Choosing a Bit

Simple Considerations for Choosing a Horse Bit
Before you choose a bit, consider

1. Your horse’s age and dentition: Most beginning trainers think that a horse works his way from a “gentle” bit to a “severe” bit as he gets older and better trained. Actually that is the opposite of what is true.

A simple analogy in human terms: A toddler is kept in a playpen because he cannot understand the rules. You wouldn’t think of keeping a teenager in a “cage”. He can have more freedom because he understands and respects more rules (cues). A horse who understands can use less pressure.

While the tongue pressure is more intense in simple snaffles (the most frequently used bit on young horses) than other bits, a young horse can learn how to understand a couple of points of more intense bit pressure more quickly than 4 or 5 pressures at once. At this young age when he may “run into” his bit more often or with more force, it is also best to “save” his bars for later, more sophisticated training. The goal is to give a horse as much comfort and freedom as he can have without sacrificing control, and a young horse may need quite a bit of control.

The younger horse generally works best with tongue pressure, little bar pressure and simple, lateral pull. As your horse progresses, he can learn to work with less tongue pressure while he learns about curb and bar pressure. By adding new controls while reducing already-mastered controls, the horse’s understanding of bit cues grows more sophisticated and the cues become LESS severe, not more severe.

Most people purchase their horse already trained and aren’t privy to the whole progression of green horse to wonderful riding horse as done by an experienced trainer. The misconception of “gentle-to-severe” bit progression might be founded in the experience of watching a trainer take a “spoiled” horse to a more severe bit to get control back. In a correction bit for a short time, a horse who has been mis-handled or mis-trained can return to his mild bit with a new understanding and more freedom. He goes back to infancy and returns to adulthood – back to the playpen then returns to freedom.

Dentition: Wolf teeth can cause a problem. There are tooth problems that might need attention. If your horse is experiencing bit problems be sure to ask your equine vet to check his mouth for problems. (see Horse Teeth)

2. How he responds to his current bit: A horse can tell you if he is uncomfortable. If you see signs of bit problems, start looking for a new bit immediately. He may need a bit that exploits a different area of his mouth. Often a horse who is hard to handle needs a more generous bit instead of a more severe one. (see Bit Fit)

3. Your own riding hands and expertise: Beginners should usually use simple snaffles or even a hackamore only. They are the most forgiving and do not magnify rider errors. (see Snaffle Bits) If your timing is slow or you ride using the reins for balance, your horse must be in a bit that will forgive those problems and not pass the pressure on to his mouth. He must be in a bit that gives plenty of relief from harsh jerks and miscues caused by your poor balance. He needs a bit that lengthens your signal time (the time between when a rider picks up the reins and when the rider “handles” the horse using the bit.)

Shanks magnify and add pressure to the chin and poll. An inexperienced horse or rider should not be using a shanked bit. Only older horses with experienced riders should be in most curb bits

Inexperienced riders need experienced horses. Because the novice rider is exerting unnecessary pressures, a horse must be in a very mild, forgiving bit with fewer pressure points. Thus a young horse who needs control must have an experienced rider who cannot damage him with heavy hands. An inexperienced rider must have a well-trained horse who will not fight for control.

4. What type of bit your horse has worn before: It is always possible to change bits. Check your current bit under a microscope to see if it has burrs or corrosion problems that have developed over time. If you don’t find any, analyze his behavior. Perhaps he is numb to your bit signals, or he is overly sensitive to them due to a poorly functioning bit.

Every bit exerts pressure in a different way. It might be time to change the sensations with a bit of a different configuration.

Remember that changing bits can cause confusion until he understands the new bit’s pressure-requests. (see Signal)

Transitioning to a new bit is necessary when you are educating a horse through stages of control. You may go through 4 or 5 bits before you end up with his “lifetime” bit. Try to transition in baby steps. Change only one pressure point of a bit at a time – relaxing the previously mastered pressures as you take up new pressures. ie: When moving from a single-joint-snaffle bit (with tongue pressure as its dominant feature) to a three piece mouthpiece, the tongue pressure is reduced as rein cues are better understood. Moving from the Dee-three-piece snaffle to a shanked snaffle can add just curb pressure to the repertoire.

Don’t introduce new exercises until he has re-mastered all of the old ones in the new bit.

Horses who have been ridden in curb bits can be re-schooled to snaffles fairly easily. Older horses who have ridden in snaffles take a very considerate hand and lots of patient training to change to a curb bit. There is also an art to training a horse to a one-handed bit (neck reining).

5. What type of exercises you want him to perform – new routines or current training. Each type of bit rests on and pressures different areas of a horse’s mouth encouraging him to move in a different way. If you want him to learn a soft, lateral flex, your full cheek snaffle can be your best friend. Eggbutt snaffles are common for young horses and the beginning stages of dressage. If you need him to lift his front, he may need a gag bit (experienced trainers only). There are literally hundreds of bits for hundreds of different mouths and maneuvers. Choose a bit for its unique shape and seating position for the job at hand.

