The first thing I would like to point out is no matter what type of a bit goes in the horse’s mouth it can severely hurt the horse if used with too much force or if it is fitted incorrectly.
The second thing I want to point out is before you reach for more “hardware” be very sure you know what that bit is designed to do and you have a secure, balanced position first so you are not relying on the reins for support. 99% of horses have resistances from training or from a physical cause. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for the rider to learn to ride well. It does not matter if you only trail ride at a trot or if you gallop cross country. The bit is the most powerful tool we use to control the horse. However, even the most severe bit will not control a horse that does not have good training and does not trust its rider. A more severe bit does have it place in training as horses can be ruined through bad training and need such sharp reminders to reinforce proper behavior. A more severe bit can also be used in an adrenaline fueled situations such as jumping cross country, fox hunting, hunter pacing or a speed event. However, using a stronger bit as an answer to an every day problem is never a good long term solution. The goal should be to use the mildest bit the horse goes comfortably in and the mildest aids. The best tools is good training and conditioning.
When it comes to choosing a bit that your horse likes the biggest consideration is the amount of good quality training the horse has had, the level of the rider and what you want to do with your horse or what you want the bit to do. An internet search will come up with all kinds of bitless rides, including jumping, reining, barrels and dressage. All of that shows you that horses don’t need severe bits to perform well. It is up to the rider to learn how to ride well. It is not up to the horse to tolerate poor riding. Choose the mildest bit you can find and try it on. If the horse carries it with his mouth quietly closed or very softly chewing then it probably will work. Opening the mouth, drawing the tongue up and back, tossing the head, trying to yank the reins down, shaking the head are all big signs the horse is not happy with the bit or the rider hands. I recommend borrowing a few bits from a friend or trainer and trying them on.
Fitting the bit is again a bit of trial and error. Most horses have a mouth somewhere between 5 and 5 1/2 inches. Obviously, draft and draft crosses are bigger and small horses and ponies are smaller. To figure out what size your horse you can try a string in the mouth or the leadrope and mark off where the corners of the mouth are. In general, you want about 1/4 of an inch of bit sticking out on each side. Less width means that when you put pressure on the bit it will squeeze the cheeks too much and cause sores at the corners of the lips. Too wide and the bit won’t act effectively. The height of the bit is also a personal one for the horse. I prefer to have 1 small wrinkle, or none at all, in the corner of the mouth. This allows the horse to put the bit where he feels the most comfortable. Too low where it is not touching the corners of the lips and you risk hitting the incisors. Too high and the bit is constantly putting pressure on the corners of the mouth which can create sores and with added rein pressure can hit the molars.
Thickness is a matter of preference on the horse’s part. A thick bit may be milder, as in less sharp, but it may be hitting the palate of the horse. It also opens up the lips more and will press on a larger area of the tongue. Milder may also translate into the horse losing some respect for the bit.
Do any search on bits and hundreds of articles and images come up. Where does one start?
The difference, essentially, is that the snaffle bit works by putting direct pressure on the tongue, lips and bars of the mouth. The bars are the part of the gums where there are naturally no teeth, between the incisors and the molars. The amount of pressure the rider puts on the reins is what the horse feels in the snaffle bit. If a rider is pulling each rein wih 5 pounds of pressure, the horse feels 10 pounds of pressure on the bit. The curb bit uses leverage by rotating the bit in the horses mouth causing the curb chain, the part that goes under the chin, to squeeze the bit against the bars of the mouth between the chain and the bit.
This is a list of the most popular styles of bits and but are many more out there. The combinations of cheekpieces, materiel and mouth combinations is quite extensive and I cannot cover it all in this article. This point of this article is to help educate you about the main styles and their effects so you can be more educated in your decision on trying and buying a bit for your horse. It should also be noted that often changing the bit, for example from a snaffle with a bean to a French link snaffle is sometimes helpful as the pressure points get dull after a while and it keeps the horse more responsive. It is also helpful to remember that for high adrenaline activities, cross country, fox hunting, polo, barrel racing, etc., a stronger bit is often helpful in controlling the horse. The bit you would use for most schooling situations is often much more mild. Please check with USEF, FEI, or your local or National Governing Body for the exact rules of the competition you plan on attending to see if the bit you choose is legal for your chosen event.
