Pelhams a no-no for (schooling) dressage?


New Member
Aug 10, 1999
Cambridge, MA USA
hey, everyone.

this is a question for all you dressage riders out there, or anyone else that might be able to impart any advice (i also posted on one of the USDF forums, but i don't think they're so friendly to dressage newbies!).

anyway. i'm starting to learn dressage on my newly-leased TB gelding, and while i've been reading as much as possible, i don't have a lot of practical knowledge. what i've heard (on the USDF board, actually) is that riding with a pelham, even when used only for schooling, is a big no-no with dressage. someone mentioned that the "action of the bit is pretty much the exact opposite of what you'd want for dressage", in fact.

i'm aware that riding with anything other than a simple snaffle is not allowed in competition up to and including 4th level, but i'm wondering about why the "action" of the bit is detrimental within the dressage discipline.

Raven's owner uses a Pelham with a flash noseband on him, and is generally very particular with anything having to do with her baby. i'm still just getting used to the double reins, and while i certainly don't use them independently, i'm very careful not to yank on the curb rein at all (i keep it more loose than the snaffle rein at all times)... so... how bad could it possibly be?

help me sort this thing out, or send me back to the scary USDF board where they might actually eat me alive! ;>


[This message has been edited by cynthia (edited 07 December 1999).]
Hi Cynthia

I sometimes hack my boy out in a pelham and I find that he backs off it. He'll pop his head and neck into what looks like quite a nice shape but his hind legs are left half an hour behind the rest of him - enough to give any self respecting dressage rider an apoplectic fit!!!

The pelham is supposed to combine the action of a snaffle and a double bridle but actually has a less specific action than either. Roundings can diffuse the action even further. They're not allowed in dressage tests but you can show in one. Horses and ponies with small, short mouths will find a pelham more comfortable than a double bridle.

hey, tikki; thanks so much for replying.

yeah, that's what i heard someone mentioning on the USDF bb... that one might choose a Pelham for a horse that tended to get a little strong on the trail.

my guess is that the "rounding" action one might see with a Pelham as opposed to a plain snaffle is somewhat artificial, and may not necessarily be indicative of a true rouding in the poll and a "through" horse with a freely-swinging back?

but... what exactly is it about the Pelham that diffuses the action of a snaffle or curb bit? do the curb reins serve more to pull the head up in an unnatural way, maybe? i know Saddleseat riders (yuck) use Pelhams, and most horses i've seengoing Saddleseat have their heads stuck up in the air like they're grazing in the trees; it's ridiculous. Raven doesn't do this at all, but he's also very well-trained, albeit only up to 2nd level or so.

should i maybe start tying up the curb rein when i ride? try to somehow convince his owner to go to a plain snaffle (unlikely; she's a retired judge and needs things her way!)? would there be any other reasons, specific perhaps to the horse in question, why someone would want to use a Pelham (past training, injuries, etc.)?

any more thoughts? :>
oh... forgot to mention some things that might be relevant.

when i first went to look at Raven, i remember his owner telling me that she used a "modified Pelham" with him. what exactly is the difference between a "modified", as opposed to a "true" Pelham, if anything?

also, the snaffle bit is a loose-ring, and has a VERY thick mouthpiece. the thickness of it makes me sort of wonder; i've never actually seen anything this wide before (probably about 7/8" at each end, where it attaches to the rings of the snaffle, i think?). as well, the shank for the curb reins is quite short.

i've been reading so much about how much harsher Pelhams are, and coupled with the fact that Raven's bridle also has a flash, i'm beginning to get a little worried (probably unnecessarily, but even so).

any thoughts?

-cyn (again)
A bit is only as harsh as the hands that use it! We have a pony that can be quite strong, occasionally she is ridden in a pelham, sometimes just for one schooling session, it lightens her forehand so she can use herself more effectively. You barely have to bring the curb rein into play to get the results, and she can then go back into the snaffle for day to day riding and competitions. Enlightened Equitation has some good advice on pelhams. While it is nice if a horse can go kindly in a snaffle, double reins give that little bit of refinement - but you have to know how to use them! All the best. PS the snaffle raises the head, the curb lowers it. In theory.

