Choose a Bit

Simple Considerations for Choosing a Horse Bit

Before you choose a bit, consider

1. Your horse’s age and dentition: Most begining 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-swiveling 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 discernable hand movement during signaling. 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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6 thoughts on “Choose a Bit

  1. I have a 7 yr old that was trained to over bend at poll and ticks his head at any touch of rein. It cause him to be front endy in barrel racing. What bit would u recommend to get this horse off his frt end. He is really broke but needs dif bit I believe, what do u suggest so he wt be so responsive and get off his front end ? Ty vickie

    1. Hi Vicky:
      Not being a barrel racer, I don’t really feel qualified to answer with any “barrel-specific”authority. However, my first move (with a well-trained horse) is to get him a well-made side-pull and remove the bit altogether to see his “natural” way of going. If it is the bit that tips him forward, you will know it because the behavior will disappear. (A poorly balanced curb bit can cause habitual over-bending at the poll)

      If he is still so “over-collected” at the poll in the side-pull then some retraining might be in order – starting with his lunging exercises. Allow him to change his posture while lunging, letting him relax more. However, be aware that it takes a long time to change his musculature and habit.

      You might try a better-balanced curb bit (if he wears a curb bit). If it is balanced correctly, it will encourage the proper head carriage because it will only sit comfortably when his head is correctly positioned. You will probably need an on-site professional to help you find one and fit it. See Leverage for a full explanation of the balance of a curb bit for head carriage.

      Hopefully we have some barrel racing professionals who might want to give this young woman some help.

  2. Hi. I’ve “ridden” my entire life. Back yard ponies and self taught. Well I have started to ride my daughters show horse and think I need a different bit. He is generally ridden in a “tom thumb” type bit. But I feel with my lack of balance and “hanging” on his reins I’m upsetting and confusing the poor guy. I went to a clinic and was quite scared. He bucked, and was all hot walking sideways being a real butt head. Shone advice I got that day was to maybe ride in a snaffle. But there are so many where do I start?

    1. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the horse or the situation. What type of clinic? What breed of horse, and what was he trained to do for show? Is being “hot” a usual problem for him? Is he in the Tom thumb because it provides curb and poll leverage because he won’t stop?

      You are right. That bit can be pretty harsh in untrained hands. Given a choice I always start with a double-jointed snaffle with no leverage on a seasoned horse. Dover sells a nice fat, copper, double-jointed loose-ring bit. It has worked very well on two new horses we have that are a little hot and nervous.

      I can’t imagine a “show” horse bucking unless there was some saddle discomfort or something. Or…were you “flopping” in the saddle to the point that he could imagine a mountain lion on his back and got panicky? Maybe he was just “kicking up” in protest, but it feels like bucking to the untrained rider. If you can find a private trainer who can work with you for a little while until you and the horse develop a partnership, it would be a good idea. AND, of course, I always encourage natural horsemanship training first and foremost. Then specialize when all is calm and controllable. I wish I were more help, but the clinic was the right first move.

  3. Is this the bit you are using?

    I am not sure what you mean by “only listens”. Does that mean she does not stop? Does she turn smoothly and easily? Has she used a shanked bit before? Does she understand curb pressure? This type of bit has some gag action in the large ring used for turning. It is not very good for stopping when used with that ring.

    At first you said she “only listens” when you use the “D” ring, and then you said this is the only bit that she “pays attention” to. I have to admit I am somewhat confused.

    It might be better to get a bit that works on her problem area but leaves the other area alone. If she won’t stop, you might try a “Kimberwick” type bit with a three piece mouth. It has shorter shanks (if the high leverage is what she is objecting to) but still has some leverage to get her attention in the stop. (Are you sure you are using the curb strap properly?)

    The Slotted Dee Kimberwick won’t mess up the turn so much by gouging the cheek like a Tom Thumb (which gouges the tongue AND the cheek). I found a Slotted Dee, Double Hinged Uxeter Kimberwick Bit With Copper Roller Stainless Steel With 5″ Mouthpiece at

    She is 5 years old but was “green” when she came to you. Was she 4-5 years old when you got her? What type of basic training did YOU put on her yourself. If you have taken her carefully through the fundamentals yourself, it is pretty irrelevant what her former training was.

    Frequently it is not the equipment so much as the training. I would certainly recommend going back to the basics with her. Perhaps her training was hurried. You need to go back to basics in a round pen (then the arena) and perfect all of the voice, leg, seat, and hand cues for “whoa”. See the sections on “Verbal Whoa” and “Flex Training”. I highly recommend Clinton Anderson Natural Horsemanship Fundamentals if you are interested in doing it yourself. Step by step you can build the horse you want – and sometimes the bit is not even necessary at all. I understand that some people find formal training boring, but there is no substitute.

    I’m not sure I have helped. Let me know if I am not understanding. Also, please let me know if this solution helps you and which part was most helpful.


    I have this bit and my Thoroughbred mare coming of 5 years old only listens when the reins are in the first whole not the shank area. What Type of bit would be bet for her? I know little of her training back ground. She was green when she came to me. She hates the shanks, tom thumbs and runs through an o-ring. This is the only thing I have fond that actually gets her attention and she listens well to. Also can you tell me what level a bit this is and what it is mainly used for. My boyfriends horse listens well to it and is a completly balanced horse when she uses this bit.

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