Is The Pelham an Acceptable Bit?
Editors Note: This article is a Q & A regarding Pelham bits from Dr. Jessica Jahiel’s “HorseSense Newsletter.”
I have been reading some on-line horse lists and now I find myself to be very confused about a certain bit. What exactly is the purpose of a Pelham bit, and do you believe that this is an acceptable bit? I have always been told that no true dressage rider would ever use such a bit, that we must ride in the snaffle or in the double bridle. The Pelham is something that we associate with hunters, jumpers, horses that go very fast and may require sudden “brakes”. But now someone has said that his dressage instructor used a Pelham on one of her horses. Do you think this is true? And do you think that this was a good dressage instructor, or just someone claiming to teach dressage? I ask this last because in my country there are many people who pretend to teach dressage but really do not, because they do not understand anything about it and so cannot teach it? The Pelham was being used to help teach the horse collection. I do not know why the horse would not be ridden in a double bridle if it was ready for collection? In any case, I am now very confused. My horse has a small (short) mouth and I have been told that he would probably accept a Pelham better than a double bridle, but I thought that a Pelham was completely unacceptable to real dressage riders. I hope that you can enlighten me, please?
Thank you very much indeed, Cynthia
Hi Cynthia! “Unacceptable” is a little harsh, I think. I could list any number of bits that are far too badly-designed and badly-made to be acceptable to any horseman or to any horse, and those bits are best used as toilet-tissue holders, or as decoration on a pub wall. I wouldn’t put the Pelham in this category, though. A well designed, well-balanced, well-made bit of any kind is unlikely to be harsh unless the rider handles the reins in a way to make it so.
For example: A vaquero-style rider can safely use a spade bit with no harm or discomfort to the horse, whereas a frightened neophyte rider clinging to the reins for dear life can cause an immense amount of pain and damage to a horse even if the bit involved is a simple mullen-mouth snaffle. A Pelham is a silly bit, in a way, as it attempts to combine the effects of the two bits of a double bridle into a single mouthpiece. The bit is meant to be used with two reins, and the rider is meant to use one rein at a time, depending on whether the effect wanted is that of a snaffle (in which case the upper rein is used) or a curb (in which case the lower rein is used). This, as you say, can be a useful bridle for a rider who is working at speed and wants to use the snaffle rein 99% of the time, with an occasional tweak of the curb rein when the rider feels that this is warranted.
Some people use a Pelham with a single rein, attached to “bit roundings” – short rounded leather straps that are attached to both the upper and lower bit rings on each side. This makes the bit’s effect even more vague, as the rider cannot really invoke either a clear “snaffle effect” or a clear “curb effect”. If someone is going to use roundings, it might make more sense to put the horse into either a genuine snaffle or a genuine curb (with a minimum of leverage – a Kimblewicke, for instance), and ride accordingly.
Having said all that, though, it’s a fact that some horses seem to be very comfortable in a Pelham. I have indeed seen Pelhams used on dressage horses, and by some very fine riders. Some horses have very small, short mouths, and simply cannot comfortably accommodate the two bits of a double bridle, unless they are both wire-thin – and that WOULD be unacceptable! Since the bit is used for communication, not coercion, I would say that if an advanced dressage rider has a horse with a mouth too small for two bits, it makes a great deal of sense to use a Pelham – and to be resigned to the fact that it will simply not be possible to use both snaffle and curb at the same time, as one could with a proper double bridle.
A real horseman of any denomination – dressage being just one option, after all – will keep two things in mind when selecting a bit for any horse. The first is the horse’s comfort, the second is the communication (range and type) offered by the bit. No bit will make up for a rider’s lack of skill or a horse’s lack of proper training, so a Pelham would be a poor choice for a green horse or for a rider who wanted more control and felt incompetent to handle a horse in a snaffle. But a curb or double would be equally poor choices for such a horse or rider. Riders need to THINK, common sense must be applied at all times, and the needs of the horse must be met according to its individual circumstances. For a horseman, the development and education of the horse matter more than anything. As long as the Pelham meets the needs of the horse and the aims of the rider, I see no reason not to use it for schooling.