Care for Your Bits
Now that you’ve found a working collection of bits to choose from, you will need to take care of them. As you know, rinse your bit after every ride, especially if your horse is a big slobberer. It’s an easy step to skip, but don’t give in to the temptation. Just a quick run under warm water in the tack room sink is all it takes, being careful not to get water on the leather parts of your bridle. Then dry the bit and put the bridle away.
I would recommend a slightly heavier cleaning weekly. Just pop it off the bridle and give it an extra good rinse, making sure to jostle all the hinges, joints, and connection points.
Hopefully, you’re thoroughly cleaning all of your tack at least once a month. Your bit should receive the same. When you do your more intensive bridle cleaning, make it a complete cleaning and take the bridle apart entirely. While you’re cleaning and oiling the leather, take the opportunity to do a thorough cleaning and inspection of your bit at the same time.
Give it a good scrub in warm water with a mild unscented soap (remember, this goes in your horse’s mouth). I use a soft toothbrush to get in all the little nooks and crevices. Some people use toothpaste or Listerine. But consider whether your horse will like the taste before you choose those. Also remember, mouthwashes are good disinfectants, while toothpaste doesn’t have that quality. Other people use metal polish successfully. I choose not to out of concern about it being ingested if I miss rinsing any of it off.
My personal preference is a scrub in warm, soapy water; followed by a thorough rinse; a dunking in Listerine; and hanging the bit to dry.
Used bits are a great way to increase the size of your collection for a reasonable price.
But if you’ve just bought a used bit, always remember to disinfect it with a 5-10 minute bath in Clorox water (1 quart of water + 1 tablespoon of Clorox). Then a stout soapy scrub, and long, thorough rinse in warm water.
Don’t use the Clorox straight, or you risk pitting the metal, and thus making it uncomfortable for your horse. Be careful when you do this because Clorox solutions will bleach out your clothing wherever it splashes accidentally. Don’t ask what my clothes look like from last spring’s stall cleaning efforts!
Hacks & Other Considerations
Use the right kind of bit — My father used to always advise using the right tool for the job. Don’t use a butter knife, get a screwdriver. A butter knife will work, but it’s not the proper tool. It sounds like common sense, and thus is pretty basic. But you’d be surprised how often common sense gets thrown out the window. Then again, maybe you wouldn’t.
In the horse world, I know of a horse who only has a driving bit. But he is ridden in flat and jump work. He doesn’t drive at all. He really needs a more correct bit for the type of work he is actually being used in. He needs the proper tool to do the job, and that will give him the best chance to do that job well.
Damage — Regularly inspect your bits for nicks and scratches. If they are minor, you may be able to polish them down with an abrasive metal polish. Just be sure to get all of the polish rinsed completely out of the bit before you use it again.
If you can’t get the nicks smoothed out on your own, consult a home improvement store or local metal fabricator to see if they can help. But don’t use the bit until you get the rough parts back to smooth. Your horse will thank you.
Teeth — Check in regularly with your horse’s dentist to see what they are noticing about the interaction between your horse’s bit and his teeth. Dental woes may affect the type or fit of bit you need to use until that tooth trouble can be corrected.
D-Ring Drama — Be aware of where the reins sit on your D-ring bits. Often, the reins can get caught on the flat part of the “D” and will need to be adjusted. Just have someone on the ground do it for you. If your horse is flexible enough, and you can reach them, then you can do it from the saddle yourself.
Being Cheeky — If your horse rubs his face on his legs, and he wears boots or wraps on a regular basis, think long and hard before you use a full-cheek or half-cheek bit. The tips that provide you control as part of the bridle can become stuck in a boot or wrap, and can cause catastrophic injury if the horse panics. Since my horse regularly stops to scratch his face and legs, full-cheek bits are off our list. He’s a bit of a wiggle worm, and a full-cheek might be a nice aid to have, but we’re going at it with impulsion and leg instead. And we’re working on breaking a bad habit…
Squeaking — If your jointed bit squeaks, soak it for a full day, fully submerged, in a sealed container of an edible oil (olive, corn, rice bran, soybean, etc.). Set the container in a cool place, out of the sun, to avoid having the oil go rancid (but NOT in the refrigerator or it will turn to a solid glob). When you are finished with the oil, either add it to your horse’s feed as a treat, or throw it out. Don’t try to keep it and re-use it on another bit later because it spoils pretty quickly. Also, do not use WD-40 or other petroleum based lubricants, as these can be poisonous for your horse to ingest.
