Since the domestication of horses, there has been a considerable amount of headway on the topic of bits and their practices, usage, technology, and understanding for what may be “best” for each horse.
What was at one point a simple rope across a horse’s tongue has been refined to specially formulated metals to increase salivation. In addition, varying schools of thought on the types of bits and practices used when biting a horse has evolved over the centuries, and the development of Master Loriners (metal workers for the use of bits and spurs with horses) has given access to further knowledge and advanced technology for the development of more complex mouthpieces. Now, more than ever, riders have a virtually endless amount of information available at their fingertips to add to their toolbox to further enhance their understanding of bits and enhance their relationships with their equine partners.
With so many different types of bits available – including assorted cheek pieces, mouth pieces, materials, Curb/Leverage vs. Snaffle, and other factors – it can be overwhelming to decide which one to select. This blog will dive more into the different types of bits used in English disciplines, and the varying types of functions that each are used.
How Bits Work
Depending on the construction of each bit pressure can be extended to 7 different points.
- Tongue – The first point of contact when using a bit on a horse, this area will feel the pressure, weight, and effects of the bit being used. Depending on the number of “breaks” or joints on a bit, the size and depth of a mouth piece, more or less pressure can be administered.
- Bars – Evolution favored the domestication of horses by allowing a natural resting point between the front incisors and molars on a horse where a bit rests. Most bits will exert some pressure here on the gums at some point.
- Corners – When rein aids are applied, the corners of the lips on the mouth where the bit rests against will transmit pressure (depending on the mouthpiece and the rider’s hands, the pressure can be gentle to more severe). This creates a “smiling” effect and where a “wrinkle test” can be done to see if a bit is adjusted to the right level on the bridle. There is always pressure on the corners of the mouth when using a bit, with the exception of a Hackamore or “Bitless” bridles.
- Palette – Otherwise known as the roof of a horse’s mouth, pressure is administered via ports for a response. Depending on the shallowness of some horse’s mouths, certain bits may cause irritation and should be used with extreme caution and advanced hands (ie: those with high ports, etc.)
- Chin Groove / Lower Jaw – When a curb chain or strap is used in conjunction with a curb bit, that piece will apply pressure to the underside chin groove when rein aids are applied. In addition to creating pressure, the curb strap or chain also prevents the bit from sliding back and rotating too far in the horse’s mouth – particularly for ported bits. Note: It’s crucial to have the curb chain fitted without twists and that two flat fingers can be inserted between the chain and skin of the groove. Twisted chains or incorrectly set chains (going through the bit) can cause damage to the horse’s jaw, bars, and tongue.
- Poll – This point is located at the top of the horse’s head and will have pressure applied to it by the main part of the bridle. Generally, poll pressure is known to release endorphins but should be cognizant of how much and how often pressure is used, as the types of bits used to apply pressure to this area are usually for more advanced hands (ie: curb/shank/Pelham)
- Nasal Bone – This extremely delicate area along and across the nasal bone area can be utilized via specialty bits (Hackamore) or training equipment that will use various types of nosebands to apply pressure for a desired response. In this instance, you may see tools used like drop nosebands, flashes and figure 8 attachments.
Different Bits for Different Trips
Depending on your discipline (Hunters, Jumpers, Dressage, Eventing, Pleasure Driving, Field Hunting, Etc.), there are commonly found bit types for training and showing in.
Hunters: Known for its upholding of tradition throughout various horse and rider presentation, jump styles, and more, hunters are typically seen in traditional Snaffle or Pelham bits. Currently, many horses are seen in a King Dee Ring, a snaffle bit featuring a larger-styled Dee cheek piece, or a classic Pelham bit, which can feature various mouthpieces and metals such as “sweet iron,” stainless steel, composite synthetic rubber, and more. Unconventional bits such as Hunter Gags, Hackamores, Kimberwickes may be subject to penalty during judging, however may not be eliminated. Occasionally, double bridles are seen in the ring.
