Credit: William J. Erikson
Don’t select a bit based on your horse’s breed or gait. Rather, select the bit that’s best for your individual horse’s comfort and that will best help you communicate with him. What are the best bits to use on smooth-gaited horses. Following are my answers to readers’ questions.
You can use this information even if you don’t ride a gaited horse. In fact, the first and most important point I want to make is that gaited horses do not need special bits, on the trail or elsewhere.
Don’t select a bit based on your horse’s breed or gait. Rather, select the bit that’s best for your individual horse’s comfort and that will best help you communicate with him.
Q. I trail ride with my husband and son. We have two new horses this year, a Tennessee Walking Horse and a Rocky Mountain Horse. They’re our first gaited horses, but if all gaited horses are as sweet-natured and comfortable as these, they sure won’t be our last. Our old Quarter Horses wear grazing bits, but what are our bit options for our new horses? We’ve been told that gaited horses should always be ridden in gaited horse bits.
A. You have all of the bit options in the world. Your gaited horses can go down the trail wearing any kind of bit. Or they can go bitless in a hackamore noseband, a sidepull, a bosal, or a rope halter. If you want a little more finesse, you could use Dr. Cook’s Bitless Bridle (www.bitlessbridle.com).
As for so-called gaited horse bits,” the truth is that although these are sold “for gaited horses,” they have nothing to do with your horse’s gait or comfort.
Q. I recently bought my first gaited horse. He has nice manners and very smooth gaits, but he’s always ducking his head, then tossing it up in the air. The bit I use is the one he came with; he threw his head with his old owner, too. A trainer told me that gaited horses are bred to be hard-mouthed, and if I get a stronger bit and a martingale, my horse will keep his head down and tucked.
A. Gaited horses aren’t bred to be hard-mouthed. “Hard-mouthed,” in any case, doesn’t mean what you think it does. It’s extremely rare for a horse’s mouth to become “hard” and insensitive in terms of a buildup of callous and/or scar tissue.
At least 99 percent of the time, a horse that seems unresponsive to the reins is either untrained (doesn’t understand aids or cues), has been trained to push against the bit, or has simply learned from experience that there’s no point in responding to the bit, since it gives no clear signals and will continue to cause pain no matter what he does. Far too many horses fall into this last category.
Credit: Courtesy of Bit of Britain
Snaffle bits don’t have shanks, ever. If the bit has shanks, it’s a curb bit, even if it has a broken mouthpiece. Beware of trainers who suggest stronger bits and gadgets to limit a horse’s movement. Hardware is never an adequate substitute for training, and some hardware is flat out dangerous. A “stronger” bit — that is, one that can cause more pain — doesn’t create instant obedience in a horse. Further, it can create panic. A truly terrified horse won’t be controlled by pain. In fact, he’s far more likely to try to run away from it.
Martingales can be dangerous, as well. Limiting the range of movement of the horse’s head and neck may let the rider think that he or she has more control of the horse, but horses are claustrophobic animals, so tying down their heads can cause a panic reaction and a runaway.
Never use a martingale or tie-down on the trail. If your horse crosses water, he’s at risk for drowning. In deep water, or if he trips, he won’t be able to get his head out of the water to breathe. These devices also can hinder his balance on difficult terrain.
Q. My gaited horse is young, fit, and energetic. I’d just love to ride him without a bit -- I think it’s so cool and a lot more natural than putting metal in his mouth. But I know there’s no way I could get away with that, right?
A. If you want to try riding your horse without a bit, go ahead. But practice at home first, in
Credit: Courtesy of Professional's Choice
Your gaited horse can go down the trail wearing any kind of bit. Or he can go bitless in a hackamore. (If you use a tie-down, remove it before you ride on the trail. Even better, train your horse to flex and soften on cue.) an enclosed arena, then in a larger, outside area. Fitness and energy are compatible with bitless riding. Many fit, energetic endurance horses are ridden in bitless bridles. Find an endurance-riding group in your area for more information.
Q. I know that a curb is “more bit” than a snaffle, but I’ve never understood exactly how a curb works. Can you explain? Also, what kind of a curb would be best for trail riding?
