One horse I teach with wears a Cheltenham gag, but they are, along with the Balding gag, a bit out of fashion at the moment.
I wonder why?
First of all, let’s clarify which gag is which. A Cheltenham gag is an eggbutt snaffle with cheek pieces running through the cheeks of the bit, and the rein attaches to the bottom of the cheek piece.
A Balding gag is very similar, but based on a loose ring snaffle. It was actually invented by Claire Balding’s grandfather (perhaps a great is needed there, I’m trying to clarify it as I type).
So how do the two gags work? The reins act to slide the bit up the cheek pieces to accentuate the pressure on the lips of the mouth thus encouraging the horse to raise their head. It is acts on the same places as the snaffle, but with a bit more severity. There is a little bit of poll pressure, but no action on the tongue or bars of the mouth. Because the Cheltenham gag has fixed cheek pieces it is a bit quicker to act on the lips, with more leverage.
Gags are useful for horses who like to travel long and low, but need to be collected, and sat up onto their haunches for jumps. However, my gripe with them is that they can be too harsh in inexperienced hands. Some say gags should be used with two reins, so that the lifting action can be employed in emergencies, but two reins are off putting for many riders.
When we teach riders we teach them to hold a quiet, consistent contact and be even with their hands. However, all humans are asymmetric, as are horses, so we instructors have enough to do straightening out a horse and rider without factoring the movement of a sliding cheek piece!
If a rider holds one rein heavier, with a stronger contact, then that cheek piece is pulled through the bit so constantly exerts more pressure on one side of the horse’s mouth, which will only serve to make him crooked – turning his head to one side and falling in with his body on the other. Because the cheek piece is mobile it is a lot harder to correct horse and rider. In this case I find it is better to revert to a snaffle, or if the horse is too strong for their rider then try a Dutch gag or other leverage bit, because at least the leverage is the same on each side of the mouth.
If there’s still a problem with teaching an even rein contact and straightening both horse and rider, then a straight bar mouthpiece can be useful to remove the joints and provide a constant, symmetrical bit. Even as a temporary solution, the straight mouthpiece will help identify the area of weakness and where to focus on, before a more suitable mouthpiece can be utilised. Personally I prefer mouthpieces with two joints, but sometimes a totally stable bit is needed to help a horse and their rider.
I think traditional gag bits are falling out of fashion because there are so many newer alternatives, and people will find the bit too severe if they use it incorrectly or harshly. Likewise, other designs may be simpler to use because they only need one rein, and when it goes wrong it isn’t as noticeable as with a sliding bit. I’m not trying to advocate good bits or bad bits, but rather try to figure out why sliding cheek gags have fallen out of favour. Perhaps it is because they look too simple, and their plainness doesn’t attract equestrians; who see the different mouthpieces, cheeks, and materials and hope that they will solve all the problem? Or perhaps horses nowadays and the way they are trained means that they don’t respond well to a Cheltenham or Balding gag?
The only horse I remember being ridden in a Cheltenham gag was one of the big riding school horses, who was very strong. Now I look back, his conformation and muscle tone means that the gag was completely unsuitable for his upside down frame. Anyone else have experience of these gags and do they use them currently?