Sunday, December 6, 2009

Bits . . . Revisited

I am convinced nothing confounds horse owners like bits. Of course, I have written on the subject a number of times, but it never fails that I see horses wearing things in their mouths on a routine basis that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Well.....maybe my worst enemy. ;)

Recently there was a discussion online about an individual’s use of a bit branded “harmless” and mild, yet in reality this was an exceptionally harsh bit designed for horses that pull or lean (the Waterford bit) on your hands. If you do not understand the reason for a specific bit, do not use that bit! I just don’t comprehend grabbing a piece of tack, especially something you use in your horse’s mouth, not having a clue as to what it’s used for but using it anyways! There have also been very heated debates about equipment used on gaited horses - more on that later.

Which brings me to my point, and that is to help folks really understand what they should be using and why.

It has been some time since I last covered this topic, though at that time we focused more on what was acceptable for show horses in various disciplines. In the same timeframe we also established my preference for the snaffle, which of course I’ll reiterate now: There is absolutely no reason, unless you are showing your horse in a discipline that requires a curb or a double bridle (or you need something a little stronger for your very forward Hunter seat horse, on whom you prefer to use a pelham), that you cannot ride your horse every day, every ride, in a smooth snaffle bit. Period! If the horse does not respond, it isn’t the horse’s fault. Go back and patch those holes in his training, because that is where the fault lies.

True, as has been pointed out to me before, there are some VERY harsh snaffle bits available to consumers. Some of them even have a purpose (and I myself do have some relatively severe bits, though rarely, if ever, do I use them), but they would be akin to allowing a toddler to start a campfire if they fell into the wrong hands.

Choosing a bit for your horse is really a pretty simple process, or at least it should be. Use what your horse responds best to.

I just had yet another conversation with a couple of clients about the benefits and issues with using “tom thumb” bits - one chose to put her mare in a snaffle, the other decided to continue riding her trail gelding in one. When I explained the problem I had with them and demonstrated such, both reacted with a wince. This isn’t an uncommon reaction, imagine how your horse feels when you engage that bit! But you still want to put that thing in your horse’s mouth?? Needless to say, even that nice trail gelding now sports a smooth offset dee snaffle.

Another essential part of any bit discussion should be how snaffles and leverage bits work differently on the horse. Once you understand these differences, as any horse owner should, it is not difficult to see my point. That brings the next question: Why would you continue to use something that may well harm your horse? The short answer is simple: Shortcuts.

Trainers sometimes use harsher bits (and harsher methods) in order to get horses ready for something they would not ordinarily be ready for. Hence, a shortcut. Jamming on a horse’s mouth until they’re sore, just like teaching that farce called the ‘spur stop’ by jabbing the horse in the sides repeatedly with your spurs - have you seen some of those spurs?? - is NOT training. Helping a horse learn how they are properly supposed to respond to the bit, or any other training device, is what training is all about.

Additionally, there seems to be an increasing market for gimmick bits or what some stock breed trainers and reining enthusiasts refer to as “correction bits”. Supposedly for the hard mouthed horse, the head tosser or those horses who like to flip their tongues over the bit (which would easily be taken care of by lifting the bit via extra holes in the headstall, a dropped noseband or, at most, a tongue tie - though not legal in many show rings), I would simply rather train the horse to accept his bit without undue harshness on his mouth. Maybe that’s just me?

Here is the thing - many if not most folks who own horses, including some so-called "professionals", have no idea what the purpose behind many pieces of equipment is, least of all bits. Like the “gaited horse bit” thing. I received quite an education in all things gaited horse, because I had a client some time back searching for one as a trail mount.

Now, I have always been under the impression that a horse is a horse of course, and unless you are one of those above-referenced people who must use a certain bit on your horse for competition purposes, you really don’t have to grab that long shanked, harsh mouthed bit. If your horse cannot be controlled in anything short of such a bit, train the darn horse better! Once more, control is in the training, not the bit you use!

Back to the story. We went to a local broker’s ranch that specializes in bringing gaited horses out West from a farm in Tennessee. They are evaluated for their temperament and gaits, as well as how suitable they may be for beginners or the ‘weekend riders’ that just want to enjoy a leisurely stroll once a week. But you should have seen those pieces of steel their poor horses wore! We were told, “These are GAITED HORSES and therefore they must wear GAITED HORSE BITS.” Um, hello? Your horse is still a horse!