A. A curb bit has shanks that extend above and below the mouthpiece. You attach the headstall to the purchase (the upper end of the shanks, above the mouthpiece), and attach the reins to rings at the lower shanks, below the mouthpiece. <
Rein pressure causes the lower shanks to put pressure on your horse’s mouth and under his jaw; the purchase puts pressure on his poll. Curbs are leverage bits, which multiply the rein pressure: One pound of rein pressure may mean 3, 5, or even 10 pounds of pressure on your horse’s mouth.
To estimate the amount of leverage, first look at overall shank length; a bit with 10-inch shanks will be much stronger than a bit with the same mouthpiece and four-inch shanks. Then look at the length of the lower shank and the purchase. A long lower shank and shorter purchase will create more leverage on the lower jaw, via the bit and curb strap.
A shank with the same overall length but with a longer purchase and a shorter lower shank will apply more pressure to the poll and less “squeeze” to the lower jaw.
A curb strap (or curb chain) is fastened under the horse’s jaw, resting in the chin groove. When you apply rein pressure, the curb strap causes the bit’s mouthpiece to rotate. This
Credit: Courtesy of Smith Brothers
A curb bit has shanks that extend above and below the mouthpiece.
These shanks act as leverage, multiplying the amount of pressure you put on the reins.
squeezes the horse’s lower jaw between the mouthpiece and the curb strap, and puts pressure on his poll. (Note: When you use a curb strap/chain, clip the underside of your horse’s muzzle to enhance his comfort.)
Curb-strap length affects the bit’s timing (how quickly it acts). A bit with a tight curb strap will act almost instantly; a loose curb strap creates slower timing, allowing an attentive horse to respond to a slight shift in the mouthpiece, even before the squeezing begins.
A curb bit may have a port (a low, medium, or high raised area in the center of a solid mouthpiece, which places more pressure on the bars and less pressure on the tongue.
A horse with a thick tongue may be uncomfortable in a mullen-mouth or low-port bit, and more comfortable in a bit with a medium or high port for more “tongue relief.” If a port is very high, or a horse’s palate is very low, rein pressure may cause the port to act on the roof of the horse’s mouth.
For trail riding, the best sort of curb is a grazing-type model with short (four-inch) swept-back shanks and either a mullen mouthpiece or a low or medium-port mouthpiece, depending on your horse’s mouth conformation.
Q. I’ve been told that my horse won’t be able to gait if I don’t ride him in his “regulation” bit. It’s a heavy bit with long shanks. I’d prefer to use a smaller bit, maybe even a snaffle with short shanks. I’m afraid to make a big change, because I don’t want to lose his wonderful running walk.
A. If your horse has good natural gaits and can gait when he’s wearing a heavy bit with long shanks, he’ll gait just as well or better when he’s allowed to be comfortable. Heavy bits with long shanks aren’t comfortable or practical for long trail rides.
Try a “colt bit” with a one-piece mouth, such as a mullen mouth (which is solid and curved) or low-port mouthpiece and very short shanks. If this works well, you can try a mullen-mouth snaffle that has no shanks. Then decide which bit is better for you and your horse.
Note: Snaffles don’t have shanks, ever. There are a lot of mislabeled curb bits on the market. These aren’t gentle bits, and they don’t work via direct pressure as a snaffle would.
Q. I’ve tried at least 10 different bits on my gaited horse, but nothing works. I started with a little snaffle when I bought him. He blew right through it, even with a trainer. I tried three other kinds of snaffle bits, four different curbs, and a bosal, with no luck. I have to hold the reins really short and tight, and my horse just ducks his head into his chest and kind of prances down the trail. Help!
A. Relax, and stop spending money on bits! The solution to your problem isn’t on the bit wall at the tack store; it’s between your horse’s ears — and between your own ears, too.
It sounds as though your problem is simple: Your horse doesn’t know what the bit means, and you don’t know how to teach him. You both need help, not hardware.
Invest in lessons with a good instructor, preferably a good dressage or natural-horsemanship instructor. You must learn how to balance in the saddle and give clear, soft signals to your horse, and your horse must learn what those signals mean and how to respond to them. When you’ve both made enough progress that your horse can respect and trust the hands holding the reins, you’ll be able to keep him attentive and responsive no matter what equine headgear you use.
