Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bits ~ Their Usage & Application

This is one of those topics so many people disagree on, not unlike a feeding program. Every trainer (and many owners) has a different opinion on bits, but here's my take.

On a fairly regular basis I am approached by people with the question of what bit they should use on their horse. If you’ve read previous installments of this blog that I've written on the topic of bits, by now you’ve probably ascertained I am a staunch advocate of the snaffle. I am, however, also patently aware of the fact that in the show ring with a multitude of classes, such as the Western disciplines and some Saddleseat-type English horses, unless your mount is a junior horse (five years old or younger, depending on the breed affiliation) you cannot show the animal in a snaffle bit.

Now, I’m not one to unnecessarily make waves, but I am of the belief that whoever wrote our show rules for many of the breed associations (as well as the USEF/USAE, formerly the American Horse Shows Association) didn’t think things through very well and did not take certain factors into account. For instance, why are we allowed to show our Hunter Seat horses in snaffle bits at any age, yet not allowed to do so with our Western mounts unless they fall into that futurity or junior horse category?

Why is it we’re allowed to show all our English horses with cavessons (a wonderful tool) yet none of our Western horses? Why is it in the Arabian breed we can show our Saddleseat English pleasure and Country English pleasure horses, according to the rule book, in single snaffle bits at any age, yet we’re penalized if we do so? Why on Earth are Arabian Park horses required to show in a full bridle unless they’re five or younger?

Why is it in most Western/stock-type breeds (Quarter Horses, Paints, Appaloosas) that so many people show a snaffle bit horse with a curb strap on the bit in Western classes -- but not English classes -- which usually only serves the purpose of annoying the horse by banging him on the chin because they’re so floppy? Why as well in those breeds must you show a Western snaffle bit horse by holding both reins in each hand instead of one in each hand, like the English classes are ridden, when all it does it prevent you from properly using your reins?

One thing that really got me thinking about bits, how they are used and the equipment we use with them, aside from the confusion they create for so many people, was an incident which happened long ago in my training career. About twenty-five years ago, I was showing a three year old Half-Arabian Pinto gelding for a client at Pinto shows in addition to Arabian shows, and to both my client’s and my surprise, we were informed that at a Pinto breed show you could not show a young horse still in a snaffle bit with two hands on the reins in any Western pleasure class unless it was limited to green or junior horses. To my amazement, I was told even a snaffle bit horse must be shown with only one hand on snaffle reins in any other class in the Western pleasure division. As I pointed out to show officials, Pinto Horse Association officials plus other trainers and exhibitors, this entirely defeats the concept of using a snaffle bit! Needless to say, and thankfully for many of us, those rules have been changed.

Many people today still see the snaffle bit as only a training tool for the very young, inexperienced horse and figure once their horse has graduated to accepting the curb bit he has to be ridden in one from now on. Not so! I ride all my horses, regardless of age or level of experience, in snaffles -- period -- unless I’m getting them ready for an upcoming competition where they’ll need to be ridden in something else. What I hope to accomplish in this installment, however, is to dispel the myths regarding various types of bits, how they are used and why.

Since most average horse owners trail ride, and most trail riders prefer to ride Western saddles, I’ll begin with Western-style curb bits. As I have explained before, the curb works with leverage against the horse’s jaw. In training horses as well as using bits, I prefer to subscribe to the “less is more” theory. This philosophy as it pertains to curb bits can refer to either the length of shank, the severity of the mouthpiece or both. For most horses or ponies, the shorter the shank the better. With some people, if they have a large horse or if they’re a small rider and they have trouble getting the headset they desire out of the horse (which does NOT equate collection, but that's a whole other blog post), generally the first choice of bit will be a longer shanked curb. My advice is to get the horse trained first! If you do feel the need to use such a bit, proceed with caution (as you should do with ANYTHING you put on your horse or in his mouth).

As far as trail riding in a curb, some folks say they like doing so because they can keep one hand free for doing other things, like drinking a soda or taking a swig off a water bottle (I shudder to think what else they might be thinking of doing while out on the trail, but that’s another story, too!). Okay, that’s an acceptable answer, but first you should examine the actual mouthpiece and structure of your bit.