There is no reason on the planet to use those things called Gaited Horse Bits. Ever. Have you seen some of them? 8”-10” shanks, sometimes broken (snaffle) mouthpieces, on occasion they’re a thin double twisted wire, chain or bicycle chain (also called a “mule mouth” though I’ve never found a reason those should be used on mules, either). With the facility in question, they used either smooth snaffle mouths or a relatively mild curb mouth, though the long shanked cheeks were loose and had every opportunity to pinch the horses’ mouths. On top of that, each bit had it’s own thin curb chain. I noted a great deal of head tossing, drawn back lips, bit chomping and resistance on the part of their horses.

Okay, let me quickly go back lest the folks who show Tennessee Walkers or other various gaited horse breeds want to explain how certain bits are absolutely necessary for their show ring endeavors. That I can certainly understand, and you definitely see a specific look to the bits used on those particular horses ~ here's my problem, and it relates solely to the point I made above (and have hammered home on multiple occasions): Unless there is a specifically detailed reason for the use of a bit, outlined in the rules you follow as opposed to a mere, "But we've ALWAYS done it that way!" argument, terrific. Perhaps someone can educate me further. :)

Moral to this story? Listen to your horse and he will let you know what he thinks of your choices. If you make the right ones, the two of you will have a splendid partnership!



  1. A self-proclaimed "expert" horsewoman I know who was waxing poetic (we were specifically discussing draw reins, I believe) said that ANY training aid, including bits, used by someone who is clueless was "like putting razor blades in the hands of a monkey." The expression is a good one and goes to your topic.

    When people talk "snaffle" or "correction" or whatever kind of bit, there are still many variations on the theme. My OTTB uses a KK Ultra, a snaffle bit with a "bean" or link in the middle, a smooth snaffle in "three parts." He LOVES that bit and is very obliging in the bridle and goes very well (when his mother has HER stuff together and is behaving less like a monkey in the saddle, if you get my drift).

    I've seen a more than my share of jumper trainers use harsh bits--shortcuts in action. The horses they train are fantastic jumpers so rather than take the time, they just want control so the horses don't run off or run through the jumps.

    The goal of jumping is, after all, clear the course in the fastest time, style being unimportant, so any bit that keeps the horse from going haywire is what they use.

    When I boarded at public stables, there were a lot of former jumpers that had hard mouths. "Control" was not part of their early training, sadly, and they were pretty much "get on and ride like your hair is on fire" when someone did get them out for "schooling."

    I know people who mostly ride Western who think horses learn their lessons when they finish the training session and the horse has "cherries" in the corners of its mouth (raw spots). I find that deplorable, but some of the old timers especially hold onto "old ways."

    I let the experts advise me about bits. I have difficulty picking the correct SIZE, for heaven's sake ;o)

  2. It's so true, about any training aid or piece of equipment being a bad thing in the hands of the novice or clueless. What I find sad is how many of those clueless folks are actually people who call themselves professionals and who get paid to train horses for others!

    I don't have any of the Sprenger bits myself, although I do like the aurigan metal. Too expensive for my budget ;) so I've found less expensive alternatives. Now I've got a couple of the oval mouth bits (with the "nut" or "bean"). Here are four different examples of a loose ring version: number one, number two, number three and number four. The third bit, of course, is the Sprenger KK Ultra.

    In recent years the growing popularity of the "three piece" bits like the oval mouth, French link, dogbone and even the Dr Bristol (which is the most severe of the four) I'd like to think goes back to people being more conscientious about what they put in their horses' mouths. Especially the horse with a low palate, because often a traditional single jointed snaffle causes pain and discomfort on those horses.

    One thing I have noticed is the plethora of Quarter Horse and Paint trainers (nothing against them as a whole, I count many of them as friends) using the "tom thumb" and "correction" bits, with the latter generally having huge ports...guess that is the point of "correction", though it doesn't make sense to me. Some months back I was looking through a local trainer friend's tack room while we were chatting and was amazed at what she had in there!

    That point about the horse having raw spots on it's mouth? Frequent with some of the above mentioned trainers, which to me defies logic. It's no different I suppose than the conversation I once had with my step-dad (an old time cowboy who used to professionally rodeo) about training the horse to a bosal by letting the nose get good and sore so the horse would respond quicker.

    Sizing bits is a great topic!! One of these days I should do a post on that subject. :)


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