On Bits

QUESTION: What kind of bit is suitable for a horse?

ANSWER: An easy bit.

QUESTION: Why is an easy bit necessary for all horses,
whatever may be their resistance?

ANSWER: Because the effect of a severe bit
is to constrain and surprise a horse,
while it ought to prevent him from doing wrong
and enable him to do well.
Now, we cannot obtain these results
except by the aid of an easy bit,
and above all, of a skillful hand;
for the bit is the hand,
and a good hand is the whole of the rider.

QUESTION: Are there any other inconveniences
connected with
the instruments of torture
called severe bits?

ANSWER: Certainly there are,
for the horse soon learns to avoid
the painful infliction of them
by forcing the rider’s legs,
the power of which can never be equal
to that of this barbarous bit.
He succeeds in this by yielding with his body,
and resisting with his neck and jaw,
which misses altogether the aim proposed.

QUESTION: How is it that nearly all the horsemen of renown
have invented a particular kind of bit?

ANSWER: Because being wanting in personal science,
they sought to replace their own insufficiency
by aids or strange machines.

QUESTION: Is it to the rider or to the horse
that we ought to impute the fault of bad execution?

ANSWER: To the rider, and always to the rider.
As it depends upon him to supple
and place the horse in the way of the movement,
and as with these two conditions faithfully fulfilled,
everything becomes regular,
it is then to the rider
that the merit or blame ought to belong.

Baucher, F. (2011-12-06).
New Method of Horsemanship
Including the Breaking and Training of Horses,
with Instructions for Obtaining a Good Seat.
(Kindle Locations 1240-1251). . Kindle Edition.

I am sure that there are those that wonder how I can justify putting a snaffle bit in my horse’s mouth now that I have admitted that they can become a nut-cracker-like vise when both reins are pulled at the same time in my previous post (click here), My answer is that:

• By the time a horse is far enough along in their schooling to carry a bit, there is no reason to pull at all, never mind with two hands at once.

(click for more on the horse’s mouth and for more on hands)

On the philosophical end of things, horsemanship would vastly improve if more people understood that horses are not born with little brakes in their jaws that make their legs freeze up and stop moving when you pull on the reins. On the contrary, pulling on the reins makes a green horse stiffen their jaw, throw up their head, and begin to rush forward, at least partly as a result of losing their ability to balance themselves.

If you watch racehorses slowing down after the finish line, you will see that their jockeys do not yank on the reins to stop them; instead, they offer the horse more rein and relax their own position, letting the horse know it is okay to slow down. If you listen to what jockeys say about a successful ride, you will hear statements like:

• “I felt him take a good hold of the bit when he found his winning stride.”

In other words, more tension on the reins tends to be associated with more speed, while a relaxed rein and rider usually results in a relaxed, calm, horse willing to slow down and halt.

One of the worst cases I saw as a veterinary assistant was a horse equipped with a brutal spade bit that had panicked and run through at least one barbwire fence. The horse stopped eventually, not because of the rider hauling and yanking on the reins, but strictly out of exhaustion and blood loss. The inside of his mouth was as torn up and bloody from the bit as his legs were from the barbwire. This experience brought a few horsey truths home to me:

  • • The horse is a flight animal.
    • A horse that is frightened will flee
    • A horse that is hurting will flee
    • Inflicting more pain and
  • inciting more fear will make the horse:

• more determined to flee!

If you are absolutely set on pulling the reins to stop, consider that horses are strictly nose breathers, so anything that compresses their nostrils will interfere with their breathing and eventually slow them down. This is one of the principles behind the design of much horsey headgear from mechanical hackamores to bitless bridles. However, attempting to suffocate your mount is not a particularly subtle means of communication, nor is it likely to build trust and companionship. Nor is gear designed to accomplish this versatile enough for successful schooling.

If you wish to school and dislike the possibility of the snaffle folding up in the horse’s mouth and/or are honest enough to admit you are occasionally less than tactful in your handling of the reins, use a double jointed or French link bit instead of a plain snaffle. This design adds a short third piece to the center of the snaffle. Many of them use a flat plate that can be quite harsh if the bit twists in the horse’s mouth and brings the narrow edge against the tongue and palate. To protect your horse’s mouth, buy one with a smooth lozenge in the center.