[This message has been edited by intouch (edited 08 December 1999).]
thanks, intouch.

aggh! i really think i should stop using the Pelham until i really know how to use the double reins. *sigh* i was real concerned about them at first, and while i don't feel as completely confused as i did the first couple times i rode with them, i *know* that i can't possibly be using them as independently as i could be. damn, i really have to find a copy of heather's book, eh? (i've been somewhat resisting the crowd, i have to admit!) ;>

maybe once i have a lesson (this coming saturday) things will be better, or at least i won't worry so much about hurting him. he's been incredible this past week, just going really nicely, no more spookiness, and i've been feeling really good about my riding, so maybe i'm doing okay. hopefully i'll find out for sure on saturday morning!

thanks for the help. :>


[This message has been edited by cynthia (edited 08 December 1999).]

Horses can do that pretend outline thingy in a pelham - with a rounded next and back legs in the next county - but they can also do that in a snaffle, or hackamore or any type of bit at all. If used incorrectly, a pleham can be used as a means to force the horse to round its neck, but no more than any other bit.

Roundings definitely just confuse the message given to the horse and should really be avoided. Al pelham is however basically a double bridle bit, but with only one bar of metal in the mouth - a good choice for a small mouthed horse.

If you look at the forces going into the horse's mouth, a snaffle is pulling the nose in, but, through the action on the cheek pieces it also has a strong upwards action. A curb rein pushes the curb chain into the horse's curb groove which makes it relax its head and jaw, then the leverage of the bit acts on the poll and pulls the head down. Obviously i am not advocating that you are pulling at all, but do thing about the forces acting on the head as, however small they are, they are still there!

I have no idea at all what the 'modified pelham' is - what does it look like? If the pelham you use has a very thick mouth piece it is a gently bit - again think forces, the same force is applied over a larger area giving less pressure - but check that Raven has a big enough mouth for it!

A pelham can be a harsh bit, as there is leverage in it, in the wrong hands it could be horrible, but so can any bit.

you could try riding with the pelham, just using the snaffle reins, with the curb rein on his neck. Then try using the curb rein with the snaffle, very gently, i am sure you will see the difference. i am sure your instructor will be able to help.

do let us know how it goes on saturday!


PS I forgot to say, yes you can't use the pelham for dressage, but it is a great bit to use for schooling to teach acceptance of the contact, you can then ride in a snafffle for dressage tests (don't forget to school him in the snaffle before the test though so you don't both get a shock)or if you are rather good just wait till you get to the level where you can use a double bridle!

[This message has been edited by Sarah (edited 08 December 1999).]
yay, Sarah - i was hoping you would help! thanks so much; i feel a lot better now, actually... everything makes a bit more sense. i think i was just freaked out by those USDF people - "never ever ever ever use a Pelham for dressage, you horribly-inept ninny!" er... well, perhaps they didn't put it *quite* like that, but nonetheless. ;>

so basically, i gather i shouldn't be tremendously-worried that learning dressage while using this bit is going to be impossible; i'll just have to keep in mind what it does. i tend to over-anticipate everything and get impatient (i'm one of those must-learn-everything-right-NOW types)... it's prolly best to at least wait for ONE lesson before having a fit, eh? :>

as far as the "modified" Pelham - it looks pretty much like a thick, jointed snaffle, with the curb reins attached to a short shank, and a curb chain. and you know, i was *thinking* that the thickness of the mouthpiece did make it somewhat-friendlier, but as usual, reading some posts and articles on bits yesterday made me question myself.

