There are many different bits that each have distinctive uses. How do you know what bit does what and which one will work best for you and your horse? This article will outline each type of bit, variations of the bit, and its uses so you can make an educated decision about what bit will work best in each situation.
Bits or bitless bridles have been used since an estimated date of 1200 BC. These early bits were made of rope, bone, and other materials. As time went by, bits evolved and became the metal mouthpiece we see and use today. Horsemanship has changed so much since the very early day of horseback riding. Now, we typically use horses for pleasure and showing versus everyday life. Choosing a bit for your horse can be a bit of a daunting task with so many options on the market. You may not know where to start or when to change your bit. This is all normal, and this article will help you understand when to use each bit and why.
Each horse is a little different, has a different style of training, and has a different purpose. Your bit choice will reflect each of these aspects. Trainers generally have many different bits that they rotate even on a daily basis! Some riders do the same, and some riders tend to stick with one bit and that bit alone. Over time and with trial and error, you will discover what best suits you and your horse’s needs.
I typically like to have a plethora of bits so that I can work on different things with my horse, or my horse may need a different bit each time I ride them. This has become my go-to as I have found great success with this strategy.
The types of bits:
The first step in understanding bits is:
- Understand the functions of the bit and its purpose.
- How the bit works in the mouth
- The fit of the bit and fitting one to your horse’s mouth
- Pressure points in the horse’s mouth in correlation with the bit.
The snaffle vs. the curb bit:
There are two main classifications of bits. They are snaffle bits and curb bits (also referred to as leverage bits.) The difference between these two styles of bit is where the pressure is applied within the horse’s mouth.
The snaffle: Reins attach directly to the bit itself. The snaffle is considered a direct pull.
Curb: Reins attach to a shank piece (commonly called a curb strap) and then are attached to the bit. The curb is considered an indirect pull. This creates the leverage of a curb bit.
Snaffles and curbs can come in a variety of mouthpiece styles. A snaffle is not directly related to a “broken” mouthpiece. This is a common misconception. Both styles of bit are available with every imaginable mouthpiece on the market.
These two styles are not the only styles, however. There are also hackamores which are further broken down into the bosals or “side-pull styled hacks” and mechanical hackamores. A Hackamore generally will not have a bit, but some may incorporate a snaffle.
Bosal/ side-pull: Has direct pull
Mechanical hackamore: Direct leverage
Pressure points affected by the bit and bridle:
- The Tongue
- The Cheek
- The Lips
- The Palate
- The nose
- The curb area
- The poll or top of the head
Your bridle, bit, and accessories can affect these areas in two ways. Directly or indirectly.
Curb bits can be especially effective in training due to the poll pressure that is curated by the curb strap. They create greater responses from the horse by the pressure on the poll. Whereas a snaffle is also a great tool generally used in creating softness and lightness. Keep in mind that neither bit is technically “better” than the other; they simply have different uses. Many trainers prefer to alternate between the use of a curb and a snaffle in their training program. While the curb creates the response to lower the horse’s head and moves off of hand pressure, this can be detrimental to younger horses or horses who have not learned how to properly use their bodies yet. This is because your horse needs to have collection stem from their body and not their head.
Selecting a bit for your horse:
There are a couple of important aspects to understand concerning bit selection. They are:
- Material of the bit
- The type of mouthpiece
The size of your bit and mouthpiece is an essential part of picking out a great bit for your horse. If your bit does not fit your horse’s mouth properly, it can cause your horse a lot of discomfort while creating issues for you in the saddle. A horse with an improperly fitted bit may toss their head, rear, bolt, or not accept the bit when you go to put it in their mouth. This may also lead to a horse becoming head shy.
The first step is to make sure the bit is the proper width for your horse’s mouth. The bit width is the distance between both of your horse’s cheeks. Most standard-sized bits around right around 5 inches. There are also pony-sized bits which range from 4-4.5 inches. These bits may also be ideal for half-Arabians, purebred Arabians, or other lighter breed horses. If you need a bit that is wider than 5 inches, you can find sometimes find 6-inch bits, but they may need to be custom ordered if they are much wider than 5 inches.
Bits are made from a plethora of materials. Generally, there are made mainly of metal. Occasionally you can find rubber bits, but the main material used is stainless steel. Sweet iron is also a commonly used material for bits, but they have a tendency to rust easily. Many horses enjoy a sweet iron bit over a regular stainless steel bit. Copper can also be a popular choice with various bit makers but is generally not used for the entire bit. A copper bit can help a horse who has a dry mouth be more comfortable with a bit. Another common but less desired bit material is aluminum. This is used in lower-quality bits. Horses don’t tend to like aluminum, and they are very lightweight bits.
Mouthpiece types and purposes:
A bit may have a “broken mouthpiece” in one, two, or even three sections. The main advantage of a broken mouthpiece is that the bit will be able to conform and shape around the horse’s tongue. This creates an equal distribution of pressure over the horse’s tongue and bar area. Each break in the bit creates more distribution of pressure.
A solid mouthpiece bit will generally place more pressure on the horse’s tongue, usually in the middle of the tongue.
These mouthpieces create a limited motion range.
How to select a mouthpiece:
The selection process for the mouthpiece is generally where most individuals become confused concerning bits. This is primarily because there are so many options available on the market, and they all offer different advantages and disadvantages. Each horse is going to prefer or require a different bit based on its use, mouth shape, and training level. Your goals will also come into play on what type of mouthpiece you need. Snaffles and curbs can both be either soft or harsh on your horse’s mouth, depending on the mouthpiece and how you use your reins.