Western curb mouthpieces can vary from straight bars to high ported “cathedral” or “spade” bits. My advice is to stay away from anything too drastic though, to first and foremost provide the horse with a little bit of tongue relief and, perhaps, a cricket or roller to keep him occupied. Now, many people can’t stand a horse who constantly twirls the cricket in his mouth, and I must admit that can be a tremendously annoying habit, but it does help some otherwise nervous horses calm down and focus. I also prefer a bit with solid cheeks, one that doesn’t move from where it is attached to the mouthpiece.

Your most important criteria, however, should always be, “What bit does my horse like best?”, and I don’t mean, “What bit do I think my horse should like?”. Sometimes a good indication of what a horse will go well in is the bit his previous owner or trainer rode him in. I say sometimes only because it depends entirely on how well the horse actually performed for those who rode him in said bit, and how knowledgeable or competent said owner and trainer may have been. My favorite curb mouthpieces for Western horses are the Frog and the Sweetwater, though there are literally dozens of them, some more acceptable than others ~ and I have most of them. ;) The only riders who should use spades are those gently and thoroughly trained in the art of using them, by someone who is truly good, knowledgeable and understanding about such bits, as you can severely injure a horse with one without meaning to. Correction with a spade is a tricky business. I don’t recommend them.

As with all types of bits, snaffles themselves can come in a variety of configurations, from the smooth mouthed, to the twisted wire (in various forms as well), to the gag, to the mullen, to the waterford, to the corkscrew, to the fishback mouthpiece with it’s razor-sharp edge, among many others. They can also have full cheeks or half cheeks, round rings, Dee rings, offset Dee's and Eggbutt (oval-shaped) rings. They even make “snaffles” from, of all things, actual chain and bicycle chains! For the most part, the choice of which snaffle you should use largely depends on what you want to accomplish. There is certainly nothing wrong with occasionally putting a twist bit in a horse’s mouth to help him remember not to lean too heavily on your hands, assuming of course that you aren’t causing him to lean in the first place by pulling on his mouth. It takes a very light hand to be a good horseman, whatever bit you may choose.

For English-type show horses, in addition to the availability of a myriad of snaffles, there are several choices for both Hunt seat and Saddleseat horses. A standard favorite of many Hunter exhibitors is the Kimberwicke, a sort of combination between the curb and snaffle. Praised for it’s ability to give a rider more “control” than a snaffle bit, the Kimberwicke works off a curb chain using leverage like most curbs, though it can have either a solid unjointed mouthpiece like that of a curb, or a broken snaffle-type mouthpiece, and can have varying degrees of tongue relief, ports and even crickets. However, just as I’ve explained before, control shouldn’t be a primary consideration for choosing a bit. If your horse works well, stays on the bit and keeps his mouth quiet with a Kimberwicke, then by all means use one. Just remember -- if you’re using a harsh bit because the horse tries to be out of control otherwise, I’d put him back in training.

Another possibility for both Hunt seat and Saddleseat exhibitors is the pelham bit. The only major drawback for some people in using one of these is the fact that you have two sets of reins to hold in each hand. The pelham is a shanked bit, not unlike a Western curb, with varying lengths of shank and a curb chain attached under the jaw. Frequently this type of bit will utilize what we call a lip chain or lip strap, which is attached to the lower section of the curb part of the bit, where there are tiny loops just for this reason. The lip chain (or strap) simply prevents the horse from flipping the bit upside down in his mouth, or rotating the bit upward. There are two rings protruding off the shank (unlike only one at the end of a Western-type bit), one at the point where the mouthpiece is located and the other at the end of the shank. The upper rein is called the “snaffle rein” and the lower rein is called the “curb rein”, although they both work in different ways on the same mouthpiece. The snaffle rein is the primary riding rein (at least when the pelham is properly used!) and the curb rein is used only to set the horse’s head vertically -- or “bump” his nose inward. Perhaps waning a bit in popularity, in part due to the fact that many riders have a tough time holding all those reins properly, the pelham is an effective tool for gently getting the horse to set his head without having to be heavy on his mouth. Pelhams themselves come in a wide variety of mouthpieces (similar to the choices with a Kimberwicke) and shank lengths, from the two inch long or so “tom thumb” version seen on many hunters and jumpers, to the seven or eight inch long pelhams preferred by Saddleseat riders.

