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A Bit About Bits

It was suggested to me the other day that I look into the names of certain bits, and I wondered how the thought had escaped me for so long.

The big question is where to start? Since snaffles are the most frequently used bit, I feel this is the best place from which to launch. 


Peer into any tack room and you will see more snaffles than any other bit. It’s simple and comes in many forms and has the most fantastic name. Snaffle. It’s just fun to say and it’s where I come in.

I was surprised to find that my Penguin Dictionary and have snaffle listed. Despite it being a common enough word to be discussed in various locations there is no known origin for it.

Some think it may have derived from snavel which is Dutch for “beak or bill, snout of a beast”. The German version is schnabel meaning “beak or face” and Old High German is snabul which equals “beak”. Since horses don’t have beaks or snouts, I struggled to make the connection but had an idea of where things were headed. And once I learned that Old Frisian snavel means “mouth”, things started to make more sense. 

I am, however, surprised snaffle derives from a word meaning “mouth” even though the bit sits in a horse’s mouth. I suppose I thought it might have something to do with training, control, turning, metal, rings or something like that. 

Anyway, we’ve been using snaffle as a noun and meaning a bit for a horse since the 1530s, but did you know it’s also a verb? Both snavel and snaffle means “to pickpocket”. So, you could exclaim to the greater public, “Hey! My purse was just snaffled!” 

I’ve never used the word as a verb, though I’ll probably start. To us horse folk, however, it will forever remain a noun. 


I turned first to my dictionary in search of the word curb and fully expected to wade through definitions talking of sidewalks and roads. This was not the case at all as horse was practically the first word in the definition. It astounds me how wrong I am all the time, but we are all here to learn.

I’m speaking of course of curb bits that come with a curb chain or strap. Curbs, as you know, come in a wide variety of shank lengths and differing mouthpieces, though most often with a port of some sort.  

As a verb curb means “to check or control a horse”. As a noun, it means “a check or restraint”, but it also means “a chain or strap used to control a horse”. My dictionary actually went on to explain exactly how and where to put said chain/strap. It was like a mini Pony Club lesson.  

Curb is a Latin-based word stemming from curvare meaning “to turn or bend, as in bend to one’s will”. In reference to horses, the word has been around since the 1500s and comes from Old French courbe, which is also “to bend or curve”.

I believe the above-mentioned is speaking more to a curb chain rather than a curb bit, but it’s easy enough to understand where the bit got its name as it’s used in conjunction with a curb chain/strap.

It wasn’t until the late 1700s that a curb came to mean part of a sidewalk that creates the perfect hazard on which people can trip, fall and/or break an ankle.  


Bridoon or bradoon seemed like the natural bit to discuss next. It’s used with a curb in a double bridle and it’s a snaffle, only with a thinner mouthpiece and usually smaller bit rings. 

Bridoon is an odd word, and I assumed my go-to sources would give it a miss, and for a change I was correct. They totally let me down.

I was then forced to do a broad Google search for the origin of the name. Turns out, the French word for bridle is bridon, it’s missing an ‘o’ but it’s pretty darn close, but how do we get a bit from a bridle?

Then, just to confuse things further, I went to Google Translate requesting French to English to confirm the above. I typed in bridon and the English translation is indeed bridle. Very good. Now, under the English translation sat the word snaffle. Intrigued, I did a switch-a-roo and went English to French and typed in snaffle and the French translation is bridon, which we just learned means bridle. 

Whatever. I’m just rolling with it.

Below the French translation were the words mors brisé. I stuck them in the French section and once again the word snaffle popped up in English. I then entered the words separately and learned that mors, means “bit” and brisé means “broken”. This makes sense since most snaffles are indeed jointed. 

The alternate spelling bradoon yielded nothing. At all. 

However, we are supposed to be talking about a bridoon, not the umbrella name snaffle. 

If I had to guess, English speakers (at some point in history) bastardized the pronunciation of bridon and started spelling it the way they spoke it. It’s only a guess mind you, but it seems like a reasonable one. I suppose somewhere along the line a bridoon came to be a specific type of snaffle. I suspect we will never know.

Curiouser and curiouser. 

That’s That

And that is how the words snaffle, curb and bridoon have made it into our lives. And, as an added bonus, I have unwittingly brought things full circle, which I love because it makes me feel complete. 

Sources: ; ; The Penguin Dictionary (p. 207). Curb

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