Why Use a Bit At All?
Horses are very large and fairly insensitive. There is no way that a person could manage a horse by brute force. Therefore, in order to induce a horse to bend to our will, we must exploit every sensitive area – making it first uncomfortable to challenge our will and then habitual to follow our direction.
Horse training begins with the halter, which puts pressure on the poll and the whole face. He is “broken in the face” first. After a few tussles, a horse will soften to his halter pull, following you when you lead and not resisting when the halter is tied to a stationary object. If that is all we require of him, you can stop his training there. (I have known many people who ride in just a rope halter). However, if your horse is not well-trained or is a stronger horse or you want more, you will have to change to a bit. That covers 98% of horses and their owners.
A bit is designed to be as comfortable as possible when the horse and the reins are at rest, but to induce discomfort in some sensitive area of his mouth or face when the reins are manipulated in specific ways. Because all animals prefer to be comfortable, your horse will begin to learn how to avoid the discomfort. If you are a good trainer, you will show him that he can avoid it altogether by changing his direction, speed, or carriage. When he is doing the right thing, the bit falls back into the comfortable “sweet spot”, and life is good.
Why So Many Bits?
During your horse’s training, he will learn different lessons from different bits. His first bit will have only one or two areas of pressure in his mouth so that he need learn only one or two reactions at a time. He will learn to Yield to that particular pressure from that particular bit.
As he learns to respond to the pressure in his mouth, you will add a simultaneous command (cue) (Paired-Cues). ie: When the reins are pulled straight back, a snaffle bit presses into his tongue and the sides of his bars. His natural response is to bring his head down to get away from the pressure and to stop moving forward to deal with the uncomfortable bit. At the same time you relax back in your seat (pressing your seat bones into the sensitive area of his back), loosen your leg pressure, and say “Whoa”. The simultaneous cues are called “Paired Trigger”: cues. The cues soon substitute for the bit.
B-V-B training is the sequence of paired cues. Body, Voice, Bit (in that order). After this Paired Cue training has conditioned him to the change of rider position and the word, “whoa”, he will begin to rate back and flex at the poll with no prompting from the bit at all. He will read the body language and mind the verbal cue.
His understanding of the paired cues suffices to change his motion, and no bit pressure will be needed. He learns that he can control the bit comfort by anticipating the request from your body cues and voice commands, and he is rewarded with a comfortable bit position. If this happens frequently and consistently, he will anticipate what happens when he gets the body or voice cue and become habitual at performing the required maneuver each time he gets the early cue, and the bit will be there only as a backup in case of a delay in response. Body-Voice – no Bit.
There are other reasons why you will probably end up with 5-6 bits in your arsenal of training tools (besides the inevitable bit you will probably purchase that ends up being mal-fitted to your horse’s anatomy or temperament)
Three reasons to change bits:
1. Your horse is ready to graduate to a bit that teaches him another skill. Following on the discussion above, when your horse has mastered the skill you were teaching with his first bit, he should be rewarded by a bit that gives him more freedom from the pressures he never needs any more, and you can introduce another pressure. ie: When he no longer needs the single-joint snaffle tongue depression to rate and collect, he can move to a three piece mouthpiece that drops the direct tongue pressure. The three-piece mouth will use more targeted bar pressure and introduce him to lifting one shoulder or the other depending on which rein is lifted. And so it goes up the ladder of maneuvers. Relax the part of the bit that is mastered, and add a new part that induces a new incentive to perform a new maneuver. (New pressure is different than more intense pressure.)
2. Your horse has a problem with his current bit – bit fatigue or poorly fitted bit: When a horse has a perpetually uncomfortable bit that offers minimal relief, he finds various ways to get out of performing the maneuver you want and still avoid the pressure. In fact, he may not even understand what you want if the bit is not working properly due to anatomical or temperament differences in your horse vs. how the bit was intended to fit and what the bit was intended to do.
Check his dental health. You may find the answer there. If he has sore spots, calluses or poor teeth, you can either have the veterinarian fix the problem, or (if that is not possible) find a bit that will avoid those contentious areas of his mouth.
If he still exhibits poor behavior or poor conformation and carriage, look to a change of bits. ie: When a horse thrusts his nose out and high, leaning on his single-joint snaffle to get away from the tongue depression or getting his tongue over the bit, he has learned he is more comfortable if he changes his head position so far out of the normal riding position that he can change the trajectory of the snaffle-down depression.
You, on the other hand, are left with a horse who is both hard to handle and uncomfortable to ride. This type of behavior indicates that it is time to change his bit due to “bit fatigue” or “bit resistance”. If you are convinced that he understands the body and verbal cues, try moving to the next level bit that gives him MORE freedom than his current bit does. You might find that his performance is immediately enhanced and you are both happier.
3. Your horse is used in competition that requires certain bits but needs more sophisticated bits for training: Most competition classes require certain bits and forbid others. However, many times your horse will respond better to a different bit while in training. Many trainers use the most effective bits to polish maneuvers while at the stable and use the competition bit when in the ring.
4. Your horse needs some reminders about how to behave or some motivation to respond more quickly to cues he already knows. This follows the “polishing” mentioned above. Everyone gets lax and stale when they have learned and practiced an exercise over and over. Horses begin to “lay down on the job” sometimes. When you find that your horse is not responding as quickly as you like, you may need to go to a bit whose function is to remind him quickly and decisively what his job is when the cues are given (“sensitize” him). ie: You may change from a smooth snaffle to a wire snaffle to add more bite to the bit with less rein pressure. He will soon learn (surprised) that his bit still has authority, and he needs to quicken his response before he is handled by the reins. The reminder will keep him fresh when he goes back to his regular smooth mouthpiece. (Wire snaffle is not recommended as an every day bit. Just a polishing bit)
5. Your horse gives you problems when you try to put the bridle on:
Avoiding the headstall and bit altogether may indicate that a horse is either experiencing too much pain when the bit is put into his mouth (as when a it slapped in and hits his teeth coming and going) or that the bit is giving too much pain during his riding sessions. If he anticipates an uncomfortable experience every time he is bridled, he may become difficult to manage during tacking. Change the tacking procedure. Have his teeth checked. And/Or try changing the bit to a milder one.
6. It is amazing how many “bit” problems are actually “training” problems. Back up and analyze each tiny step in the maneuver you want him to perform and how me might have been conditioned to avoid it by repeated “incorrect” reactions from his training routine.
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