The snaffle is the bit most horses are started in and spend the rest of their life in.
Snaffles are most often joined in the middle. Snaffles come in a large variety with all having different action on the bars, corners of lips, tongue and palette. All however, consist of a mouthpiece with rings at each end to which the reins and cheek pieces are attached. The idea for the snaffle is to help create bend in the horse and some vertical flexion. Another function of the snaffle is for the horse to stretch into the bit. One side of the bit moves and the other is still. Below are some examples of the more common forms of snaffles.
These are the mildest snaffles are the straight bar and Mullen mouth snaffles that have no joint and are just a single, continuous smooth piece of metal or rubber also called vulcanite. A popular brand is “Happy Mouth”. It is commonly used on very young horses or very sensitive horses. It puts most of the pressure on the horses tongue. Mullen mouths are slightly curved to allow more freedom to the tongue.
The rings are where the reins attach to the bit on the sides of the horses mouth. Loose rings slide freely through the reins and bit. Some horses can get pinched where the ring goes through the bit (called the “butt”) and others don’t like all the sliding movement. The rings make the bit very mobile in the horses mouth and some horse like that action. It is useful in encouraging the horse to mouth the bit and keep the jaw more mobile and relaxed. This is a popular bit for young dressage and event horses and as a step up from the Mullen mouth.
This bit has a straight solid piece where it connects to the bit but otherwise the reins can slide freely. This bit is a little quieter than the loose ring as the rings don’t slide through the mouthpiece. It is a little less mobile in the horses mouth and for horses that find loose rings too busy this bit or a Dee ring, below, are often a good choice.
This is a very popular choice in the Hunter circles. This bit has longer straight piece where it connects to the bit which can provide some assistance in steering by putting pressure on the cheek. It also is more stable in the mouth, it does not move as much. Otherwise it is very similar to the Eggbutt. Both bits are good for horses who are soft in the mouth. It is helpful at at keeping the mouth quieter which is desired in Hunter and Equitation circles.
It has a separate ring to attach the cheek piece to. This keeps the bit very still in the horses mouth. Due to the raised rein attachment rings, it also has the effect of putting mild pressure on the poll which encourages a lower head carriage.
This bit has very long straight pieces coming from the top and the bottom of the end of the bit. These long pieces are useful to help a horse turn and also prevent the bit from being pulled through the sides of the mouth. They should be attached to the bridle by a little double loop of leather, called the bit keeper, that prevents the cheekpieces from rotating and keeps them still against the side of the face and also helps keep it from getting hooked on things like a trainer’s jacket.
This bit has loose rings that are separate from the full cheek pieces. The reins attach to the loose rings so it combines the effect of a loose ring snaffle and a full cheek. This is useful on horses who may have steering issues, like young horses.
Jointed snaffles can be single or double jointed. Both have a nut cracker effect which is very painful if used too strongly. The snaffle folds in the middle around the tongue and jaw. The tip in the middle can hit the palette. Only riding on light contact will prevent this. Single jointed snaffle examples are shown above in the Dee Ring, the Egg Butt and the Loose Ring. Double jointed snaffles follow the curve of the mouth a little better than a single jointed snaffle. However, this type of bit can work more on the bars of the mouth. The advantage is that one side of the bit will move more and the other will stay quieter. Double jointed snaffles include:
This bit which has a rectangularish piece in the middle with the flat edge lying on the tongue. This does provide some palette and tongue relief as it can curve somewhat ot the horses mouth. However, this bit, like the Dr. Bristol below, does put some tongue pressure on when used.
