Begin Your Quest For The “Right” Bit

Experimentation is the best method—and often the only option.
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Experimentation is the best method—and often the only option.

Do you know why you can buy hundreds of different bits from tack stores all around the country? Because finding the ”perfect” bit is like getting to the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

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This great quest is one entirely without GPS guidance, and it really can be never-ending, since horses are individuals whose needs and preferences often change as their training progresses, as they get older, or if your riding progresses. The bit your horse seemed to like so well may not be what he wants now, and you may have to combine educated guessing with divine inspiration to decide what to try next. 

Gina Miles, who won the individual silver medal in eventing at the 2008 Olympics, says that she too often sees riders who are unwilling to try a different bit, even if a horse is going poorly or differently than he was when they first started using a particular bit.

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Horses change from day to day and month to month, and people often forget that you have to adapt to that. “Maybe now he’s better with the exercises you’ve been doing, so give him a chance to be better by trying a different bit—perhaps milder, perhaps a different shape or material,” said Miles. 

“Maybe you’re a better rider—maybe you’re using your leg and seat better and don’t need so much hand or bit,” she added. “So give him an opportunity to be better and to not need that bit anymore.” 

Bits Don’t Fix Training. In early 2013, Professional’s Choice introduced the Gina Miles Bit Collection, which so far includes seven bits, from a version of the classic double-jointed loose-ring snaffle to a kimberwick and a gag.

But Miles cautions that you shouldn’t rely on a new bit—especially a stronger bit, like a twisted snaffle or a gag—to solve what’s really a training problem that you haven’t successfully addressed.

“The bit isn’t meant to solve training problems,” said Miles. 

“I believe you should use the simplest bit possible for the job,” she continued. “So in our collection, we really wanted to emphasize the basics. We wanted to create more of a training system.”

That means starting young horses, or a horse that’s new to you, with a snaffle (usually a loose-ring, egg-butt or D-ring) and working from there. Literally dozens of types of snaffle bits are available, in various shapes, with various types of materials (metal, plastic-covered, rubber-covered), and with a wide variety of cheek pieces. The only way to tell which one your horse prefers is to try them.

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Miles said she often tries a different noseband before, or in conjunction with, trying a new bit. Some horses prefer wider, padded nosebands; others need a crank noseband to prevent bracing their jaw against the bit. Some like a plain cavesson, to allow them to move their jaws. Others go best with a flash noseband, to keep their mouths closed, while others go best in a figure-eight noseband to hold their entire jaw closed. 

With nosebands, as with bits, you have to experiment.

Do You Really Need A stronger Bit? The key question when you’re considering trying a different bit is this: What problem are you trying to solve? And the follow-up question is: Can you solve the problem by using a different bit, especially a stronger bit?

Keep two things in mind when experimenting with bits:

First, your performance problem is most likely a training problem that a different bit, especially a stronger bit, may not solve, at least not permanently. Carefully evaluate your problem and ask if the cause isn’t really a lack of training basics.

“You need to determine what is the horse doing with his body? What kind of shape is he making with his body? Evaluate that, and then change the bit accordingly, trying to find a bit that will deal with whether the horse is high-headed and hollow with his back, or behind the bit, or locking his jaw, or whatever, ” said Miles. 

Second, remember that bits can be a zero-sum game. If you just keep increasing the severity of your bit without addressing the real training problems, you could eventually have nowhere to go, as in no stronger bit to try. So your goal should always be to use the least-severe bit possible, although sometimes you do need to use something a little stronger briefly to work through a horse’s problem.

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“More and more bit can be kind of a Band-Aid, but eventually you’ll run out of bit if you don’t fix the problem. You can only get one so strong,” said Miles.

“Using a bigger or stronger bit can temporarily make you feel better, but what’s happening is that too often people go to more and more bit and rely less and less on their legs and their training. And at a certain point there isn’t more bit to go to if you don’t back up and solve the problem,” she added.

You should assess what you might be losing if you attempt to control your horse for jumping by using a markedly stronger bit. Some horses need to get going strongly forward, even a bit aggressively, to the jumps to feel confident, and a bit that prevents this attitude can cause them to refuse. So as the rider you have to get brave and learn to ride your horse the way he wants to go.

Obviously, the horse has to let you ride him to the jumps, and there can be a safety issue that requires a greater state of control. So the job of the rider and the trainer is to find the line between safety and comfort, for the horse and for the rider. 

Still, Miles believes “there aren’t very many horses who need a lot of bit. What you really need to do is learn how to ride your horse properly at home—that’s my No. 1 goal.”

Trial And Error.Finding the bit that fits your horse the best is rather like finding the type of shoes that fit you best. Equine mouths and human feet each usually fall within a range, but horses’ mouths are as individually shaped as our feet—and even more uniquely sensitive.

Dr. Hilary Clayton has been studying the way bits act on horses’ mouths for more than 25 years, since 1997 in an endowed chair at Michigan State University. But even after all those years of systematic research, she still says that “finding the right bit is more a matter of trial and error than a scientific process.”

The effect a certain bit has on a horse depends on its shape, what it’s made of, and how the reins are attached to the bit relative to the position of the mouthpiece and the height of the rider’s hands.

Clayton has shown that the size of a horse’s mouth isn’t directly proportional to his body size and that most horses prefer thinner bits to thicker bits. What this really means is that a 17-hand warmblood won’t necessarily take a larger bit size than a 15-hand Quarter Horse and that the traditional and historically esteemed hollow-mouthed, loose-ring snaffle just might not be your horse’s favorite. 

The research she’s done has found that many horses simply don’t have room in their mouths for thick bits like that, usually because their tongues take up too much of the oral cavity. “So the size and the shape of the bit is individual to every horse, meaning you have to keep trying until you find a bit they’re comfortable with,” she said.

Similarly, loose-ring bits tend to encourage horses to chew the bit, which is almost always one of your training goals. But some horses get pinched by the loose rings and prefer egg-butt, D-ring or other snaffles. 

The horse’s mouth has seven pressure points: 1) the tongue, 2) the bars, 3) the lips, 4) the curb groove under the chin (if you’re using a bit with a curb chain), 5) the poll, 6) the nose, and 7) the roof of the mouth. The bars and the roof of the mouth are particularly sensitive and vulnerable to injury. 

Riders and trainers have long believed that horses “lean on the bit,” or travel on their forehand, because they’re naturally (or have become) insensitive to the pressure or effect of the bit. But Clayton’s research has shown that the opposite is really true, that horses lean on the bit to relieve the pressure on the soft tissues of their palate.

Bottom Line. The effect of a bit and a horse’s willingness to work with it depends on how it fits in his mouth and how it affects the seven pressure points. The majority of horses don’t like the bit pressing against the roof of their mouths, banging into their teeth, or pressing against their tongues—but that’s not universally true.

And that’s why it’s important to try to experiment with different bits or to have a collection of three, four or more bits that you can switch around. Changing bits can keep the horse “fresher” to their effects on the pressure points and, thus, in their reaction to your aids. But not always.

“Finding the right bit or bits is a little bit like solving a puzzle,” said Miles. “You just have to experiment.”

Article by Performance Editor John Strassburger.