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Longeing and Long Lining the Western Horse

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A Bit of Advice
    2006 Cherry Hill Copyright Information

A 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.



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.

A 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.

Making Not Breaking by Cherry HillThe 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 steel joints.

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.

The 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.

The 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.

In 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.

The 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 bit.

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.

Dropping 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.

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    2006 Cherry Hill Copyright Information

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