6. A bit to experiment or for everyday – Bits from different manufacturers may look identical but feel very different to the horse. Additionally, the “same” bit may cost between $40 and $350, depending on the craftsmanship. If you are trying to solve a problem with a new configuration, you can often experiment with the new configuration using a less expensive, import bit and then purchase his new “every day” upgrade when you know that the configuration is working. Experimenting with a less expensive bit does not mean that a “cheap imitation” is as good as a work of art. Inexpensive bits can frequently develop burrs or corrosion problems down the road that can adversely affect your horse’s attitude. Upgrade as quickly as possible.

Get more information about horse bits here: Horse Bits Explained

LEVEL ONE – MILD EFFECT: Often used to start young horses and beginner riders, Level One horse bits are simple and direct snaffles. Generally, the mouthpieces are smooth and thick and apply pressure to one side of the face or the other using two-handed rein carriage. They are without leverage, so they don’t magnify errors by riders who are not skilled at giving signals or who inadvertently use the reins to hold their balance. They do not apply pressure on the chin or poll. In the Level One Horse Bits you will find most of the simple, smooth snaffles without long cheeks. They can be used by most riders with any kind of hands.

LEVEL TWO – MODERATE EFFECT: Level Two bits take a little more experience. Most Level Two bits are loose-shank or loose-cheek snaffles which retain independent lateral movement. They can have short cheeks (about 6″ or less), which introduces the horse to a small amount of leverage as well as some chin and poll pressure. They can be used by a majority of riders with some education in their hands as they won’t easily damage the horse’s mouth. Level Two horse bits are frequently an everyday bit for anyone above rank beginner horse or rider.

LEVEL THREE – MODERATE TO STRONG EFFECT: Level 3 bits are suited to more mature horse (4 to 5 years old) with the capacity of accepting more pressure from the bit and riders with more educated hands. They may have thick mouthpieces made of different materials such as tight twisted metals that apply more bar pressure. They can have longer shanks and non-swivelling cheeks but not in combination with high-pressure bit configuration such as the twisted mouth or wire-wrapped bars. In other words they may have more dramatic mouthpieces OR longer shanks, but not both. This category includes shank snaffle bits and most short-shank, low-port curb bits that apply pressure to bars, poll, and chin. Not severe if used properly, but stronger effect than Level Two.

LEVEL FOUR – STRONG EFFECT: Level Four bits are for horses over 5 years old, experienced, with good training, and who can accept a lot of pressure from the bit and the rider’s hands. Horses and riders should be worked up gradually to this type of bit with plenty of yielding experience and graduated understanding of bit pressure. These bits are for competition, and/or experienced riders who want very precise control of their horse’s carriage and who want less discernible hand movement during signalling. They include some combination bits and bits that use double reins. Level Four mouthpieces can be more severe such as thin bits. Ports are higher, and they can have longer shanks that impart a lot of leverage. They certainly cannot be put in just any rider’s hands.

LEVEL FIVE – VERY STRONG EFFECT: Bits in Level Five have even higher ports, longer shanks, and more complex mouthpieces. They include many combination bits, gag bits, correction bits and high-port curb bits such as spades. They can certainly hurt the horse if not used properly. Because they can easily damage a horse’s mouth, it is recommended that Level Five bits only be used by professional trainers and riders on very experienced and older horses.

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2 thoughts on “Choosing a Bit

  1. Hi Kira: A couple of things occur to me. How is she at flexing laterally in a halter and/or bit from the ground? Did she used to flex softly both sides before the foal? If she is not perfect at flexing both sides softly and quickly from the ground, start there.

    There is no substitute for good ground training first. The horse you have on the ground is the horse you have under saddle – but worse.
    Read: Lateral Flex Training

    Second thought: An “Irish draught cross percheron” usually has a very gentle nature. They are often even a little lazy. If that is the case (or even if it isn’t), go back to some “whoa” training. If she does not stop, don’t try to “pull her down”. You will lose that battle. Any horse who is being “pulled back” with their neck out straight has a 1/2 ton advantage against a rider’s pull. When she does not stop easily, use the “emergency stop”: one rein pulled around to the girth to turn her in a tight circle until her feet are still. When she stops and is quiet, release the pressure – not until. Then stand and rest a full minute as a reward for stillness. (This, of course, depends on her soft lateral flex again)

    I think you can forget about what type of bit you are using. It is of no consequence here.

    The foal adds a small layer of potential problems, but an open pasture doesn’t offer the opportunity for it to get lost or separated or out of her sight, so don’t worry about the foal. She is either responsive or she is not.

  2. Comment:
    I have a six year old mare, Irish draught cross percheron. I am currently riding her in open fields with her 5 month old foal loose. However, she can be very unresponsive on the right rein and does not want to turn right (fights against the bit) but she is better on the left one and will always turn. She will sometimes fight me when I pull her up to stop. I ride her in a three ring continental snaffle. I have just put it down to the foal still being with her so I am waiting until he’s weaned to see if anything changes but if not what would be the best thing to try? Thanks

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