As with any new endeavor, half the fun is getting all the equipment you need. As an eventer, that means everything – literally! All the tack for jumping and cross country, all the tack for dressage, and all the rider turnout and accouterments. So the sheer volume of what I’m learning is, candidly, a bit overwhelming at times. But in the horse world, the specifics in some of those areas begin to approach Harry Potter-style magic. The current challenge is the horse’s bit.
You know the bit. The oversimplified definition is that it’s the thing you put in your horse’s mouth that’s connected to the bridle and the reins, and it serves to help you steer and control your horse. The more sophisticated definition is that it’s the mechanism for you to feel your horses thoughts, and provide anticipatory guidance in advance of him setting a hoof wrong, via tongue pressure or poll pressure or both. As such, there are three basic imperatives:
- It must fit comfortably,
- It must be interesting, or at least not boring, and
- It must be clean and sanitary.
With these mandates in mind, you then jump off into the deep end of the pool. The myriad of bit sizes, materials, and types can be a lot to navigate. So let’s start with the basics. Hopefully, that will reduce some of the mystery, and your anxiety level, surrounding the topic of bits.
One or Many?
Bits are like saddle pads – you need a wardrobe of them. It’s one of those things that will be in a perpetual state of updating. It’s rather like you dressing for seasonal weather. Since summer and winter weather aren’t the same (hot v. cold, clear v. snow, etc.), neither is your choice of riding clothes (riding tights v. fleece breeches, polo shirts v. sweaters/jackets, etc.).
Bits are similar. While they don’t require the daily changing your wardrobe choices do, don’t be afraid to change your bit if something else has changed – the season, your horse’s behavior, your training, the discipline you’re pursuing, the discipline you’re focusing on at the moment. It could be riders in the northeast who had to concentrate on flatwork over the long and trying winter. It could be riders dealing with horses who are now more animated because spring has finally sprung. Anything! When you do need to swap out your bit, you don’t want to have to drive all the way out to the tack store before you can make the change you have in mind. So having several bits available in your locker will be a big advantage.
Also, don’t try to judge what you will or won’t need based solely on where your horse’s training is right now. For instance, I have a twisted wire bit in my collection. I’ve never used it, and hope I never need to. But I have it, just in case I ever do need it. In my mind, it’s worth the $20 to have the tool readily accessible, should the need arise.
Remember, change means both “bitting up” to a stronger bit AND “bitting down” to a milder bit. So, for example, when spring comes, if your horse tends to be more “full of beans,” then consider bitting up. But remember to bit back down again when your horse responds and the desired behavior has been re-established.
Cost: Bits Don’t Have to Be Super Expensive
Bits are, thankfully, one of the less expensive pieces of tack we deal with. The cost of a new bit is typically $20-30, so getting a variety of bits is within reach for most everyone. That said, don’t feel compelled to go shopping and come home with a complete collection in a single trip. Just keep your eyes open for bits to add to your stash, and pick them up as you come across them.
To control costs even further, try going to tack exchanges and consignment stores to see what used bits they have. Just remember to disinfect them with a five minute bath in a bleach and water solution, followed by a long rinse, before you use them. Don’t use straight bleach, or you may pit the metal.
If you have a small group of friends at the barn whose horses take the same sized bit as your horse, consider creating a “bit warehouse,” kept in a communal bin (under lock and key if necessary) with a small dry erase board inside the lid for each person to note which bit they are using from the group’s collection. If you have three of four people participating, then you just cut the cost by a substantial amount.
I personally don’t feel compelled to buy super-expensive bits. While the $100+ ones are impressive, my riding certainly doesn’t justify their price tag. Charlotte Dujardin’s skill level far outpaces mine, so such a pricey bit would be justified for her riding acumen. But since she has sponsors that provide her with the tack Valegro requires, I’m not sure she is paying for them either.
Most bits are made of stainless steel. And stainless steel is perfectly serviceable. But if your horse tends to be easily bored, you may want to consider a bit that contains sweet steel or copper. These two alternate materials have the effect of encouraging salivation, and tastes sweet to keep your horse more amused.
These alternate materials come on your bit in one of two ways: either as material the bit is made from outright, or just as a piece of the bit. Just know that your bit’s mouthpiece doesn’t have to be made entirely from the alternate material to have the desired effect. A little of the alternate material can be all it takes to get the desired effect.
For horses with more sensitive mouths, you may want to consider either a rubber coated or a plastic bit. These are considered softer and more gentle than their metal counterparts.
In addition to alternate materials, bits also come with rollers, beads, or lozenges as ways of providing amusement to your horse. The idea is that he rolls and clicks the piece around with his tongue, and the movement keeps him entertained a little.
These pieces can be made of stainless steel or the copper/sweet steel mentioned above. If you try a bit with a stainless roller without much effect, consider using the same bit with the rollers made out of copper or sweet steel. These are especially useful if you have a higher energy horse that requires a lot of stimulation to keep his mind engaged.
With all that as background, let’s get down to fit and types…
Fit: Length and Width
Fit is pretty simple. There are two parts to the size of a bit: length and width. Length refers to the distance from one side of the horse’s mouth to the other, and is reflected in how long the bit is. Width refers to how thick the bit is at its widest part.
Length is the easy and straightforward part. There are two ways to take a length measurement: a bit sizer, or a piece of string laid up against a ruler later on. A bit sizer is just a piece of plastic with the measurements marked out on it. It’s typically pretty inexpensive at around $5, and is available at most tack stores. With either the sizer or the string, put it in your horse’s mouth so that you can get a read on how long the bit should be, getting comfortably all the way through from cheek to cheek. Generally you are measuring in 1/4″ or 1/2″ increments.
Keep in mind that you may want to add or subtract a fraction of an inch, depending on what type of bit you’re looking to get. So don’t get locked on the idea that, “my horse’s mouth is X inches long so my bit always has to be exactly that size.” Why? We’ll get to that in a bit… (Sorry, I couldn’t pass that one up!)
If you order tack from a non-US online site, be prepared to convert your inches to centimeters (cm). If this is a regular occurrence for you, see if you can find a bit sizer that includes both kinds of measurements.
Width is the more challenging thing to determine. It isn’t something that is readily measured. In my experience, it reveals itself as a matter of the horse’s comfort. The concept of width is this: you could have two bits, both of which are the same in every other respect. But a twisted wire would be a very narrow bit. The opposite end of the spectrum would be something like a hollow snaffle.
So how do you figure out the best width? Start by looking at your horse’s tongue while it is at rest in his mouth. If it’s lower than his teeth, then he may appreciate a wider/thicker bit. If the tongue lays above the teeth, then a narrower bit probably will be more comfortable.
Also, look at your horse’s bars – the gap in the teeth along each side of the mouth. If the bars are narrower, then a thinner (not necessarily thin) bit will fit better. If the bars are wider, then a thicker bit may be more effective.
You Know You’ve Got It Right When…
When your horse starts accepting the bit more readily, not flopping his tongue around, and chews gently while working, those are signs that your bit is good, maybe even approaching optimal. Conversely, if he strains with his mouth, holds his mouth open constantly, tries to flick the bit out of his mouth, or if he sticks his tongue out all the time, then an adjustment is probably needed.
When the bridle is on, the bit should create one or two wrinkles in the corner of the horse’s mouth. Too many wrinkles are an indication that the bridle (yes, the bridle) is too small. If the rings seem to disappear into the mouth, then the bit itself is too short.
Stay tuned for more on shapes in Part 2…