Archive for bits
By: Larissa Cox
Tack shops and equestrian catalogues are filled with all sorts of bits of differing shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, bits are the most misunderstood piece of the horse’s equipment ever invented. Too often, we humans are of the opinion that as our horses are big animals, therefore the pressures needed to control them must be big and strong. This is just not true. If you really take a look and study your horse’s mouth, you’ll see that there are very few surfaces where the bit can apply pressure. The bit must be shaped to fit properly within the mouth so that your horse is able to understand the communication and not flinch from it.
The area in your horse’s mouth where the bit communicates pressure is called the bars. The bars are the gaps between the front teeth and the back teeth on either side of the jaw consisting of tissue-covered, pressure sensitive cartilage. The bit lies across these bars and presses against the horse’s tongue and depending upon the bit’s shape and adjustment, can also put pressure on the horse’s lips, tongue and roof of the mouth.
The first thing you need to look at before you put anything in your horse’s mouth is the contact area. The thinner the bit, the less contact area it has and the greater the pressure on the bars…makes sense. Also makes sense that the thicker the bit, the greater the contact area and the lower the pressure on the bars.
The second thing you look for in a bit is whether it is straight or shaped. If the bit is straight, the horse’s tongue will absorb some of the pressure of the bit and the horse will feel less pressure on the bars of his mouth. If the mouthpiece is hinged, the bit provides more pressure on the bars of the mouth and will in turn give more directional guidance.
The third aspect of a bit to examine is the leverage. The curb bit is different as it has the reins attached below the mouthpiece so the principle of the lever and fulcrum is in effect. This means that if the cheek or purchase piece of the bit is one inch and the shank is three inches, then the bit is 1 to 3 in leverage. What this means is, if the rider applies one pound of pressure to the reins, three pounds of pressure is applied to the horse’s mouth. Typically, as the horse progresses through his education, he is generally asked to work with a curb bit as the lever of the action of the curb bit magnifies the subtle movement of the reins as the rider asks for head and body frame. Use the curb on a horse that knows what to do…knows the positions and has learned the correct responses and understands that by responding quickly and correctly he will be left in a comfortable position. Curb bits are non directional and their pressure is felt as a clamping between the horse’s chin and the bars of the mouth. If you use a chain, the pressure is more noticeable underneath the chin whereas if you use a leather strap, the pressure is more on the bars of the mouth.
The biggest mistake a rider can make is taking only the bit into consideration not thinking that the bit is only a part of the overall passageway of aids, that of the seat and legs, to create the shape you want for your horse. You don’t want the bit to speak louder than your legs or seat and you don’t need a big bit to get your horse’s attention. You just need to know how to use the bit to make it more understandable to your horse.
Too many people rely solely on the bit, saying if the bit doesn’t work, then they’ll try one with a longer shank or one with a thinner mouthpiece or twisted wire! If that doesn’t work, then other artificial aids will control the horse. It is very unfortunate that many people rely on a 5 inch bit and do not measure the horse’s mouth for the proper bit size.
According to Susan Harris, “If a bit doesn’t fit properly, the horse will fuss with his mouth, toss his head or pull.” All bits should be about a half-inch wider than your horse’s mouth and you need to measure your horse’s mouth. Don’t guess at the size! Also, bits must be smooth and comfortable. A true snaffle bit should rest high in the horse’s mouth so it won’t irritate the horse’s tongue, while a curb bit should rest against the corners of your horse’s mouth without making a wrinkle.
Having a bit too low in your horse’s mouth may be problematic as the lower in the horse’s mouth, the bars get thinner and sharper making the mouth more sensitive. You can really irritate your horse if the bit is too low and can especially hurt his mouth if he should get his tongue over the bit.
Also remember that not only is fitting the bit important, but it is also very important to have the entire bridle comfortable and proper fitting.
By Larissa Cox
Recently, I attended a conference where a prominent clinician was performing and selling his products. One of the items being sold was his recommended array of bits. Looking at all the bits hanging on the wall, I noticed that all the bits were of one size…5 inches.
We, as people don’t have the same foot sizes, we all differ in length, width and foot shape. Now wouldn’t this same logic apply to the horse’s mouth that each horse would be different? When I asked the sales associate why each and every bit was 5 inches, the reply was the 5 inch bit is the most common bit and it generally fits 99% of horses. Interesting…
Now, I own three horses. Different breeds. Different sizes. So, according to the sales associate, a 5 inch bit should fit 2.9% of my 3 horses. Basically a 5 inch bit should fit all three. Okay, now let us measure each horse.
Bruq, my 15hh Arabian gelding, measures at a 5 ¼ inch bit.
Phantom, my 16.1 Oldenburg, measures a 5 1/2 inch bit, and
Rio, my 17.1hh Hanoverian, sports a whopping 6 ¾ inch bit!
Not one of my horses would be fitted with a 5 inch bit!