This bit which is similar to the French link but the edge of the rectangle sits on the tongue. It is a bit harsher than a French link, useful on horses who push their tongue against the bit as an evasion;
The above snaffles are considered by many to be the most mild and many horses go very well in them. The ones listed below are considered to be more severe and more thought has to be placed on why they are needed when choosing them.
Other snaffles include:
This bit has 5-9 “balls” linked together. This is used on horses who tend to brace hard. There is no fixed point to brace against and becasue it is made up of balls, the horse usually will mouth it more than a bit with a solid mouthpiece.
These bits sometimes have a piece that looks like a half circle or spoon in the middle. The idea is to prevent the horse from getting his tongue over the bit. The half moon is a port and hits the palette of the horse’s mouth. When the horse moves his head so the nose is vertical the port effect is removed. Snaffles with spoons or links are there to prevent the tongue from going over the bit
This is a moderately severe bit. It has sharp ridges as it twists in a spiral. This is often used on horses with hard mouths. The ridges back the horse off the bit. The Corkscrew Snaffle has an even more severe action as there are more and smaller ridges.
Snaffles with double mouth pieces are one of the more severe bits as it puts tremendous pressure on the bars of the mouth.
Another variety of snaffles are gag bits. These are used on confirmed pullers, often in polo, cross country and jumpers. These bits have a leverage action that causes the bit to be pulled up against the horses lips as the piece of rope over the ears exerts poll pressure. The idea is that the horse brings head neck up and nose in. There is the typical gag with rubber or leather cheek pieces . All gags should be used with two reins, one on the main ring so it acts like a regular snaffle and one on the gag rein to be brought into use when the horse does not listed to the main rein. This way the horse can be trained to listen to the main rein and not need a more severe action.
The 3 ring gag is different as it produces a head lowering effect by creating poll pressure. This is useful on horses who are very high-headed in their evasions to the bit.
Traditionally, Curb bits are a sign of a finished horse. Whatever the discipline, the idea is that the horse is now schooled to the highest levels and is capable of carrying himself in the manner which a curb bit causes the horse to go. Unfortunately, curb bits are often put on horses with dead mouths such as horses used on trail strings.
All curb bits are unjointed and have shanks that create leverage. There is a smaller upper shank and a longer lower shank, both attached butt of the bit. The cheek piece attached to the upper shank with a ring. The reins attach on the lower shank on a ring. There should always be a chain attached from the ring on the upper shank under the chin to the ring on the opposite upper shank. The curb chain can be covered with or made entirely of leather or neoprene. Its purpose is to keep the curb bit fixed at a certain position in the horse’s mouth, to prevent the curb from moving too much and to put leverage on the horses chin. A good rule of thumb is to be able to fit 2 fingers between an adjusted curb chain and the horse’s jaw. The curb chain should not be twisted but lay flat underneath the jaw. It should also be adjusted so that it comes into play when the lower shanks go back about 45 degrees. The chain can be covered in leather, neoprene or wool.
When a rider applies pressure to the reins, the upper shank goes forward causing the bit to rotate in the horse’s mouth. The effect is of putting pressure on the tongue and lower jaw. The horse moves his head in towards his neck to relieve the pressure. Ideally, the horse has lifted the base of his neck through a swinging back and pushing hind end. The curb assists in bring the head onto the vertical as well as applying poll pressure to lower the head. The amount of pressure applied using a curb bit is roughly a 3:1 ratio. Meaning, if you apply 3 pounds of pressure on the reins it become 9 pounds of pressure in the horse’s mouth. Ouch!
Curb bits can be used alone, as seen on many Western horses or in combination with a snaffle to become a double or full bridle. Advanced dressage horses, Western horses and Saddlebreds are examples of disciplines where a curb bit is required at a level of competition. There are many different types of curbs bits, but as with the snaffle, the smoother and simpler the mouth piece, the milder the action. At one end are simple curbs with a low, wide port and a smooth mouth piece. At the other end are “spade” bits, which only have a place with the most experienced horseman on a thoroughly trained horse. A horse trained correctly in a spade bit responds to the weight of the reins alone. There is no other contact on the mouth. In between are many variations.
