Now that you know what the purpose of a bit is, what it’s made of, and how to measure for one, we’ll get into the types of bits. We’re only dealing with English bits here. Western is a whole other discussion, and frankly one that I’m not qualified to participate in at this point.
Most people are pretty clear on the information in the previous blog because it’s pretty straightforward. It’s really just length, width, and material.
When you get to the shape of the bit, that’s when things can border on the overwhelming. There are seemingly hundreds of shapes: D-rings, snaffles, eggbuts, full-cheeks, curbs, elevators, Pelham, Weymouth, slow twist, twisted wire, Kimberwick, double twisted wire, gag… Jointed or straight? Stronger or gentler? Should you change bits for different disciplines or given certain behaviors? Which one should you use to school in versus at a show?
AAARRRGGGHHH!!! Are your eyes rolling back in your head yet? Mine were too. But fear not! Keep reading…
Let’s break this down into more manageable parts. The following bit characteristics are kind of like a mix-and-match list. The qualities are not mutually exclusive. Generally, you can choose the different aspects and put them together to suit your horse’s needs.
As you read, consider your philosophy of bitting. In my conversations, the overwhelming preference is to start gentler and bit up as your horse’s behavior merits it. If you’re acquiring a new horse, find out what they are currently wearing, and start there.
Don’t feel like any bit choice you make should be written in stone. Strive to make it the best choice for your horse on that day, given the job at hand. Be prepared to experiment. When you make a change, try to change just ONE quality about the bit you’re using, and use it several times to see what kind of response you get. That way, if it doesn’t work, you will have a much better idea why, and can make a different specific adjustment the next time.
Under Pressure – Snaffle v. Curb
Bits work by applying pressure to a horse’s mouth (either in the corners or on the bars), or a horse’s poll/chin, or both. When choosing between a snaffle or a curb, this is the basic distinction you’re making.
What makes a snaffle bit is the direct connection between the reins and the mouthpiece in a single attachment point. Examples of snaffles are D-rings, eggbuts, and full-cheeks.
A curb bit is where the reins and the bit do not connect directly. Because they connect indirectly, the bit now operates on leverage, which puts pressure on the poll and/or the chin. The mouthpiece on a curb bit is most often a solid shank, but not always. Example of curb bits are the elevator, Pelham or Weymouth.
Most English riders go in some form of snaffle. Curbs are generally used for one of two purposes: bitting up for a super strong horse, or as the second bit on a double bridle in upper level dressage.
Snaffles are considered more gentle than curbs. But even snaffles have differing degrees of strength and severity, depending on their width, their hinge, or the presence of links in the middle. For instance, a regular snaffle would be mildest, then a French link (rounded edges on the link), and a Dr. Bristol (square edges on the link) would be the hardest. Equally, a thin (i.e. narrow) twisted wire is harder than a slow twist.
So Cheeky! Fixed-Cheek v. Loose Ring
Fixed-cheek bits are those where the mouthpiece that passes through the horse’s mouth, and the ring that provides a connection to the reins are fixed relative to each other. The two parts may be hinged, but they don’t spin. Examples of these are the full-cheek, eggbut, D-ring, and Pelham types. These types of bits tend to be sized closer to the actual size of your horse’s mouth from the measurement you took with your bit sizer or string. Because the cheeks are fixed, you don’t want the bit to be too large. Otherwise the movement that results will potentially rub and can make your horse’s mouth sore. Just think about how it would feel to have a full-cheek bit that’s too large rubbing back and forth in your mouth. Ouch!
Loose ring bits are just that – a loose, rotating connection between the mouthpiece and the rein connection point. Here, because the cheek connection spins, there is the potential for pinching. So you may want to allow some extra space to allow the loose rings to rotate more freely, without risk of pinching. Again, think about how it would feel to get your cheeks caught in the spinning ring that connect to your bit. Because of this potentially painful situation, many riders increase the size of their bit from the measurement they would use for a fixed cheek bit.
The other option to avoid pinching with a loose ring bit is to use bit guards, the flat plastic or rubber discs that go on the outside of the bit to keep the delicate corners of a horse’s mouth away from the spot where the loose ring goes through the end of the bit. Depending on your level of competition, bit guards may be prohibited. If you just schooling at home, or are competing at the lower levels, you may be allowed to use them.
Easy as 1-2-3: Shank v. Jointed
Mouthpieces comes in two varieties: shanks and jointed. Shanks are one piece, a straight bar with no breaks in them. Jointed mouthpieces have either a hinge, or a link/lozenge in in the middle, thus providing additional tongue pressure, which makes them either two or three pieces.
As you can imagine, there are lots of hybrids and combinations.
