How to Choose the Right Bit
By Lindsay Grice
Q I have been riding my three-year-old mare in a snaffle this year and have taken her to a few shows. I’m looking forward to showing in both English and Western events next year, including pattern and trail classes. Do I need different bits for different events, and how do I decide which bits to use?
A As a general rule, as with all aspects of horse training, you want to start out with the mildest bit and increase in intensity only when you know your horse absolutely understands you, but isn’t motivated to respond. Trying to solve a communication problem with a horse by using a bigger bit is like someone yelling at you in a foreign language — if you don't know the language, yelling will not help you understand better. Likely you have already laid a solid foundation of pace control, lateral control, and yielding to pressure in general if you have been showing your horse. There are so many variations in the structure of bits. Start by studying the general principles of bitting and the conformation of your horse’s mouth. As the conformation of every horse’s mouth will vary, it’s helpful, once you’ve determined the family or general type of bit, to try it for a few days to see how your horse responds. Unfortunately, this can become an expensive process and most horse owners have quite a collection of “experiments” at the bottom of their tack boxes. There are, however, some guidelines to help you make your choices.
You will start with a snaffle, which technically is any bit that does not work on the principle of leverage (having a curb chain and shanks). A thick, smooth, jointed mouthpiece is among the mildest of bits. Double jointed bits (those with a central link) provide wide, even pressure across the tongue. As a general principle, the severity increases as the mouthpiece gets thinner or textured (e.g. corkscrew or twisted wire).
Photo: Pam MacKenzie Photography
The length of the shanks, and whether or not they rotate, are just a couple of factors to consider when deciding which type of curb bit to use on your horse.
For an educated horse that is still heavy in a snaffle, pelhams, kimberwickes, and variations of these leverage bits are an option. Myler Bits USA makes bits that look like D-ring bits with a concealed curb chain and a fixed rein giving it leverage action. A large selection of mouthpieces are available. Pelhams have a curb rein and a snaffle rein attachment and are acceptable in the hunter ring, but not with the stock horse breeds.
You will be riding your horse with one hand and a curb (leverage) bit, enabling you to have minimal contact and more subtle handling than with a snaffle. When selecting a curb bit, keep these general principles in mind, but remember that these are guidelines only — combinations of these principles will change the action of the bit and the variations are endless:
• Shank length — The longer and straighter the shank, the more leverage the bit has. Shanks that are curved back toward the horse’s chest will have less leverage than shanks that hang straight.
• Port — Ports that are low and wide provide a space for the horse’s tongue to move up into when the shanks are pulled back. This is called tongue relief. Some horses are more sensitive to tongue pressure than others. A bit with a narrow port (or no port) will put more pressure on the tongue. A port of roughly 1.5 inches in height will come in contact with the horse’s palate and is only appropriate for a horse with advanced training.
• The weight of the bit, fixed or rotating shanks, and the purchase (the distance from the mouthpiece to the rings which attach to the crownpiece) are also factors which determine the way a bit works.
Invest in a number of bits if you can. Rotate them for schooling your horse, and keep some only for showing. You will probably have a separate bit for jumping vs. equitation and for western pleasure vs. horsemanship.
Main Article Photo: Thowra_UK/Wikimedia Commons - For an educated horse that is still heavy in a snaffle, a pelham bit may be an option. Pelhams have a curb rein and a snaffle rein attachment and are acceptable in the hunter ring but not with the stock horse breeds.