When selecting a mouthpiece, you need to keep in mind your horse’s conformation and how they respond to the bit when you are riding them. Is your horse currently comfortable with the bit you use? Do they toss their head at all? Do they seem like they need more bit or less bit? Each of these questions will guide you in selecting an appropriate mouthpiece based on the facts we have previously stated in the article. A horse that tends to react severely to the bit may need a bit that has more breaks in order to conform better with its mouth. Whereas a hardened, heavy horse may need a fair amount of bit and be taught to use their body differently.
The best suggestion is to try out bits and see what your horse reacts to the best. As I stated earlier, I have had to mess around with bits a fair amount. Especially if you have a new horse, it may take a couple of weeks or even a few months to figure out what you and your horse’s preferences are.
Western vs. English riding styles and bit choices:
The bit you choose will also depend on the type and style of riding you do. A dressage rider will generally have a snaffle or a double bit, whereas a western rider will lean more towards a curb bit. This is due in part to how the horse moves, uses its body, and how the rider holds the reins.
Western style riders typically hold the reins in one hand and can benefit from the curb stop creating leverage.
English-style riders typically use both hands when riding and benefit from the directness of the snaffle-style bits.
This is not definitely speaking, as both styles can ride with curbs or snaffles, but this is a general guide. Also, many western riders will train or school their horses in snaffles as well as their curb bits. High-level dressage riders may also use a curb-styled bit alongside their snaffle in a double bridle setup, and this can be true with gaited or saddle seat horse’s as well.
Snaffle bit styles:
There are four main styles of the snaffle.
- O-ring or commonly known as a loose ring.
When you are choosing a snaffle bit, you need to figure out which style will work best for you. The rings are also available in different sizes, from 2.5 inches all the way to 4 inches. Generally, you will see 3-inch rings being the most common. A full-cheek snaffle should always be paired with bit keepers to aid in the safety of your horse’s mouth. A full-cheek snaffle that is not used in correlation with the bit keepers may snag your horse’s mouth.
The diameter of the bit also affects the severity of the bit. The thicker the bit, the less severe. Snaffles can also be twisted, textured, or smooth. These twists can either be slow twists or sharp twists. The more twisted the bit, the more pressure it will apply to your horse’s mouth.
When you are using a harsh bit, it does not necessarily mean it will be harsh on your horse. The way you use the bit as a rider will determine the severity of the bit. You can use a smooth bit and be harder on your horse’s mouth than another rider who may use a harsh twist would be. Keep that in mind when selecting and using a bit. You must be soft with your hands.
When selecting between a harsher or softer bit, you need to remember that a soft bit may encourage your horse to lean on the bit. Finding a happy medium is generally the best option for most riders and horses.
Curb bit styles:
When you select a curb, you will primarily follow the same guidelines as you would picking out a snaffle, but you have a few additional things to consider, such as shank size or length, the curvature of the shank, whether the sank moves or is solid in it’s place, and port size and height.
Styles of shanks:
- Gently sweeping is sometimes referred to as a “c-bit.”
- Grazing bit
- S shank
- 7 shank
- Calvary shank
The length of your shank will determine the severity of the bit. The average length of a shank is generally around six or seven inches. You may be able to find curbs with shanks that are four inches all the way up to eight inches.
Straight vs. curved shanks:
A longer shank will produce more leverage, whereas a shorter shank will produce less leverage.
The curvature of a shank will produce the reaction speed. The straighter the shank, the quicker the action speed, and the more bend or curves, the slower the reaction speed.
You want to think about the ratio relationship between the shank above and below the mouthpiece. The shank portion BELOW the mouthpiece will increase severity in relation to the amount placed above.
Solid vs. swiveling or rotating shanks:
A shank will either be solid or able to move sideways from the mouthpiece. Bit’s that have a swiveling cheek will provide slower reaction time, which basically gives your horse a “heads up” towards action and pressure.
The final aspect to contemplate when choosing a curb bit is port size. The port of the bit is a portion (usually the center) of the mouthpiece that is raised up, usually in a half-circle type shape. You may see ports in numerous shapes. The port essentially is lifted off of the tongue when you apply pressure with your reins, so it essentially is used to relieve some of the pressure on the tongue and may reroute pressure towards the palate. Sometimes the ports have rollers, and sometimes they do not. Some ports do not actually touch the top of the horse’s mouth, but some are large enough to apply pressure on the roof of the mouth.
High ports (those over 1.5 inches) are more commonly found in correctional or cathedral-style bits. They should only be used by very soft-handed, experienced trainers or riders in order to be used correctly and not hurt the horse’s mouth. These bits are not inherently mean and can be a great training tool, but if used incorrectly can damage the horse’s mouth. The reason ports are used in curb bits is to apply pressure to the roof of the mouth to aid in the flexion of the poll in collection. A ported bit should only ever be used on an entirely broke or finished horse that understands proper collection. It is NOT a tool to teach collection but an aid to be reminded of collection.
Additional bit types to know about:
While there are two main categorizations of bits, there are many bits that do not fit into the category of either a snaffle or a curb bit. These bits can be known as “in-between” or “combination style” bits.
- Gag or elevator bits
Many of these combination bits are used in rodeo or other speed-related events.
Gag or elevator-style bits allow movement of the mouthpiece so that it can slide up the cheekpiece or rings when the rider applies rein pressure. They aid in turning and sharp movements.
Whatever bit you choose or find works best for your horse, the most imperative factor in bit usage is what you do with your hands. Using your hands softly and correctly will be the determining factor of if your bit will work for you or not. The right bit will definitely make a difference in your riding and your horse’s performance, but the main factor of your success will be your riding and training styles and doing them correctly.
Be sure to match the bit you use not only with your horse’s needs but with your ability level as well for the best result.
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