Storage — Since you likely have more than one bit, the question arises about how to keep them stored until you need them. I put a nail in the side wall of my locker at the barn. D-rings hang together on one nail, while loose rings hang on a different nail. I don’t store them together in a tub in an effort to avoid the bits banging into each other and creating nicks that would cause harm to my horse.
Be open to change — Don’t just change the bit for giggles. But if you haven’t changed your bit in a long time, try this exercise. If I were starting to outfit my horse from scratch, and we had nothing to use right now, is this the bit I would choose to use for the work we are doing? If your answer to that question, and the bit in your horse’s mouth are different, consider a change.
But Most of All… Improve Your Knowledge
Clinics — Keep an eye out for clinics offered on bitting in your area. There are people who specialize in nothing but finding the magical match of bit and horse. Try to get someone to come out to your barn for a lecture-style clinic, followed by one-on-one sessions for several individual horses. These can be a really cost effective way to improve your knowledge, and get some professional help, especially if you’re having a challenge right now.
And last but not least…
Talk! Ask! Look it up! — It seems I always start with a Google or YouTube search. I get videos and links to articles in both popular and academic journals. I read – a lot! I find resources that provide reliable and frank information.
Then when I have enough information to form a coherent question, I start talking. I ask friends at my own barn, friends at other barns, owners, leasers, you name it. Heck! I ask my fellow HJU bloggers! How do you… What does… When should I… Where can I find out more about… When you’re honest enough to admit when you don’t know something, I find others are very willing to give you the benefit of their knowledge. I truly appreciate the people in my life who are willing to give of themselves the spirit of sharing, and simply helping a fellow horseman.
Plus, you can build up your own network of people who can help you with specific tasks. For instance, one of my “go to” people is involved with minis. Another is involved with Arabians. But their shared knowledge helps my warmblood and me do better too. And when I come across things that might be of interest to them, I pay it forward by connecting them with what I’ve found (articles, websites, tack suppliers, etc.).
Use your barn manager, trainer, vet, farrier (yes, farrier), saddle fitter, and other professionals at your barn as a resource. You are looking at just your horse. They are seeing tens or hundreds of horses. They may be familiar with the circumstances of someone else in a similar position to what you are experiencing. Use that information to your and your horse’s benefit. Find out how they solved the issue. What worked? What didn’t? How could they tell? Ask questions! Don’t be afraid of embarassing yourself by asking. It’s a lot cheaper (in time, money, and anxiety) than the vet bills that can result from not knowing and making a mistake.
Remember to include the barn staff in these conversations! Some would say that they don’t have a degree in equine science. And while that may be factually accurate, I find their practical, experiential knowledge to be extraordinarily useful. These are the people who are there when you aren’t. They feed your horse, muck his stall, and watch his behavior. I value the information I get from my barn staff greatly because they see what I don’t. And they have an expertise born of everyday interaction with horses. They may be able to see when things are working (or not working) the soonest of all. Their genuine affection for your horse is pretty awesome too.
If someone is doing training rides on your horse, enlist their support because there are some things you can only see when you’re sitting in the saddle. It’s how we got to try the wide bit. It didn’t work. But the trainer was keeping an eye out (and still is) for whether the bit we have is working as desired. And if something comes up later, we know we’ve got an extra pair of skilled eyes on the job when we aren’t there.
So there you have it. Bits in a few hundred easy parts.
Let us know what your horse’s bit wardrobe looks like, and what experiences you have had with your bitting practices!