Horse Problems: Bitting Issues

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Three possible 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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Head Carriage:

A horse who is relaxed in the poll with his head on the vertical is in the ideal position for supple, balanced work. The position of your horse’s head is a sure indication of his bit fit. He will ALWAYS seek the sweet spot where the bit is most comfortable. If his head carriage is not on the vertical with him relaxed at the poll, the bit is poorly chosen, balanced, or fit.

Some carry their heads too high with nose over the vertical. Some may carry the head with the nose tipped too far toward their chest (behind the bit).

If he carries his face high (inverted: above the bit) he may be telling you that his bit is uncomfortable. 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. He may flip his had back, snatching the reins from you. He builds up resistance (even developing stronger muscles in the lower part of his neck from the pulling matches). He stiffens his poll and everything behind it, which destroys his suppleness and balance.

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 from the tongue depression than his current bit does. You might find that his performance is immediately enhanced and you are both happier.

If he carries his face behind the bit he is breaking at the poll but he has his head tucked too far into his chest. He is tight and inflexible in the front, throwing his center of gravity forward onto his forehand and weakening his rear. This is usually caused by a bit with too much contact or too much strength. Try lessening the tongue pressure by moving to a double-joint snaffle that puts less pressure into the center of the tongue and allows you to lift his shoulder on each side independently to keep him from tucking so tightly.

Refusal to stop A horse who has built up resistance to his bit (frequently follows bit inversion( above) can be a really intractable, or even dangerous animal. Instead of coming back into you (relaxing his poll and bringing his head down) he pushes into his bit. This behavior varies from just “pushing into the bit” and subtly increasing his speed on the “whoa” to really grabbing the bit with his jaw locked and taking off hell bent for leather. If you have a horse exhibiting these symptoms, you should be considering a shanked bit with more leverage on his face and/or a mouthpiece with more pressure such as a correction bit with palate pressure as well as bar and tongue pressure. These are not for inexperienced rides or trainers, so get help from a professional before you just slap a harsher bit on him.

Dropping his shoulder – working off his front This is more subtle and harder to notice. It is particularly prevalent in sports where turns are important (such a barrel racing), but is evident to a good rider in many situations. It might be described as “leaning” in the direction of his turn or even turning too soon. You must be using a bit with independent lift on either side. More on this later. Or someone send us comments. It’s a very complicated issue with many possible solutions, and I don’t want to pretend to be an expert.

Overactive Mouth – Mouth open or excessive salivation
A horse does not naturally walk around with his mouth open. Any horse who travels that way in his bridle is telling you something. The bit is causing such discomfort to the tongue that he cannot swallow properly. Lack of swallow causes excessive salivation. Nose bands are made to “strap” a horse’s mouth shut. Instead, the answer frequently lies in changing to a bit with less tongue pressure – ie: a double-jointed snaffle that distributes the tongue pressure more evenly across the tongue.

There is also a difference between the mouth-open, excessive salivating horse and a nervous horse that can benefit from a “cricket” or playful middle joint of his bit that gives him a “toy” for his tongue.

There is also a difference between an uncomfortable bit that causes excessive salivation and a nice, moist mouth. Read about salivation, copper and sweet iron bits etc.

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2 thoughts on “Horse Problems: Bitting Issues

    1. That would be very hard to say, as each training situation and horse is unique. If I wanted a place to start, it would probably be an egg butt, D-ring, three-piece (double-jointed) snaffle bit. It is mild enough on the bars because it is fat. It is mild on the tongue because it is broken in the middle to give some tongue relief. A novice rider can usually ride with it without damaging a horse’s mouth. A green horse can use it without severe consequences. If it has a drawback, it is that some horses find it to be too much metal in their mouth because of the fat bars. But it is a good place to start.

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