided evidence that a more advanced standard of horsemanship emerged around 440 B.C. Not only was Xenophon a great horseman in his own right–his principles of horsemanship form the basis of modern day classical riding–he was also an admirer of the Persians’ expertise with horses and the training of their cavalry. His writings also indicate that Greek cavalry horses–especially parade horses–were able to perform movements that closely resemble dressage movements. Along with a higher standard of horsemanship, there were also improvements and modifications made to bridle bits. As the Romans began to conquer the Hellenic world, they also took over their culture of horsemanship, although no Roman records have been found that compare to the writings of Xenophon.

In fact, we know very little of what happened with regard to horsemanship until the Middle Ages (approximately A.D. 476 to A.D. 1450). In the meantime, the average height of horses bred in Central Europe had increased considerably. A horse carrying a knight in full battle armor had to be exceptionally strong and sturdy and was about 16 hands or taller. Consequently, the means of controlling such a horse had to be very effective. Bridles now had bits with high ports and very long shanks that were initially without curb chains. It is unclear when curb chains were introduced. Originally, they may have been made of leather.

In the early Middle Ages, riding skills of the knights were probably rather basic. They galloped towards each other in a formation called a “melee” and tried to wound, kill or topple their opponents off the horse with a lance. Because of his heavy armor, a knight could not remount his horse unless he was heaved back on by several squires. Sometimes, fighting would continue on foot using a sword or battle-ax. Occasionally, battles were decided by a duel of the best knights from each side.

In times of peace, “tournaments” were arranged for the amusement of the king’s court as well as for honing the skills of the knights. It is from these tournaments–and out of a desire to show off in front of the ladies–that horsemanship gradually developed to a higher level in the Late Middle Ages (after A.D. 1400). With the advent of firearms, however, medieval Knighthood drastically changed and eventually disappeared.

Until the beginning of the Renaissance (14th through 16th centuries) Xenophon’s ideas on horsemanship had been forgotten. Consequently, the level of horsemanship in Western Europe was generally rather low. With the fall of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453, circus riders and trick riders from the Near East fled to Italy and settled near the town of Naples. These riders provided the inspiration for an equestrian school there, of which Federico Grisone became one of the best-known proponents 100 years later.

The School of Naples, as it became known, raised horsemanship to a level never before seen in Europe. The riders preferred to work with Iberian breeds and used almost exclusively stallions. The horses were taught airs above the ground and many other movements, among them flying changes. The school of Naples became the cradle of high school riding. Its influence on equitation as it was practiced at the Courts of Europe was immense. These horses were highly trained, very sensitive and also extremely expensive. Although the airs were, in theory, useful for fending off the enemy in battle, it would have been folly to risk losing such a valuable animal in war. Less finely trained horses served just as well and were more easily dispensable.

Although the school of Naples and its disciples had a reputation for using rather cruel training methods, their fully trained horses were sought after at all the Courts of Europe. In order to make the horses light in hand they used bits that were veritable torture instruments. Their long shanks were reminiscent of the bits used in the Middle Ages but with metal curb chains and a wide variety of more or less severe mouthpieces.

During the Age of Reason (18th century) there was a marked change in the manner in which horses were trained. Two great masters in particular were responsible for this change of attitude. Antoine de Pluvinel in his book Le Man?ge Royal (1623) and Fran?ois Robichon de la Gueriniere in his book Ecole de Cavalerie (1733) were both expressing opposition to the methods favored by the school of Naples. They advocated a much more humane approach to training and strived to inspire confidence in the horse in order to gain his trust and cooperation, thus reconnecting with the ideas of Xenophon from two thousand years before. Naturally, these wonderfully trained horses also deserved skilled riders. Horsemasters at that time were not only schooling horses but were also focused on developing excellent riders.

According to written accounts from this era, young horses were schooled in a snaffle bit for the first time. Only when schooling became more advanced would they be ridden in the “normal” bridle. This normal bridle was a curb bit which still had very long shanks and a curb chain, but the mouthpieces were much milder than those used by the school of Naples. Some illustrations show that a second rein was attached at the same level as the bit. This combination resembled a modern-day pelham. Horses were also schooled with a “cavecon” in order to preserve the sensitivity of the mouth. It was customary to attach the reins to the side rings of the cavesson, never to the bit rings. At this time, however, the snaffle/bridoon was not used in combination with the curb bit.

| ? 1994 J. A. Allen & Company Limited. Reprinted with permission from U. S. Publisher, Trafalgar Square Books.

Apart from the various nomadic tribes of the Asiatic Steppes, who depended on horses as an integral part of their every day lives, equestrian endeavors and the cultivation of real horsemanship had always been the privilege of the nobility and the very wealthy. Especially during the Renaissance and the Age of Reason, the privileged classes rode horses for pleasure and recreation, which were trained by professional horsemasters and their assistants. Only very few noblemen, such as the Duke of Newcastle, had the knowledge, skill and ambition, to train horses themselves.

This began to change around the close of the 18th century as ever-larger armies needed more cavalry regiments. The common man not only had to learn to ride a horse but also how to train him. This was the birth of the Campagne School, a level of training which focused on training an all purpose horse suitable for the requirements of the military. Recruits had to train horses for elementary dressage (roughly Second Level), cross-country and jumping. All of this work was carried out in the snaffle bridle to ensure that a rider with moderate ability and skill would damage the horse’s mouth as little as possible. When horses and riders had successfully fulfilled the requirements of the Campagne School, horses were allowed to be ridden in the full bridle–also called double bridle–which consisted of a snaffle bit and a curb bit. Each bit had its own set of reins.

It is unclear exactly when this system became standard practice. The double bridle provided several advantages. The rider could use the snaffle bit or the curb separately, as well as in combination. This allowed for varying degrees of control needed for military maneuvers as well as more subtle influences required for dressage schooling.

The snaffle bit used for the full bridle usually had a single joint and was somewhat thinner than the schooling snaffle. To distinguish between the two, the thinner one was called a bridoon. The curb bit was a single bar, usually with a port to accommodate the tongue. It had a curb chain and comparatively short shanks. This was a major departure from the curbs used in previous centuries, which were single-jointed and had very long shanks. Obviously, control was an important aspect of military riding. Since it was not feasible to spend years educating recruits to become sophisticated riders, the double bridle fulfilled its purpose very well. Whereas all lower ranks of the cavalry had to master the Campagne school, upper-level dressage–and certainly High School–was still a privilege of officers.

Gerhard Politz immigrated to the United States from his native Germany in 1987. Since then, he has been training and teaching out of Flintridge Riding Club near Pasadena, Calif. Gerhard holds professional certifications from two countries: He is a British Horse Society Instructor (BHSI) as well as a German Berufsreitlehrer (FN). In his training establishment in Germany, near Stuttgart, he and his staff trained all types of horses through the levels to Grand Prix, as well as educating apprentices to become certified Bereiters. Gerhard has been involved with the U.S. Dressage Federation Instructor Certification Program since its inception and is one of the examiners in the program. Many rider he taught have won gold, silver and bronze medals, both individual and team at the North American Young Rider Championships. Gerhard is also a member of the International Dressage Trainer Club. He gives clinics and seminars throughout the U.S.

For a complete discussion of the use of the double bridle, see Gerhard’s article in the August 2008 issue of Dressage Today. To order back issues, call 301-977-3900.

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