• The proportions of the centerpiece to the sides varies
• as does the range of movement between the pieces
• Experiment until you find the ratio and flexibility that your horse likes best

Even confining oneself to snaffle and French link types of bits leaves a dizzying array of options on the market. Which bit you choose depends very much on the type of horse carrying it. A smooth thickish mouthpiece will suit a thin-skinned sensitive racing Thoroughbred long selected for an ability to breath at speed which requires a high arched palate and width between the bars of their lower jaw. A thick-skinned cold-blooded draft horse with a fleshy tongue, low palate, and narrow bars will find the same bit an unwieldy and uncomfortable mouthful, needing a mouthpiece thin enough to be excruciating painful to the hot-blooded horse just to be able to close their jaws. A properly fitted bit allows the horse to swallow and move their tongue freely with their mouth closed. Make sure that:

• The bit is the right thickness for your horse’s mouth
• The mouth piece must be thin enough that the horse can comfortably close their mouth
• and thick enough to protect the tender bars and tongue

Too short of a mouthpiece pinches the horse and too long of a mouthpiece can clash against their front teeth. They are as uncomfortable for the horse as too small or too large of shoes are for your feet. A snaffle bit that sits comfortably at the corners of the horse’s lips and lies in the toothless space on the bars between the horse’s molars and incisors is the most comfortable for the horse. Make sure that:

• the bit is the right length for your horse’s mouth

A snaffle sits snugly up against the corners of the horse’s lips. Make sure that your bit has:

• Egg-butts or D-rings to prevent the corners of the horse’s mouth from being pinched
• That are large enough to prevent the bit from being pulled through the horse’s mouth if he should startle

Far too many modern warm-bloods are difficult to bit as they combine the sensitivity and thin skin of the hot-blooded breeds with the thick tongue, low palate, and narrow bars of the cold blood. Unlike cavalry mounts of old, correct conformation of the mouth is apparently no longer part of the criteria for a good saddle horse. Your best bet with these horses is to let them grow up, schooling them in a mild caveson until they have a full mouth of adult teeth. This gives a little more room in the mouth for the bit, and less time for the horse to develop resistances. Then you will need to experiment to find the bit that is the right combination to suit the individual horse.

• a double jointed or French link may be more comfortable than a regular 2 piece broken snaffle
• some horses may prefer a bar bit, which requires more finesse on the part of the rider
• a shaped mouthpiece is a last resort

The drawback to using a one-piece bar bit is that they affect both sides of the horse’s mouth even when only one rein is used. When the left side of the bit moves towards the lower left , the right side also moves and presses against the upper right as the bar twists in the horse’s mouth. A sensitive horse will also twist their head in an attempt to follow the pressure of the bit. A broken bit allows a tactful rider to move only one side of the bit at a time, giving the horse a single comprehensible cue (click here).

Shaped mouthpieces whether one piece or broken are problematic. There is usually only one position that is fitted to the horse’s jaw and comfortable for the horse. If the bit is not correctly shaped to exactly fit the individual horse’s mouth, the shaping creates unexpected and unpleasantly painful pressure points. Worse, if the horse tries to move its tongue and jaws with the bit in its mouth, which it should be able to, or if the bit turns or twists from the rider pulling on the reins; the shaping becomes at best awkwardly placed and can become extremely unpleasant. Advertisers may try to disguise the fact that these bits are designed to hurt the horse with flowery descriptions:

‘…mouthpieces are designed
To create an oval shape
For an enhanced contact surface
And increased sensitivity.
The bits are gentle with soft contact
But provide a stronger impact
with stronger reins aids.’

Learn to read with discernment and see through the euphemisms as an ‘enhanced contact surface’ really means more metal on bone, a ‘stronger impact’ means serious pain, and ‘stronger rein aids’ means when you haul on the reins (click here). I will leave the particular company that published the above quote anonymous because it is just one of many, and my point is that ALL of the manufacturers of such bits are designing and selling implements of torture because that is what people want to buy. In my view, tools that are designed to inflict bone bruises and cut tongues have no place in any rider’s barn that has any pretense of concern for the horse’s well being.

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While a custom fitted shaped bit may be a workable solution for to a fully schooled horse with poor conformation in the mouth, a green and growing colt, unused to any bit, and whose mouth is constantly changing may find them shockingly uncomfortable. Make sure the bit you choose has:

• no narrow edges and/or bends than can twist, turn, and hurt the horse

Strapping the horse’s mouth so tightly closed that neither the horse’s tongue nor the bit can move is a cruel reaction to an entirely man made problem. Nosebands are actually a fairly recent addition to horse gear that coincides with the industrial revolution and the introduction of machinery into battle making cavalry almost as disposable as infantry. Losing their mount because of a fall during combat left the rider afoot on the battlefield, and at risk. Pulling the horse’s mouth open by holding onto the reins as both horse and rider lost their balance so their combined weight landed on the horse’s open lower jaw was the end for the horse. Nosebands were intended to keep the horse’s mouth shut so that poorly trained riders would not break their equally green mounts’ jaws if they fell on the battlefield.

