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 2.5 cm (0.9 inches) 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.