Jumpers: While there is no black and white rule for what bits may be used in the ring, you will typically see various combinations of fixed mouthpieces (as opposed to a loose ring which allows more mobility for the bit sliding along the horse’s corners) and various Curb and Leverage bits. When horses are expected to adjust their balance very quickly and efficiently between maximum jumping efforts, certain bits like the Gag and Hackamore allow increased poll pressure (generally encouraging the horse to drop his head) and giving the rider the ability to have an upper hand against the horse’s neck strength for better control and quality of aids. Lower level jumpers may use a Kimberwicke (with a curb chain) or Wilkie/Bevel bit for a combination of light leverage plus a Snaffle effect with the mouthpiece distributing pressure along the tongue and mouth.
Dressage: Throughout the various levels of showing, Dressage is known to have strict requirements of what can and cannot be used for showing purposes. For lower levels, a plain Snaffle bit is permitted. Third and Fourth Levels may use the same Snaffle bit or use the addition of a double bridle (Bridoon) with a curb chain. For FEI tests at national competitions, a plain snaffle bridle or simple double bridle may be used. However, for some qualifying classes and divisions, a double bridle is mandatory. The most common mouthpiece among dressage riders is a double-jointed bit (otherwise known as a Lozenge bit). Different pieces such as rollers, French link, or Dr. Bristol can add play and different levels of control are available in Lozenge bits.
Eventing: When going cross-county, especially over large, solid fences, it’s vital for any rider to feel comfortable and in control of their horse. In addition to making sure your horse has the proper fitness level to balance jumping and galloping over varying terrain. A lot of event riders prefer something with a little more leverage and added control for the cross-country phase like a 2- or 3-Ring Elevator, or Pelham.
Pleasure / Carriage Driving: A lot of driving bits use a Mullen (straight-bar) mouthpiece, to evenly distribute pressure throughout. These bits can use varying ports depending on the level of control desired. Another type of bit seen in driving, particularly with horses and ponies, is the Half Spoon/Half Check Snaffle bit. Designed to prevent sliding into a horse’s mouth, these bits can either be designed with a Mullen mouth or single-joint mouthpiece. The Wilson Snaffle and Coronet Berry Bits can apply more corner and cheek pressure with the different ring set-ups available. For larger horses in Carriage or Team Driving, 2- or 3-Loop Butterfly Bits act as a leverage and snaffle bit combination with the ability to apply more or less severe pressure to encourage the horse to break at the poll, depending on where the driving reins attach to the fixed loop, while the curb chain applies additional chin pressure. Straight, ported, or double-jointed mouth pieces are available if more or less bar, tongue, and palate pressure is desired.
*Note: It is always a good idea to check with your showing or breed registration for the most up-to-date rules and restrictions on certain bits for showing. For example, in hunter divisions, the only bits that are deemed “conventional” and free of potential penalties from Judges are Snaffles and Pelhams on traditional full bridles.
Take a Test Ride
Big Dee’s Tack offers a unique ability to allow riders to “try before you buy,” on various bits here in the store, including multiple manufacturers to allow you to Test Ride some of the most popular bit brands like Myler, Herm Sprenger, and Neue Schule. We have several expert guides on staff to guide in your selection that take the worry out of selecting the perfect bit for your horse. With over 130 bits available to Test Ride, you’ll be sure to find one that you, your horse, and your wallet will love!
Words of Wisdom
The key to selecting the right bit for your horses is more than the selection of the bit alone. Training between legs, seat and hands is the most important factor in communicating with the horse. What may be appropriate for an upper-level Dressage rider on a Grand Prix mount will differ greatly for a beginner pony rider developing her aids and steering control.
Often, the problems perceived as resulting from not having the correct bit are usually due to issues in riding training, or could be an issue resulting from a horse that may need its teeth examined and routinely maintained. Some common reactions to an incorrect bit fit, selection, or incorrect hand pressure include head tossing, shaking, “dull-mouthed,” to the more severe reactions like refusing or rearing. Generally, inexperienced horses often have not been schooled to the desired responses certain bit cues requested and may be overwhelmed, confused, or become irritated by severe bits.
Regardless of what you bit you choose, it’s crucial to experiment with bit selection to determine which bit works best for each horse and rider combination. As horse and rider’s relationship, fitness levels, and experience grows, the bit you may need one season could differ from the next, resulting in different needs to address. As always, working with an experienced professional trainer, veterinarian, saddle fitter, and other professionals in the industry are all parts of finding a winning combination.
Enjoy the ride,
Colleen, Purchasing Associate