You’ve probably seen gag bits on horses galloping cross-country, and maybe somebody’s suggested that you try one on your own horse. It’s easy to see that a gag looks different from a regular bridle–with its distinctive cheekpieces that pass through holes in the top and bottom of the bit rings to attach directly to the reins–but how is its action different?
I can tell you how a gag works and give you tips for making sure that it fits your horse correctly. However, I also strongly advise that you learn to use a gag under the supervision of a trainer.
Here’s why: A gag bridle works on your horse’s mouth and poll simultaneously to increase your braking and balancing power, and it has the potential to be very severe if used incorrectly. I’ve been using gags on most of my horses for most of my career–I’m a small person, so I don’t have the natural leverage that a 6-foot-tall man does when galloping huge, fit horses cross country. By strengthening the rein aids I use to reinforce my leg, seat and eye, a gag bit gives me a level of control that lets me focus on the details of the ride rather than struggle to rebalance my horse in front of every fence. These bits don’t work for every horse, though, just as they don’t work for every rider.
Skills You Need
To be able to use a gag bit safely and effectively, you must already understand the concept of riding your horse from your seat and leg to your hand and be able to use your hands lightly–a gag is too severe for a heavy-handed rider. If you need to rely on your hands for balance, a gag isn’t an appropriate bit for you. (It’s tough to operate one rein, much less a gag and a snaffle rein, when your hands are busy holding your body up!) To be successful with a gag bridle, you need a balanced seat that you can lighten or deepen depending on your speed cross-country and the questions you’re asked. If you can do these things, you can try a gag under a coach’s supervision.
Ideally, you want to ride mostly off your snaffle rein, adding gag-rein pressure only when your horse gets strong. But because two sets of reins can be a little confusing, many people use gag bits with only one rein, attached to the gag cheekpieces. Doing so eliminates the option of using the bit as a regular snaffle; so anyone who does this must be a good enough rider not to hang on her horse’s mouth–and poll–as he gallops.
Gag bits are not off limits automatically if you are a novice rider–as long as you have a knowledgeable instructor. I’ve found that a gag can be a very good bit for a novice who is being run away with–something that’s neither fun nor productive. The gag gives her more control, which allows her to be better balanced, more relaxed, and softer in her hands. The rider’s able to concentrate more on riding than on coping with a strong horse, and the two of them are happier together.
Torrance Watkins received a team gold medal and was
fourth individually at the 1984 Olympics. She has also represented the U.S. in three World Championships. She trains horses and teaches students from novice to advanced from her Morningfield Farm in Hardwick, Mass.
This story is excerpted from “Gag Order” in the May 2002 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.