Q. I changed my gaited horse’s bit from the big one he came with (it had nine-inch shanks and a sharp mouthpiece) to a smaller one with almost no shanks. The new bit has a curved mouthpiece made of sweet iron. I keep the leather curb strap pretty loose. My horse seems happy, his gaits are super. The problem? Someone told me I’m being cruel t
Credit: William J. Erikson
Your gaited horse can go down the trail wearing any kind of bit. Or he can go bitless in a hackamore. (If you use a tie-down, remove it before you ride on the trail. Even better, train your horse to flex and soften on cue.) o my horse by riding in a curb bit rather than a snaffle. What should I do?
A. Your horse is the best judge of what’s comfortable for him. If he’s energetic, cheerful, moving easily, and gaiting well, the bit you’re using obviously doesn’t bother him. Because it’s a leverage bit, a curb will be more painful than a snaffle if you hang on the reins, but since you ride on a loose rein, that won’t be an issue for you.
Many horses respond very well to the bit you’re using: a colt bit with a sweet-iron mullen mouthpiece. Sweet iron, also called mild steel and cold-rolled steel, is a metal alloy that rusts quickly. Rust actually tastes sweet to most horses, and promotes salivation, which enhances mouth comfort.
If you want to experiment with a snaffle, go ahead, but look for one that has a mouthpiece similar to the one on your current bit. Horses aren’t automatically more comfortable in a snaffle. The combination of a colt bit and a soft-leather curb strap is an excellent choice for trail riding.
Q. My horse is almost 2 years old and very talented. He has great gaits in the pasture. I’ve been riding him for two months and he’s never bucked. But he isn’t gaiting right, and I think it’s because I’m riding him in a snaffle for direct contact, and he needs a curb to collect and gait correctly. What kind of curb is best for collection?
A. If your horse gaits well in pasture, the natural gaits are there waiting for you. If you can be a little more patient, you can have those gaits under saddle. Right now, your horse is very young; in fact, he’s far too young to be working under saddle.
At age 2, your horse is still a baby, still teething, and still growing in all directions. A 2-year-old will have a hard time balancing himself well, because his body is changing every day. He’s several years away from being physically mature, and collection is a long way away.
When horses don’t respond to bits, it’s not due to a “lack of respect,” but a lack of training. Teach your horse to understand what you’re asking and how to respond in the way you want. Then teach him to make that response a habit. All of this takes time and patience.
Do your horse’s basic training in a comfortable snaffle. You can change to a curb later in his education. If you begin escalating bits now, it’s likely that by the time he’s more mature and physically able to gait well under a rider, he may’ve learned to hate the whole idea of being ridden. There’s no reason to allow that to happen.
Q. I’m having problems getting my 10-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse to gait correctly. At first, I rode him in the show-horse curb with the long shanks and kept the reins pretty loose. Then I took him on the trail. He’s surefooted and loves being outside. I want to ride in a snaffle; my no-pinch mullen-mouth fits fine, and he seems to like it. But I have to hold the reins tightly to get him to flex, and he ends up racking instead of performing the running walk. Do I have to use a curb to get the running walk back?
A. You’ve already answered your own question. A good running walk involves a lot of nodding, and if the reins are short and tight, your horse can’t nod. When a Walker can’t nod, he’ll naturally tend to shift into a rack, because racking doesn’t require nodding.
You can get the running walk in a snaffle bit, just allow your horse the same head-and-neck freedom that you gave him when you rode him in the curb, on a loose rein.
Don’t worry about flexion; if your horse is moving actively forward with unrestricted head movement, he’ll flex as much as he needs to. When you ask for a lot of flexion, you put too much tension on the reins, and once again, that’s a quick way to turn a running walk into a rack. Your snaffle is a good choice.
Jessica Jahiel, PhD (www.jessicajahiel.com), is an internationally recognized clinician and lecturer, and an award-winning author of books on horses, riding, and training. Her e-mail newsletter (www.horse-sense.org) is a popular worldwide resource.