When it comes to riding there are a huge number of bits each with there own advances and purposes but how do you know which is the right bit for you? There are few things that need to be taken into account such as the type of riding your intending to do, how strong your horse is and how sensitive his mouth is.
What does a bit actually do?
A bit is attached to the cheek strap of a bridle and the reins, it’s purpose is to act as an aid to the rider in communicating with the horse. Traditionally made of metal they can also be made from a synthetic compound. The idea of the bit is to gently let the horse know what you want him to do, for example, if you want to turn right then gentle pressure on the right rein will let him know that.
How do I get the right bit for my horse?
Getting the right bit is crucial, too small and it’ll pinch your horse’s mouth, too large and it’ll move about and rub against his teeth. There are a few different ways of measuring your horse to determine which size bit you need. The easiest way is to measure the mouthpiece of an old bit, but this isn’t possible if you have a green horse or don’t have the old. If you’re not able to measure an old bit then you can use one of these methods:
- Measure from inside the mouth – If you have a piece of string, a wooden dowel or a tape measure you can get the bit measurement from inside their mouth.
- If you’re using a piece of string then you’ll need around a foot of string with a knot tied approximately 2 inches from one end. Place the string in your horse’s mouth with the knot against the outside of his lips on one side then use a marker pen to mark the string on the other side. After you’ve done this you can then remove the string and measure the distance between the two markers.
- If you chose to use a wooden dowel then make sure you mark both sides of it. Again once you’ve marked both end of the dowel take it out of your horse’s mouth and measure the distance between the markers.
- To some extent using a tape measure is the easiest of these options. If your tape measure is made of cloth or soft plastic then you can simply place it in his mouth and see the measurements.
- Bit Sizer – A new invention is the bit sizer, it uses the same method as measuring from inside the mouth. Most bit sizers are made from plastic and have a stopper at one end and measurements along the shank. You place the sizer in the horse’s mouth with the stopper against the outside of one cheek, then look at the other side to get the measurement.
- Callipers – Some calipers can be quite expensive so I wouldn’t recommend buying them if you only want to measure one bit but if you already have a pair or have access to them then you can use this method. To measure with the calipers open them and place an arm on each side of the horse’s mouth, you can then measure between the arms to get the correct size.
What type of bit do I need?
There are a huge array of different bits these days depending on the requirements of both you and your horse, that said most bits will fall into one of three different types with the odd few not fitting into either:
- Snaffle – By far the most popular type of the bit, especially in English riding. A snaffle bit is defined as a bit that only puts pressure on the mouth.
- Leverage – Unlike the snaffle, a leverage or curb bit will just put pressure on the horse’s mouth. The shanks or arms of the bit act as a lever (hence being referred to as leverage bit) and pull on the crown of the bridle, this puts pressure on the poll which in turn pulls the chain or strap against the horse’s mouth. The leverage action multiplies the pressure the rider applies to the reins so less rein pressure is needed. As a rule, Western riders prefer to use a leverage bit but it’s not uncommon to see a Western bridle with a snaffle.
- Pelham – Despite having elements of both a snaffle and a curb bit many class them as curbs bits. A pelham bit usually works with either double reins or a bit converter (sometimes called a pelham rounding, it allows you to use one rein instead for two), although it’s worth mentioning that a bit converter isn’t allowed in many horse show classes.
Are there different types of mouthpiece?
You might expect that a mouthpiece is a mouthpiece and that’s all there is to it but you’d be very wrong. There’s a huge range in the type of mouthpiece, all with their own advantages.
- Mullen Mouthed – A plain single bar with a slight curve to it, the Mullen mouth is thought to be gentler than a jointed mouthpiece as there’s no pinching inside the horse’s mouth. Both snaffle and curb bits can have this type of mouthpiece.
- Rollers – Often made from stainless steel and copper in an alternating pattern a roller is designed to help the horse salivate (which means that the horse has accepted the bit and is relaxed with it).
- Single Jointed – Some horses find a single jointed bit easier to carry than they do other bits but one disadvantage of these mouthpieces though is they create a nutcracker effect. This is where the two bars bend together under pressure from the reins and can pinch the horse.