The Double Bridle
A double bridle is literally two bridles in one, containing two bits. It consists of both a bridoon (a smaller snaffle), and a Weymouth (a curb bit). These are seem in the upper levels of dressage, and sometimes in the upper levels of eventing only in the dressage phase.
The gag is a hybrid type of bit that allows the rider to give cues with both mouth pressure and poll pressure. It is similar to a Pelham, but it has no curb strap across the horse’s chin. There are different types of gags with differing levels of severity. A basic snaffle can be converted to a gag with an adapter. There is also the Dutch gag, the American gag, and the most severe, the Duncan gag.
Which bit should you choose? Well, part of it depends on your riding style…
Soft Hands v. Hard Hands
When I first learned to ride, we were taught to pinch with our knees, and turn by moving our horse’s head with our hands. I’ve spent the last 30 years of riding un-learning that stuff! The side effect of this is that my hands tended to be pretty hard. Now, with lots of patient training from lots of great instructors, my hands have softened a good deal. While I’m not as soft as I hope to be, the stronger your bit is, the softer your hands must be. Otherwise it’s overkill, and you’ll risk souring the horse.
I saw a rider in a George Morris clinic, riding with her horse in a slow twist, where the horse had become dead to the bit. The rider struggled with making her rein aids stronger and stronger. But in the end, she was limited by how strong the bit was, or wasn’t. And her instructions just weren’t getting through. Morris noticed and called her out. After a quick up-close assessment, and a conversation with both the rider and the auditors, he changed the pair to a double twisted wire.
While that’s way too strong a bit for me, the effect in that case was profound. The rider was able to go back to her soft hands and gentle rein aids. And because the new bit carried her message more intensely, now the horse heard her again, and complied. Had her hands been hard, it would have become a battle of wills. And in those cases, my bet is on the one that weighs 1,000+ pounds.
Think of it this way: If your horse can’t hear your rein aids because you aren’t giving them decisively, then it’s like you aren’t talking to your horse loudly enough, so you need to “speak up” and use a stronger hand. If your rein aids and hands are plenty strong but your horse still isn’t hearing you, just screaming louder with an even stronger hand won’t have any effect. Then you need to provide an amplifier for him by bitting up.
Case Study: Charlie Brown
When we got Charlie, we were told he went in a 5-1/2″ D-ring or 6″ loose ring snaffle for ring work, and a gag for foxhunting. It makes sense to use a gentler bit in a space where he would be more contained, and a stronger one in a place where his adrenaline can kick in. But I’m not well versed in gag bits generally, and it seemed too harsh given his temperament. Plus, we were starting things in the more controlled conditions of a fenced ring or indoor arena. So we started our life together using a basic D-ring snaffle.
Then, as all horses do, he had a spell where he was adjusting to life in the new barn, and he acted out a fair bit, tossing both me and my daughter pretty dramatically. So immediately after those experiences, we decided to “bit up” for a little while, until things settled down again. But we took it in baby steps and went from the D-ring snaffle to a D-ring slow twist. That was enough to re-establish the chain of command between horse and rider. Once we came to that agreement, we moved back down in steps: first to a D-ring French link snaffle, and eventually back to the plain D-ring snaffle we started in.
If you have a similar situation, be careful not to over-react and over-bit your horse. Up the ante just enough to get your point across. Remember Confucius’ expression, “Don’t use a cannon to kill a mosquito.” In my experience, the same is true with bitting your horse. Especially since Charlie Brown and I were relatively new to each other at the time, I really didn’t want to go overboard here and potentially damage our forming relationship. So we upped the bit just enough to get the point across, and then provided relief when he responded appropriately.
When we go out on trail, Charlie can get pretty strong when we canter uphill. But he is also very responsive to my asking him to temper himself, and be more controlled. So there’s no need to change the bit because of that at the moment. But now, I’m preparing for a clinic that will include some significant cross country work, so I’m already considering what bit might be needed if Charlie gets too “up” and needs some extra reminder of my instructions. I’m not actually changing the bit now. But I’m preparing to pack the trailer, and since I’ll be two hours away from home, I’ll need to have some of my bit stash with me, just in case. I’m taking some of his wardrobe with me…
Most recently, our trainer noticed that Charlie seemed to be searching for the bit a little, almost like it wasn’t big enough to register. So we moved to a hollow D-ring that is 23mm thick, and he liked it, but after a couple of rides in it, he got too heavy on the forehand with it — too much for him to sink his teeth into. And the bit squeaks (see Part 3 for the solution). <sigh> Hey, it’s a horse. It’s always something! But again, we switched back when the “new” bit didn’t provide the desired outcome. And the experiment only cost us $15, plus we have another bit in the collection should it be needed again later.