Raven does seem to engage his hindquarters well, and does a better job when he's been loosened up a good bit (that hock injury). his owner has given me a few tips to help him loosen up and consequently engage more, too - counterbending him a bit in corners, shoulder in - and i also use my own things, like lots of transitions, 20m circles, half-halts, etc.

so, judging from this and everyone's advice... i'm thinking that what it comes down to is that as long as i'm aware of what the Pelham *can* do, and continue to work with an instructor as much as possible, using one shouldn't a really big deal. i did actually tie up the curb rein for a little while the other night... it was REALLY weird to feel how much "lighter" *i* felt, if that makes sense! i'm not sure how to explain it... maybe concentrating on the double reins was making me carry more tension in my arms?

anyway, i think it'll all work out.

(but i think i'll wait on the double bridle... i'm not *quite* at FEI yet - ha ha!)

thanks again, Sarah!


[This message has been edited by cynthia (edited 08 December 1999).]
thanks, amethyst. :>

yeah, i tied up the curb rein last night so as not to get false results from anything, and it seemed to work really well once Raven got loosened up.

maybe i could suggest a French snaffle to his owner when she returns from vacation (i'm riding 5x per week now that she's away; it's great). how exactly does a a French snaffle (i've heard the tern "French link snaffle" used as well - same thing?) differ from a plain snaffle?

thanks for help in my continuing saga. :>

I am supposed to be editing my videos, but I have to have a break every so often! Couldn't resist dropping in to New Rider! The Pelham argument is such an old chestnut, if you will pardon the pun, in the so called dressage world. It is precisely because it's action is totally misunderstood and misinterpreted, that it gets such bad press.

For those of you who have not seen my book, look at my website if you want to see the difference that the Pelham used as a remedial bit can make. (

The snaffle is not at all the mild '[cure all for everything' that it is supposed to be- some horses positively hate it. I was at my saddlers in Walsall yesterday. Barry Swain is probably the world's leading expert on the history of saddlery and bits, having studied it right back to the 1700's. He has some marvellous old books dating right back to that era, first editions worth hundreds of pounds, that go into the reasoning as to why so many bits have come about.And why is that? Because every horse is different, what suits one may be misery for another, and yet, everyone rides in a snaffle, the dressage fraternity think nothing of forcing the head in with drawreins, yet a curb bit is 'cheating'. The only reason that a horse ever comes behind the vertical in a curb bit, is because the rider does not know how to use it.

The snaffle, in olden days, was considered a crude bit suitable only for grooms to ride out in, as their hands were not sufficiently educated to handle a double bridle or curb bit with finesse.Many dressage riders of today also fit into that category. I had two pupils here from the yard of a top Grand Prix trainer last year. One had been told she needed to take up weight training as her arms were not strong enough to hold her horse 'on the bit'- the other had been told that she needed to take a contact to the point that her arms felt as if they would break, in order to get her horse to 'give'. God help their horses. They have since left that yard, as thier horses were bcoming unrideable.

For those of you who haven't felt what a snaffle feels like to a horse, get a snaffle attach a pair of reins, place it around your raised forearm, and get a friedn to hold onto the reins and pull back very gently. Resist the pressure as a horse would- then get the friend to pull back harder, and finally to saw left and right the way that you will see many dressage riders doing. I do this to volunteers at lecture demos. I have never had one last longer than ten seconds before yelling for mercy, but they would normally ride thier horse in this way for an hour or more without questioning what he is feeling.

I have used the Pelham on several hundred horses with great success in probably 90% of cases, and would not be without it for the world.

You can end up with your horse completely behind the bit - nice arched neck and everything, but not listening to your hands at all. Pelhams are great outside the school for those beasts who like to demonstrate how fast they can go, and inside the school for teaching hard fisted little hands that they don't need to use so much force, but for serious schooling, a french snaffle is much more satisfactory
I spent two frustrating years working my gelding in various types of snaffle, made of different materials - two years of a horse that regularly reared, bucked and threw appalling tantrums with no regard for his own safety or mine (at least he never bolted). No physical problems with him, his tack or with me being heavy handed. After I'd read Heather's book and switched to riding him in a mullen-mouthed Pelham with two reins, most of his troubles disappeared. He's become much more relaxed and is working quite well, not behind the bit or with his hind legs trailing as somebody suggested. He just doesn't seem to like jointed snaffles - although after a few months of the Pelham, he'll now work happily in a straight rubber snaffle (slight problem with that at the moment though - he's eaten it!). I used to think that all horses should, if properly trained, go in snaffles, and that Pelhams of any type were for bad riders with unstoppable horses. I know better now - and to hell with those snooty types at USDF!
yes, thank you Myrmex (and Heather as well - it was fantastic to hear your thoughts on this even with your busy schedule!); the replies were very helpful.