- Ported Link – A ported link mouthpiece is a double-jointed bar with the middle link having an upward curve. This provides more room for the horse’s tongue and is believed to be gentler than single joined mouthpieces because the double-jointed nature means there’s less of a ‘nutcracker effect’ where the middle of the bit pinches the horse.
- Broken Segunda – Almost identical to the ported link except for the fact that the middle link is higher and has a downward curve instead.
- French Link – This is very similar to the ported link expect that it has a flat peanut-shaped piece in the middle rather than a curved piece.
- Dr. Bristol – Or Doc Bristol as it’s sometimes referred to, is a double-jointed mouthpiece and has a centerpiece similar to the French link, the difference though is that the link is not only larger but is also angled slightly. The angle of the centerpiece though does make them more severe than the French link.
- Ball Link – Like other double-jointed mouthpieces the ball link has a center that lessens the nutcracker effect. As its name would suggest the center of the ball link is a ball, this link puts more pressure on the horse’s tongue.
- Wire Bit – These are very severe mouthpieces and many riders consider them to be cruel. They have a thin tightly twisted bar (which can be Mullen mouthed or jointed) which means they put all of the pressure on a small area of the tongue. Generally, they’re only used in training when a horse has become desensitized to his bit.
- Twisted – Not as tightly twisted as the wire bit and larger they’re still considered to be cruel by most riders, although not as much as the wire bit.
- Chain – Chain bits can have a regular chain or bicycle chain link to them. Regularly chain links are used in a lot of Western disciplines such as barrel racing and roping, the bicycle chain link, however, is extremely severe and widely regarded as being cruel.
- Keys – Used on to help train young horses these have a centerpiece with three ‘keys’ attached to a ring hence their name. The idea is that the horse plays with the keys which encourages him to relax and accept the bit.
- Waterford – A waterford has anything from 5 to 9 joints in the mouthpiece which makes it extremely flexible and discourages the horse from leaning on it. Waterford bits are popular with show jumpers and eventers.
- Double-Mouth – Sometimes called a scissor bit these are actually bits with two mouthpieces that magnify the nutcracker effect. Not allowed in dressage events they’re very severe and should only ever be used by experienced riders on horses that are very strong and don’t respond to other bits.
- Hollow – As you would expect these mouthpieces are hollow which makes them extremely light. This means that the area of pressure is wider and therefore kinder to the horse.
What about the thickness of the bit? While a thicker bit is generally softer on the horse it may not always be possible for your horse to have a thick mouthpiece. If your horse has a low palate or a large tongue he may find thicker bits uncomfortable. As a rule though the thicker the mouthpiece the gentler the bit it because it’s applying pressure to a larger area.
What if I can’t find the right size bit?
Don’t worry if you can’t find the right size bit to perfectly fit your horse’s mouth, bits come in a range of set sizes so you might not be able to find the exact size for your horse. Fear not though, it’s better to go for a bit that is slightly bigger and then use bit guards. Made of rubber, bit guards are soft and flexible and are designed to help the bit fit better if it’s a little bit too big. They can also be used to protect your horse’s lips from being pinched or the rings being pulled through your horse’s mouth.
My horse’s mouth is really sensitive, do I have to use a bit?
If your horse has a sensitive mouth and you’re not able to use a bit or if for any reason you don’t want to use a bit, don’t worry because there’s always the bitless bridle. The bitless bridle works in the same way as a regular bridle except for the fact that instead of pressure being put on your horse’s mouth the pressure is put on his nose.
In the past few years, the bitless bridle has been growing in popularity with riders as its thought to be kinder to the horse than a bridle with a bit. While there’s no definitive evidence either way on whether this is true or not it’s definitely an option if you’re not able to or don’t want to use a bit.
Does a bit hurt the horse?
If a bit is badly fitted or if the rider is inexperienced or is rough with the reins then a bit can definitely hurt the horse. Some horses, more commonly males, will have a problem with the bit catching wolf teeth (a peg-like tooth that sits behind the front teeth) which will also result in the bit hurting the horse.
If you use the right bit for your horse though, it’s fitted correctly and you’re gentle with the reins then no a bit won’t hurt.
As a general rule you should go for the kindest bit you can whilst still being able to control your horse. I hope that this article has helped you to decide which option is right for you and your horse. The most important thing to consider though is the comfort of your horse.
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