The Kimberwick is a mild curb bit. It is useful on horses who lean on the bit but don’t need a lot of stopping power. It can be solid, solid with a port or jointed. However, when it is jointed it does not act like a true curb and can send mixed signals to the horse. The rings are not fixed and are a little more forgiving than a Pelham so it is a useful bit to try if a twist or elevator does not do the trick.
It is a bit that is considered a milder version of the double bridle and is often used on strong pulling horses. The mouthpiece can be unjointed or jointed as well as ported, or raised in the middle or no port. Again, a jointed Pelham is not a true curb bit and can be confusing as it sends mixed signals to the horse. A popular set up using on one rein by installing rein converters. But the best way to introduce and train a horse with this bit is to use two reins, once acts as a snaffle and one acts as a curb. The most common way to hold the reins is to have the snaffle rein held in the usual manner between the ring finger nad the thumb and the curb rein between the ring finger and the pinkie. This is very useful for jumpers, cross country riders and polo players who need instant communication and cannot waste a stride with a horse that is arguing about the bit. It has a lot of stopping power. It is, however, a bit that can be very harsh in the wrong hands. It can be used as a bridge for transitioning from a snaffle to a full bridle for both horse and rider. It is a very traditional bridle in the hunt field and in the Hunter and Equitation disciplines.
The Weymouth is a bit that is meant to be used in conjunction with a Bridoon snaffle,which is a snaffle with small rings and a thin mouthpiece. Together they become a double or full bridle.
These bridles are only meant for riders who have exceptional control over their balance and aids as it is one of the most powerful setups. The point to riding in a double bridle is to show the horse is very well schooled and only the slightest touch on the reins brings on the desired effect. There can be a port or a shallow curve or be straight. A port does allow some tongue relief but the port hits the palette unless the horses nose is vertical to the ground.
Both the Weymouth and Pelham curb bits have a small ring to attach a lip strap to. The lip strap also connects to a spare ring in the middle of the curb chain. This keeps the shanks from moving too far back or, even worse, going upside down. An important but often overlooked piece of equipment.
Bits come in a variety of materials. Stainless steel is the most common of metal bits. Most horses go well in stainless steel, hence its popularity. Black, or sweet, iron is common mostly in the Western circles but gaining ground in the English disciplines. It does oxidize but the horses don’t seem to mind. Copper is another popular choice but is softer than stainless steel. Some people feel coppers “zings” in a horses mouth and that is why some horses don’t like it. German silver also known as Augrian steel is an alloy of nickel, copper and zinc. There are bits which are made of or covered in rubber or a rubber-like materiel. They are often used on horses with very soft mouths. Leather mouthpieces are for the most sensitive of horses. Another option is to have the center piece made of one material, like a copper roller, and the rest of the bit made of another material.
Bitless bridles have been around since man first domesticated the horse. The Westen versions include the Bosal, which is a type of hackamore. It acts on nose and jaw pressure and is often made up of rope. Many good Western trainers start their young horses out in a Bosal as it is a logical step from the halter. It is a nice option for casual trail riding as the horse can eat and drink easily. Bosals, like most Western tack, can come in a dazzling array of colors and styles. Like other hackamores, the nosepiece is made up of rawhide, leather or metal. Rope reins are the most common type used. Sidepulls are a version of the Bosal. They work on just nose pressure and work in a lateral fashion. They are not a good idea for strong horses.
Hackamores, of the English variety, act mostly on the nose bone and the chin. The nose piece can be made up of leather, leather or rubber covered rawhide, chain or metal. The effect as a whole is similar in action to a curb in that the top shank rotates forward and the bottom rotates back squeezing the nose and chin together. They are considered mechanical hackamores because of this. These are an excellent option for horses who have a mouth injury or for whatever reason do not accept bits.
Good luck in your search!