Bit of Advice
© 2006 Cherry Hill ©
bit is your means of completing the communication equation with your horse via
your hands. Along with your weight and leg aids, the bit can give you the means
of balancing your horse left and right as well as from front to rear and of shaping
the energy that comes from his hindquarters. Specifically, a bit is useful for
teaching your horse to bend his neck and throatlatch so that he can be turned
in both directions. It is also useful for teaching your horse to flex vertically
in the lower jaw, at the poll, and at the neck muscles just in front of the withers.
Vertical flexion is necessary for gait and speed control as well as for stopping.
When things "go wrong", the most common
question asked is "What kind of bit should I be using?" Often the problem is not
the bit but that basic training lessons have been skipped. That's why you should
always use the mildest bit possible and perfect your other aids. It is not how
"severe" a bit is, but how skillful the rider's hands are that determines the
smoothness of the performance. The mildest bit can be an instrument of torture
in the wrong hands while a very advanced ("severe") bit can be used with skill,
finesse, and precision in the right hands, creating a picture of harmony and grace.
CHOOSING A SNAFFLE
There are many options to consider when selecting
a snaffle. Snaffle types include O-rings, Egg butts, D-rings, and Full Cheeks.
The O-ring is the most common type of snaffle used on young horses because of
its loose action. The rings moving through the holes in the mouthpiece set up
a vibration in the horse's mouth that keeps the horse attentive and responsive.
Most other types of snaffles are less moveable so are more static.
snaffle's mouthpiece can be solid or jointed. A solid straight bar won't allow
adequate space for your horse's tongue. A solid mullen (gently curving) mouthpiece
provides more tongue room and might give you more "whoa" power than a jointed
bit but can cause a horse to become stiff in the jaw as he braces against the
solid mouthpiece. A jointed mouthpiece provides tongue relief because the bit
is able to peak. The shape of a jointed bit's arms can affect a bit's comfort
and effectiveness. Curvaceous arms might better conform to your horse's tongue
but could put pressure on the bars. Straight arms might press the tongue and restrict
it but usually do not contact the bars. It is best to see which shape is most
comfortable for each horse.
movement of the arms both at the joint and at the rings encourage a horse to "mouth"
the bit or "play" with it, that is roll it and lift it with his tongue (but not
bite it). This leads to a suppleness and relaxation of the jaw. That's why jointed
mouthpieces are preferred over solid mouthpieces for suppling and lateral work
such as bending and turning. Hinged snaffles only bend in one plane and have a
tighter action than jointed snaffles. Because of the movement in the middle of
a jointed snaffle, if a soft metal such as copper is used for the mouthpiece,
the joint might wear out and break. Therefore, some high-quality bits have stainless
Snaffle rings are usually
made of flat stock or round wire. Round wire rings require much smaller holes
in the mouthpiece than do flat rings. The large "loose" holes in a flat-ringed
bit are notorious for trapping lip skin. And as flat rings move, they wear the
edges of the holes in the mouthpiece to form rough burrs which can rub skin raw.
Some western snaffles are constructed with a sleeve at the junction of the mouthpiece
and the ring so that skin pinching is minimized.
rings of the snaffle put pressure on the sides of your horse's face and also help
stabilize the bit in your horse's mouth. Although very large rings (those over
4 inches) stabilize the bit, they can put pressure on the wrong places of your
horse's face - areas where there is virtually skin over bone. Too-small rings,
however, (those under 1 1/2 inches) don't provide enough surface contact and could
slip into your horse's mouth and be pulled across his horse's teeth during a turn.
For optimum communication and stability, most trainers use a bit with 3 inch rings.
The surface of the mouthpiece can be
smooth, wavy, ribbed, ridged, or rough. A mouthpiece with an uneven surface bumps
the horse's mouth as it moves from side to side. This can serve to get his attention
or make him afraid. If he is injured by a bit, he may avoid contact with it by
getting behind the bit. A smooth mouthpiece slides through a horse's mouth uneventfully
so there are no surprises and he can react fluidly without tension. Textured bits,
such as a slow twist (one with a thick mouthpiece that has 3 or 4 twists to it),
a scrub board (one with built-up stripes in the mouthpiece), a copper and stainless
steel roller bit, a copper-wire-wrapped bit, or a twisted-wire snaffle may have
their place in lightening up a tough-mouthed horse. But for standard training,
a smooth mouth bit is most appropriate.
metal used in mouthpieces varies and can affect how moist your horse's mouth remains
during work - moist means responsive and is good. Aluminum tends to result in
a dry mouth. Rubber can go either way depending on the horse. See "Sweet
Iron Bits" for more on metals.
general, the thicker the mouthpiece, the gentler the action because the pressure
is distributed over a greater surface area. A thin mouthpiece (such as 1/16 inch)
presses sharply into the nerves that lie just below the skin of the tongue and
bars and can cause pain and tension. However, a too-thick mouthpiece (like some
hot dog sized rubber bits) can cause a horse to almost gag. If you have an average
stock horse, a 3/8" thick mouthpiece (measured one inch in from the ring) will
probably fit him comfortably while providing you with adequate control.
width of the mouthpiece should allow the bit to extend 1/4 inch on each side of
his mouth. Bits narrower than this will have a tight action and will likely cause
skin pinching at the corner of the mouth. Wider bits will hang in a deep inverted
V on your horse's tongue and every time you signal him with a rein, the V will
have to straighten and the bit will have to travel excessively through his mouth.
Standard snaffle bit width is five inches; some young horses require a narrower
After spending all of this time
selecting a snaffle bit, ensure that it works correctly by adjusting the headstall
so that the bit fits snug against the corners of your horse's mouth without causing
any wrinkles. If you buckle the headstall too tight, there will be constant pressure
on the corners of the horse's mouth which leads to mental and physical dullness;
there is no way for your horse to receive a release (reward) even when he is going
just like you want him to.
the bit down one hole from the ideal often encourages a horse to pick the bit
up and carry it with his tongue but it might cause him to put his tongue over
the bit. If the headstall is adjusted very long the bit bang the incisors. With
a too-long headstall, like with a too-wide bit, each time you pick up a rein,
the bit will have to move a considerable distance before it reaches the target
area of communication.