There are a lot of different bits out there and it can get really overwhelming if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for and what your horse needs. We’ll go over the types of bits, the pieces of the bit, the uses, and best practices- including fit. It’s not near as confusing if you know what to look for and understand how the bit works.
Types of Bits
They classify most bits as either snaffle or shank. Then, from there you’ve got different parts, but to know the difference between snaffle bits and shank bits is really easy. The reins hook directly to snaffle bits, but on a shank bit they hook on the bottom of the shank.
Snaffle bits have a 1:1 ratio, meaning your horse will feel the same amount of pressure you are using. They are a mild bit and should be used on green and young horses, but can be used at any point after as well. They are also a common bit used in English and meant for two handed riding. Therefore, you wouldn’t do a lot of neck reining in a snaffle bit. Some common types of snaffle bits are O-ring, Eggbutt, Full Cheeck, and D-ring. The mouthpiece is usually broken and when the rider adds rein pressure, it pushes down on the tongue and gums, but does not push on the roof of the mouth.
Shank bits add leverage, meaning when you add 1 pound of pressure, your horse will feel more depending on the length of the shank. It could be 5-10 more pounds to your 1 pound. These bits can vary from mild to severe depending on the mouthpiece, the length of the shank, and the cheekpieces. The more moving parts the bit has, the more mild it will be typically. A bit that has no moving parts is going to be designed more for 1 handed riding or neck reining. These are for very broke horses, meaning you don’t need to add a lot of pressure to get them to respond. The mouthpieces can vary, but if they have a port, they will add pressure to the roof of the mouth as well.
How should a bit fit?
To make sure your horse is comfortable with the bit, it’s important that the bit fit their mouth. At a glance, the bit should rest comfortably at the corners of the horse’s mouth. A typical bit is usually 5″, but to make sure that’s what your horse needs, you can measure their mouth. You can use string to measure and mark the length of their mouth.
There is a lot of debate on adjustment of fit on your headstall. Some say 1-2 wrinkles in the corner of your horse’s mouth, but I never want to see wrinkles in my horse’s mouth when wearing a bit.
The reason being. Consider putting your fingers in the corners of your mouth and just rest them on the there. It’s comfortable right, you feel it there, but it doesn’t bother you. Then, pull up a little as you would to create “wrinkles” and consider how this feels. It’s much more uncomfortable and noticeable that it’s there. There’s no relief from “pressure.”
rollers, In-Lays, and More
If your bit has copper in-lays, they are designed to increase salivation, which helps the horse keep their mouth moist and protects their mouth. I even like my bits to be made of sweet iron which helps salivation and just like it sounds, has a sweet taste. If the bit has rollers, then all that means is it can give the horse something to play with in their mouth. They can roll it with their tongue. Some horses like this.
These are typically used on shank bits and add another area of pressure on the horse’s chin. When the rider pulls back on the reins, the horse will feel pressure from their pole, mouth, and chin. These come in leather or chain. Chain obviously being the more severe of the two. I recommend using a leather strap that is more comfort than a chain. Make sure you can fit at least a finger’s width between the strap and your horse’s chin.
What to do if your horse isn’t responding to a bit
Some horse people will tell you to move up to a “bigger” bit. Trust me, this will never be the correct answer. It is putting a bandaid on a wound before actually treating the wound. It will eventually get worse. So, you either need to go back to basics and work on your horse’s behaviors or have your horse’s teeth checked. A horse’s teeth should be floated once a year by a professional equine dentist. Your horse could be suffering from some pain in their mouth that could be causing other problems with the bit.
Are Bits Cruel?
The answer is no, but they can be misused and can be quite cruel. Just like any other piece of equipment. It has to do with who is using it. If you are working on being light with your horse and getting your horse to respond to even the softest of cues, then it doesn’t matter what bit you are using, you’re doing a pretty good job with your horse.
If your horse isn’t stopping and acting up or tossing their head and you’re not working on those things like lightness mentioned above, then you will NOT want to move out of a snaffle bit. You need to go back to basics or seek help from a trainer.
Purpose of Bits
Bits should not be used as a device to “control” your horse. If that’s the case, then your horse has some issues that need to be addressed. That being said, we need to be able to control our horse in a dangerous situation, but that is where training, one rein stops, and rider confidence plays a big part.
Bits are tools we use to signal to our horse what we want them to do. Whether it be stop, slow down, turn, or backup. These, in addition to our seat, legs, and voice, signal to the horse what’s being asked of them. If they don’t respond to the cue, then that needs to be reinforced with training so the horse understands what you are asking.
If it’s an issue of fear, then the situation you are riding your horse in needs to be assessed. For example, if your horse is fine at home, but taken away from home is spooking and not paying attention, then work on building up to these trips and build your horse’s confidence. Lots of ground work and moving their feet. This is what will get your horse’s focus on you.
Hopefully, this helps you understand bits better and see that it has more to do with training than finding the perfect bit. I tend to consider what is going to be the most comfortable to my horse. If you need additional help, I recommend reaching out to Myler Bits. They have a questionnaire you can fill out and they can help you find the right bit for your horse. They will even speak with you over the phone. I’ve used them before and I can’t say enough good things about the quality of their bits.