Many times during my career training horses, customers have asked me to explain that particular chunk of steel I’m using in their horses’ mouth. Ah, bits...they’re such a confusing matter for most horse owners. Unfortunately, the average person who purchases a horse for pleasure riding doesn’t consult a trainer before going to the tack shop with their checkbook.
Bringing a professional along will not only insure you get the proper equipment (as long as this person is trustworthy, comes highly recommended from reliable sources and knows their tack!), but you will save money and time in the long run by keeping salespeople from trying to sell you expensive goods that wouldn’t serve your purposes at all.
With most horses, there is no reason to use anything more severe than a smooth “Dee” or “O” Ring snaffle. Preferably lightweight, this type of bit is a whole lot less likely to inflict pain on the horse in situations where he might become frightened by something, and his rider inclined to take hold of his mouth. Some folks want to stick a long shanked Western curb on every animal, with the idea they’ve got more control. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, “control” is in the training the horse has, NOT the bit in his mouth!
As horsemen and women, we don’t want to dominate our horses, we want to become one with them. By putting something in a horse’s mouth which might inevitably hurt him, we are reinforcing his need to become and remain a rogue (in the eyes of his trainer or rider, at least!) because of his unwillingness to be tamed. Can you blame him? Underscoring the fact that all humans are inhumane, we will always be at a disadvantage.
On the other hand, if we put something gentle in his mouth, especially with a young horse who hasn’t had any bad experiences (hopefully!) yet, the chances of producing a willing, amiable partner are much greater. The single most useful training tools any trainer possesses are positive reinforcement coupled with repetition, gentle yet effective handling and an attitude of wanting to work with the horse instead of against him. The idea is not to make him submissive in a negative sense, rather to make him cooperative -- as though he’d do anything asked of him for the sheer joy of it.
With older, harder mouthed horses on the other hand, most riders will put increasingly severe bits on them in an effort to...here we go with that word again...gain control. To risk re-injuring a horse’s mouth (since that’s usually the reason they become hard in the first place) defies logic. Any responsible horse owner should educate him or herself on the reasons behind such behavior before jumping to conclusions. By putting a solid smooth Dee ring snaffle in his mouth and the use of a simple running martingale (or, in more extreme cases draw reins or a German martingale -- always used in conjunction with a direct rein to the bit) and some slow, steady work, the toughest mouths can be softened up. All it takes is a little perseverance and some thinking on the part of the rider.