i have since stopped freaking out about using the Pelham - the way my dressage instructor (and the barn manager) explained it at my lesson, Raven's owner chose specifically to use one on him because he tends to be quite strong with her, and as she's somewhat of an older rider (and pretty small as well), she felt safer with a bit of leverage if she needed it.

i'd obviously switch to a plain/French snaffle for a little while before a test (hopefully my first one will be next year at some point), but for now, this seems to be working fine. i had a lesson this past weekend, and worked on leg yields out of a 20m circle, moving back towards the rail. it worked great to get him listening to my inside leg more consistently, which is my primary goal for now (seems a bit simplistic, but it's great to be working with one horse alone, and on doing things the "right" way, so to speak).

at any rate, with the Pelham, i feel that as long as i know what i'm working with, i can use it without encountering the more common problems (behind the bit, hindqtrs not engaged, etc). it seems to be working out well for now!

thanks for all the help, guys! :>

I'm sorry, I know this post is old, but I simply had to comment on something. Cynthia, I don't mean to be confrontational, but you are making a gross, misinformed generalization when you say saddleseat riders use pelhams. I take saddleseat lessons, and have been to many saddleseat shows, and I have never seen a horse ridden in pelham. They are ridden in a conventional double bridle with both a curb and a snaffle. The reason the have their heads up, is because that is where they are supposed to be, to allow the horse to have greater action in his front legs. Saddlebreds have evolved this way through selective breeding, and it only looks weird to you because you have most likely (I'm guessing here) never ridden saddleseat.

hmmm. apparently my... uh... "gross, misinformed generalization" was a tad misunderstood, yes? didn't mean to imply that -all- Saddleseat riders use Pelhams. i took lessons at a *Morgan* Saddleseat barn for six months when i first got back into riding, and saw quite a few Pelhams being used. now that you mention it, i'm sure some of them were actually double bridles, but i do remember my old instructor telling me that this horse or that horse was being ridden in a Pelham, and so forth.

i'm very sorry to have offended you; i just don't care for Saddleseat. i saw *a lot* of it at my old barn, and went to a few shows as well - not for me! as well, not to say anything about the Saddlebreds you ride, but i know that the Morgans at my old barn were *not* "selectively bred" to hold their heads in that position - these were the same horses i and others rode in a huntseat frame. Morgans aren't generally selectively bred for anything.

i'm sure i'm not the only one in the world that's not a terribly huge fan of Saddleseat based on what i've seen and heard about, but, as i'm sure you know, differences of opinion are no stranger to the horse world.

sorry to be so grossly misinformed; i'm sure it isn't the first time.

But I agree with Cynthia. I was a lecturer at the British Morgan Association National Conference this year, and made my views on the biomechanical reasons for my dislike of this seat very clear!

Sitting this far back on the horse causes pressure on the most sensitive part of the back, and several of the owners who do saddleseat admitted cheerfully to having to use the services of an equine chiropracter or osteopath regularly.

What is the sense in it? The old fashioned hunting seat which us not dissimilar to saddleseat has long been abandoned in this country by the vast majority,except perhaps a few very elderly hunting folk, who are perhaps a bit long in the tooth to change.

Saddleseat is ugly, damaging to the horse, and sorry to insult tradition folks, but long since past being of any practical use. Why persist in something that can damage the horse?

Heather- saying saddleseat is ugly is pure opinion. It seems ugly to you because it does not interest you. I bet ther are people on this board who think watching dressage tests is fascinating. Personally, I find then to be very boring, and I would certainly say some of the movements are ugly.