While some horses have custom fit saddles, proper leg protection and a great nutrition program, many horses are still expected to perform in a bit that is either too small or too large for their mouths. Like many horse enthusiasts, you may not recognize that your horse has a problem with his bit. How does he try to tell you? The only way he can, through his behavior and bit evasions. Many evasions may not be that obvious but can be annoying habits that prevent your horse from relaxing and giving you his best. What often appears as a training issue, can be as simple as an ill fitting bit! A common misconception is that a horse with a painful mouth will be especially sensitive to bit cues. In fact horses tend to push into pain.
Recognizing bit resistance is important when dealing with some behavior issues. Most common resistance issues can be:
- Bit chomping or open mouth
- Teeth grinding
- Leaning against your hand
- Staying behind the bit, putting his nose to his chest, or
- Keeping his head high, nose up in the air
- Head shaking or head tossing
- Hanging his tongue out
- Not moving forward
- Lack of lateral suppleness
- Tightness at the poll
- Backing up
- Sour horse, difficulty tacking up.
So, before you hang that bridle on your horse’s head, make sure that the bit is the proper size. Most experts agree that a bit that is not sized correctly not only causes excess pain and discomfort, but cannot work effectively. To determine if your current bit is the appropriate size, put the bit in the horse’s mouth and hold one ring of the bit against the corner of the lips and cheek without indenting them. Gently pull the other bit ring until the two arms of the mouthpiece are aligned. If the horse’s lips are pulled inwards, then the bit is too short. On the other hand, if more than ½” of mouthpiece protrudes then the bit is too long.
Dr. Hilary Clayton, veterinarian at MSU, conducted a radiographic study of bits in July 2005 and observed that riders and trainers have long believed that horses “lean on the bit,” or travel on their forehand, because they’re naturally (or have become) insensitive to the pressure or effect of the bit. But her studies have shown that the opposite is really true, that horses lean on the bit to relieve the pressure on the soft tissues of their palate. In addition, Dr. Clayton believes that bit size is a more crucial measurement than most people think. She advises measuring the width from lip to lip on your horse, and adding ¼” to get the proper measurement for your bit.
Choosing the correct bit size is not a science but does require knowledge. Trying to do it yourself without that knowledge could result in a lot of frustration and wasted money. Do not assume that every trainer is experienced and knowledgeable about bitting. If you are unsure, check with a custom bit manufacturer and please measure your horse’s mouth! Remember that not all horse’s are a size 5 bit!
Happy riding – Larissa
By Larissa Cox
You have decided that your horse needs a new bit and after speaking to your horse friends on their opinions, walked into your neighbourhood tack store to choose your bit only to be shocked by the number of different bits that were displayed on the wall and then just stood there, completely confused…You’re not alone.
Humans domesticated the modern day horse many thousands of years ago and learned early on if they could control the horse’s lower jaw, what we now call the “bars” of the jaw (the space between the front incisors and the pre-molars) they could control the horse’s head ultimately controlling the body. To be blunt, bits are designed to create discomfort in the hope that the horse will avoid the discomfort and will respond in a way that satisfies you, the rider. There really is no other way to explain how a bit works so the key is in choosing a bit which is the most comfortable for your horse and know how to use that bit.
There are basically two main categories that bits fall into:
- snaffle bits
- leverage bits
and three types of mouthpieces:
In this post, we will be discussing the first category of bits, snaffle bits. First, let’s start on the definition of a snaffle bit. A snaffle bit is designed so that the reins have direct contact with the horse’s mouth. This bit does not have a shank, so no leverage is applied. The snaffle bit is very simple in design as every pound of pressure or pull from the rider’s hand equals the same amount of pressure or pull to the horse’s mouth. To over simplify this, the snaffle is made up of a mouthpiece and rings and when the rider wants to bend the horse right, pulling the right rein will direct the horse in that direction.
There are three main pressure points to the snaffle bit: the tongue, bars of the jaw and the corner of the mouth. Let’s take a moment to quickly review those pressure points. According to Hilary Vernon, Illustrated Guide To Bits and Bitting, “the bars of the mouth are the gum areas without teeth on the bottom jaw between the molars at the back and the incisors at the front of the mouth.” (Vernon, H. The Allen Illustrated Guide to Bits and Bitting, p. 15) The bars can be very sensitive and narrow and thinly covered with skin, so it is important to check your horse’s jaw to determine if he has “narrow or wider” bars.
Who would have thought that the tongue plays an important part in bit fitting! This strong elastic muscle with a bump on it is situated approximately where the molars start. The tongue is often used by the horse to push against the action of the bit, sending the bit forward in the mouth. Tongues come in all shapes and sizes and need to be allowed to lie comfortably and naturally within the mouth without too much interference from the bit, so please check your horse’s tongue to determine if the bit size you want will fit comfortably in the mouth. With a thick tongue, the bit will touch the bars of the mouth much later than with a thin tongue. To check your horse’s tongue thickness, part your horse’s lips with the teeth still closed and see if the tongue fills the mouth cavity or bulges out over the bars. If it does budge, there might not be too much room for a thicker bit.