Most commonly used on Saddleseat-type horses (in breeds such as Saddlebreds, Morgans, Arabians and National Show Horses to name a few) is the Weymouth, commonly referred to as the “full bridle” or “double bridle” because it uses two separate bits. Like the pelham, it uses two sets of reins, but they each attach to a different bit. The snaffle part of the double bridle is called the bradoon, and it’s actually a thinner version of a regular snaffle bit that has very small round rings, although there are some varieties which are gaining in popularity such as bigger rings, Dee rings and thicker mouthpieces. A double bridle’s curb bit is actually very similar to a pelham, only without the upper rings. It is used with a curb chain and lip chain as well. In addition to Saddleseat horses, many Dressage mounts are ridden in them -- they are required in the upper levels. Arabian Show Hack horses are also frequently shown in Weymouth bridles, too, only with much shorter shanks akin to those used in Dressage. Difficult for some folks to assemble as well as put on the horse, the double bridle can be confusing, too. If you’re planning to show with one, ask someone with experience to teach you how to use it!

With many horses, bits outside the universally accepted norm are indicated. Dr. Bristols and French Link snaffles help quite a number of horses immensely, because they allow for more freedom of the tongue, they are terrific for horses with a lower palate and place pressure on a different part of the mouth than a standard snaffle. Some companies, like Myler and Herm Sprenger, are coming out with new ideas in bits created by new thinking. The concept is to have a mouthpiece which conforms better to the horse’s mouth as well as new metals used in the making of their bits (such as Sprenger's invention, the nickel-free aurigan), rather than forcing the horse to accept and deal with a bit which might not fit ideally. It’s an excellent idea for which the time has come. Some of Myler's Comfort Snaffles©, however, are not show ring legal for junior horses, although they can be superb bits to use on just about any horse.

The last type of bit I will touch on here is the liverpool, used mainly for driving competitions. There are several different types of cheeks with a liverpool, as well as a number of different ways to attach the driving rein to the bit, but they all essentially serve the same purpose. Only a few times have I ever seen someone who doesn’t compete in open driving events use a liverpool bit, and I don’t recommend spending the money to purchase one unless it is required to show your horse in a particular specific event or division. They can be likened in appearance and function to a pelham but with a center set ring (as opposed to offset, such as with the pelham) at the top of the shank and several loops at different places in which to attach the rein. They can work with varying degrees of leverage with a curb chain, and are useful in helping to attain a certain degree of headset. Most breed oriented driving horses, however, are driven with a simple snaffle, often a half cheek to avoid the bit slipping through the horse’s mouth.

There are certain types of horses which traditionally use the same type of bit throughout their career, although they’re usually horses who’s owners, trainers or handlers are not concerned with a headset oriented performance. The bit of choice for most race horses, for instance, is just about always a smooth Dee ring snaffle. The purpose of a bit in a race horse’s mouth is simply something for him to grab hold of and push on, to guide him loosely around the track and eventually try to slow him down, period.

In upcoming posts we will get more into more in depth discussions of different types of training equipment, such as sidepulls, gag bits and bridles, “war bridles”, overchecks and sidechecks.

Here is a fun little tidbit which appeared with the original article...Test Your Knowledge About Bits:

Q: What bit is most commonly used for starting a young horse?

A: If you answered the Dee-Ring snaffle, you might not be entirely correct. Many trainers or owners begin by using either a large O-Ring or a Full Cheek. Frankly, ANY thicker, smooth snaffle bit will be a better choice than something rigid or harsh. The worst thing you can do is put something in a horse’s mouth which will frighten or especially hurt him when you’d like him to understand how to properly carry the bit and bridle. Better to teach him nothing’s going to hurt him if he’s going to be a saddle mount, so you don’t have any real issues once you’re in that saddle!



  1. As an eventer, I have a limited number of bits to choose from that are "legal" for showing. My low-curved mullen-mouth snaffle is not only legal for dressage, it does the job fine using it one-handed for backcountry trail riding.

  2. Right, and that's why it is so important for anyone considering a show venue to make sure they know what is accepted and legal under the rules, and what is not! :)


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