For schooling purposes, you do not need a noseband especially not one made of harsh materials and/or with enough leverage in the buckle to enable you to force your horse to keep their mouth closed. Avoid nosebands made of:

• cable
• cord
• rawhide
• abrasive materials, including nubs or spikes
• and/or with crank buckles

The behavior these nosebands are designed to prevent:

• opening and twisting the jaws,
• balling up and sticking out the tongue,
• and so on

are all signs that your horse is suffering. Keep in mind that it is only light sympathetic hands and a correctly fitted bit that will genuinely resolve these blatant symptoms of distress. As the horse must be able to relax their mouth, open their jaws, and move their tongue freely, in order to exercise their delicacy of balance, only skillful hands and mild bits will open the door to lightness, (click here). If you must use a noseband, make sure that you can easily put two fingers in between the noseband and the bony top of the horse’s nose. That insures your horse can still breathe and swallow.

Bits are now made of many different materials from sweet iron to plastic. I prefer as inert a metal as possible. I find bits that advertize their ability to make the horse salivate suspect. Chances are if a horse needs chemical encouragement to salivate, the rider and their choice of gear is hampering, not helping the horse in its movements. Equally importantly, given the amount of environmental toxins already out there, I would rather not add a bit that leaches enough metals, plastics, synthetic flavors, and what have you into the horse’s system to make them slobber. Although I do not know of any research published on the subject of toxic bits, the all too prevalent issues of premature aging, mysterious ailments, unforeseen unsoundnesses, irritable and nervous dispositions, and generally poor performance in horses these days are all also symptoms of heavy metal and environmental poisoning. It seems only sensible to reduce your horse’s exposure to environmental toxins as much as you can in the ways that you can.

Choosing a snaffle bit with the goal of schooling a horse with delicacy and finesses automatically rules out bits with:

• Twisted, triangular, corrugated, chain, wire, and multiple mouth pieces
• Gag bits that slide up into the horse’s molars and put pressure on their poll
• any kind of shank or leverage

Adding shanks to the mouth piece of a bit adds leverage to the reins. Because the inherent leverage of all curb bits, regardless of mouthpiece, amplifies the actions of the reins manifold times, most people schooling most horses with the goal of establishing a mutual language are better off sticking with the much milder and more forgiving snaffle. Using one curb rein at a time twists and torques the bar in the horse’s mouth. Combining the leverage of a curb bit with the broken mouthpiece of a snaffle produces a mouth-mangler extraordinaire, capable of causing great pain with minimal effort and useless in communicating with finesse.

For aficionados of the many variations on the long-shanked western grazing bit, all I can do is report that after watching me work with my horses some years back, a local cowboy informed me that cow-horses and cow-dogs were both cheap for reason. He insisted that it was not worth investing the time in training them because no one expected them to last long enough for it to matter (click here). If you wish a longer more constructive relationship with your horse, know that before you consider using a curb bit, you and your horse should be sufficiently advanced in your schooling that your horse immediately changes gait, speed, and direction in response to their rider’s seat and legs.

Traditionally, the curb is a one-piece bar bit with shanks. As both reins of the curb are normally held in one hand, it is most useful in working situations where the rider’s hands are otherwise occupied. If you are not jousting, bullfighting, roping cattle, or riding high school movements, you probably will not ever need to use a curb bit. Should you decide to use a curb bit, be aware that:

• the longer the shanks and the higher the port in the mouthpiece the greater your leverage and the more pain you can cause your horse.

The primary affect of the curb is on the horse’s carriage. A properly adjusted curb hangs comfortably loose:

• when the horse’s head and neck are held in the desired position for the work being done

If the horse throws their head up the bit comes into action automatically. If the rider is heavy handed, it is extremely easy for the horse to learn that they can escape the pressure of the curb by dropping their head and getting behind it, making it worse than useless.

Using a double bridle with both a snaffle and a curb allows the rider to use the best aspects of both types of bit. It aids the horse in making the transition from snaffle to curb. With that much metal in the horse’s mouth fitting the bits to the individual horse is that much more important, as is the delicacy of the riders touch on the reins.

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