The roof of the mouth is a very soft and sensitive mouth area. Too much pressure here will cause the horse to react, often negatively, either by opening his mouth, tipping his head or tucking his chin into his chest. As the shape of the roof of your horse’s mouth can vary greatly, care must be taken to choose a bit that does not put unbearable pressure on this part of the mouth.
The severity of the snaffle bit is typically determined by the diameter and the shape of the mouthpiece. The general rule of thumb is the larger the diameter, the milder the bit. And let’s not forget the multitude of bitting materials…stainless steel, rubber, German silver, copper, etc. Each bitting material has its advantages and disadvantages, so it would also be important to determine what you can afford keeping in mind that you always get what you pay for. A good quality bit in your horse’s mouth is a very important investment.
Fitting your snaffle bit:
- To fit your bit correctly, the bit should be on your bridle with the noseband undone.
- The bit should fit snugly into the corners of the lips, just wrinkling the corners without pulling the face up. If you pull down lightly on the bit, it shouldn’t leave a gap between it and the corners of the mouth.
- To get the width right, stand in front of your horse holding the bit ring in each hand. Pull the bit rings so that the bit is straight in the mouth and now you should be able to put one finger sideways between the bit ring and the horse’s lip on each side of the mouth. If the bit is too wide, the joint will hand too low in the mouth and could interfere with your horse’s teeth or hang out of the side of the mouth. If the bit is too narrow, the lip can be pinched.
- Measuring for your horses bit can be difficult and there are many different tools on the market today, such as The Original BitFit (www.theoriginalbitfit.com) will make your life much easier in determining the correct bit size.
Types of Snaffle Bits:
As the reins are pulled in the single-jointed snaffle, the joint of the bit lifts up towards the roof of your horse’s mouth creating a triangle, forcing the tongue into a V shape, pinching not only the tongue but the bars of the jaw. As the rider lift’s their hands, this puts more pressure on the bars, tongue and roof.
An eggbutt cheek has a quicker and more defined action but the loose-ring cheek has more play as the rein is picked up the mouthpiece slides on the cheek before the bit’s action is felt by the horse. This may be of benefit if your horse is trained, as it will give him a second or two longer to react to the cue you are giving him. However, the loose-ring snaffle can also encourage your horse to play with the bit as there can be a lot of movement between the mouthpiece and the cheek.
The French link mouthpiece is a smooth, central shaped bit that follows the line of the horse’s tongue. When the rein is used, the mouthpiece wraps around the tongue allowing for more tongue room than an ordinary snaffle and also takes pressure off the bars and does not point to the roof of the mouth. So, if you have determined that your horse has a shallow roof, perhaps you may want to consider the French link mouthpiece.
The mullen mouthpiece encourages a horse to move forward and to push his tongue against the bit if he has enough mouth room. This bit is often used for horses that needs confidence to go forward and take up the contact. The softer the material, the more encouragement it gives. However, the main drawback to this straight bar design is that you loose the ability to use only one side of the bit and can be problematic when turning because as soon as you use one rein, the other side of the bit will move to some degree as well.
The central connection on the Dr. Bristol mouthpiece is set on an angle to rest on and apply pressure on the tongue. If your horse uses his tongue by pushing against the bit to take control, will come back and tuck his chin in, coming back into a better control position. However, there are several designs of the Dr. Bristol mouthpiece, many of which are incorrect. The one that works as originally intended should have a flat not too thin oblong plate about 12 inch (2.5 cm) long set at an angle to the rest of the mouthpiece and does not follow the line of the mouth as the French link.
The D ring snaffle’s action is similar to the single or double jointed snaffles, but as the bit is used to turn the horse, the cheek puts pressure on the side of the face encouraging the horse to turn.
The full cheek snaffle may have a single or double jointed mouthpiece and this bit can be used with keepers that attach to the bridle keeping the cheeks more or less vertical. The mechanism of this bit is very similar to other snaffles. Using the keeper to maintain the cheek pieces vertical also acts to exert a slight downward pressure on the crown of the bridle.
Examples of roller mouthpieces are cherry or copper rollers. As long as the bit is well constructed, the rollers gives the horse something to play with and in theory reduces the likelihood of the bit being held in the horse’s teeth. The bit action is the same as described earlier and depends on whether the mouthpiece is a straight bar or jointed.
There is no denying that bitting is a complex subject and I encourage you to research this topic before heading out to the tack store. Bits can be very expensive and it’s important to check with your riding discipline’s rules and regulations to be sure that the bit you want is allowed in that discipline.
There are many good books available to you where you can more thoroughly research your bit. The Complete Book of Bits and Bitting by Elwyn Hartley Edwards gives a complete overview of the development and mechanics of the bit and is a worthwhile read. Bits and Bitting by C. Guy Cubitt is a small, 31 page paperback book that quickly gives an overview of the subject, certainly not as in depth of Edwards. If you have found books on bits very technical and wordy to read, perhaps The Allen Illustrated Guide to Bits and Bitting would interest you as this book puts things into a much simpler and understandable form providing many illustrations of the different bits.