You also say that saddleseat is pointless. What is the point of dressage competitions- horses do not need to do piaffes in their natural state, nor do they need to be able to do extensive lateral movements, or even collect themselves. In the wild, horses simply run for their dear life, in whatever direction is away form the predator, using whatever gait is the fastest.

As for your opinion on back problems, the barn where I take lessons has 12 or 13 saddlebreds, all used for saddleseat, the oldest one is 28, and NONE of them have back problems. They are all ridden daily saddleseat, and it hasn't damaged any of them yet.

Past practical use??? Horses themselves are past practical use!! Everything to do with them is past practical use, except for their use on working cattle ranches. How many of those do you have in England? Cars have replaced them as a form of transportation, making them purely a recreational hobby. Going back to dressage, how is it that you are going to apply any of your fancy movements to real life needs outside the show ring or arena? What about jumping? Fox Hunting is not exactly a major sport any more. I don't know of any fox hunting happening in my part of the country.

Seeing as you are in a position of professional respect at this message board, maybe you should think twice before saying degrading things about any discipline or breed.

I just wanted to say that,we all need to look at the fact that we all ride horse back here,so why do we seem to get on someone eles for riding a certain way?for someone to say one persons riding is cruel or hurtful to the animal is a little out of place to me because a horse was not born with a person on his/her back,so how can we say they are wrong and you are riding the correct way?how do you know that the horse is happy?I think all ways of riding are beautiful and shows much talent with horses,there are people out there who are very cruel to there horses and other animals not for the way they ride but the way they get there horse to do what they think is needed for them to win and that is wrong,I take lessons for the joy fo taking them and learning correct ways to be around a horse and how to take care of them and how to ride,I take hunt seat and dressage and at a show I saw for the first time saddle seat and thought it was just as beautiful as any other sport western or english,I want to study all riding if I could and be able to teach others how to enjoy a horse as a compainon and a beautiful creature that lets us get on there back and "ride into the sunset" so why not be grateful that there are others out there who enjoy riding like us and not put them down for not riding the way you think they should ride ,in the long run when people get discouraged with what people say they end up giving it up completly and then we have lost another horse rider.

Sorry to have offended anybody, but yes, it is my opinion, and I am not afraid to express it.

If you lived in England, you would see my articles in magazines that are every bit as hard on dressage riders. Many dressage riders use force as the norm in training, and I am very, very outspoken against such treatment, which is why I am 'persona non grata' in dressage circles over here. I teach anyone who wants to ride better for the sake of their horse, their own safety, and enjoyment. If someone rings me up to book to come on a course, and wants to for the sole reason of improving their dressage score, I tell them that they are not the students for me. If they improve that score as a byproduct of coming here, then great, but competition is not the be all and end all of riding.

My horses never have to be forced to do anything. You are right, I have said many times that horses were not born to be, nor do they ask to be ridden. It therefore behoves us to ride them in a way that makes it as easy as possible for him to carry us. I have made a thirty year study of the effects of different forms of riding, and my findings hopefully will be scientifically validated before long, as there is an MSc project being undertaken along with Post graduate study in the biomechanical interaction of the rider with the movement of the horse, at a leading equestrian college and another university in the UK. I am working in conjunction with the Equine Scientist in charge of the PHd research, and the college has bought an Equisimulator from us to assist them with thier study.

I am not mainly a dressage trainer, but a riding instructor, - sure, I train to dressage at higher levels, but never, ever with force. I want my horses to work with me because they want to, not because they have to. And horses will happily piaffe when excited, and perform passage,and do several flying changes in sequence, without ever having been taught. They will do it in the field- you should see my stallion- and my Lippizaner will perform all of the 'airs above the ground' when playing, even though he has never been taught them.

Scarlet admonished me-

I fully agree, Scarlet. Every horse, and indeed every rider teaches me something different. It may be only a small thing, but often it is significant, and may be the reason that my teaching is different to other systems. The day I stop learning, is the day that I give up. Oh, and I still train several times a year, when work permits, with my own trainer, Dr. Margaret Cox.