When you're shopping for bits, you'll see all sorts of interesting contraptions. Some seem big and powerful, others look too small to communicate with a 1000-pound horse. Here, we'll help you understand how bits work, describe the most common types of bits, and provide expert advice to help you select the bit you need.
Keep in mind that bits are intended to work with your body's cues as you direct your horse. If you're looking for a bit to solve your horse's behavioral problems, consult a trainer instead. No bit can fix everything--and there's no perfect bit that works well on every horse. That said, Weaver Leather offers many bit types. Use our step-by-step guide to learn about bits and gain valuable information that will help you shop. Please ask your horse's trainer for additional help.
How Bits Work
Bits are designed to apply pressure to specific points in your horse's mouth. The most effective place to apply pressure is on the bars--the cartilage-covered gaps between your horse's front and back teeth on either side of his jaw. Different bits may also apply pressure on your horse's lips, the roof of his mouth and his lips.
Pounds of Pressure
As you peruse your tack store's bit display, you'll notice that some bits have wide metal mouthpieces. Others appear thin. How do you know which bits will apply severe pressure and which will give a gentle nudge?
Thick metal bars provide lots of space for the bit to contact your horse's mouth. That large contact area spreads out pressure when you pull on the reins while
riding -- translating to low pressure per square inch of contact. If you outfit your horse with a thin bit, you'll add pressure over a smaller area--translating to more pressure per square inch. As a general rule, a thicker mouthpiece is less severe than a thin wire.
Let's look at that concept another way. Imagine walking through 12 inches of packed snow with wide snow shoes on your feet. Even with lots of pressure forced down onto the snow, you can stand because your weight is spread out over a fairly large area. In contrast, if you walk through the same snow drift with ice skates strapped to your feet, you'll cut through the snow. All your body weight concentrates down onto the thin metal strips.
Metal Make Up
Bits are made from a variety of metal types--creating different results and offering choices for different budgets.
Nickel-plated bits are inexpensive, but can flake with wear. When the plating comes off, your horse may be injured by rough spots. Stainless steel bits are affordable and safe. The material will not rust, as can nickel. Some bits are lined with a hard rubber coating. The baked on coating provides a soft feel and is warm against your horse's bars and tongue. Other soft bits are made from plastics and even have flavors.
Your horse may respond well to metals that make him salivate and make it comfortable to have something in his mouth. Sweet iron mouthpieces are a popular choice. Bits are available with copper mouthpieces and copper and steel rollers--encouraging your horse to be soft and responsive. Check your copper bit often to make sure it doesn't become sharp.
Bit shapes also affect how much pressure your horse feels when you cue and how relaxed he'll be during your entire ride. If his bit is straight, he'll feel pressure on his tongue and feel less at his bars. Bars are the only places in your horse's mouth where he can feel direction cues. So, if the bit mouthpiece is straight, it will be more difficult for him to discern precisely where you'd like him to be.
Hinges or grooves allow your horse's tongue room and angle so that your pressure is applied to the bars. Your horse will understand your lateral cues more easily because he'll feel the pressure on one or both bars. His tongue will be free to relax.
Caveat: Know the difference between a groove (which allows the tongue room to move) and a port (which is a raised groove that applies pressure on your horse's mouth). A tongue groove is shallow--only allowing room for the tongue to move. A port is tall and is designed to apply a more severe cue.
A Little Leverage
You'll add more power to your cues when your movement is amplified by a shank on a curb bit (any bit with a shank). Shanks are long metal pieces that extend down from the side of a bit's mouthpiece. Your reins attach at the end of the shank so that the shank maximizes your movement and puts the bit into action. Horses feel pressure from curb bits as clamping between their chins (where a chain or strap is attached) and bars. Make sure your curb's chain lays flat and doesn't pinch your horse. It shouldn't be too tight--make sure you can fit one finger between the chain and your horse's chin.
Any metal piece below the bit's mouthpiece is called a shank. Metal above the mouthpiece is called the purchase. Both metal pieces can apply leverage to different parts of your horse's mouth. Confusing? Imagine the goal at a football field. If you pried the goal posts out from the bottom, and swept them up toward the stands, the middle bar would dive forward. That's what happens when you apply pressure to the shanks. The mouthpiece moves much more than it would if you only applied direct pressure. Now, imagine pulling the upper posts of the "H" back into the stands. The lower posts and the cross bar would move far forward onto the field. Applying pressure to a bit's purchase has a similar effect.
The leverage applied allows your horse to feel cues faster and with more pressure. How much pressure the horse feels depends on how long the shank or purchase is. You can measure the leverage by comparing the distance from the mouthpiece to the reins and the distance from the mouthpiece to the chain behind the bit. Find out how many times longer the first measurement is than the second. Many curb bits have a 3 to 1 leverage ratio. So, if you apply one pound of pressure to the reins, the horse feels three pounds of pressure in his mouth.
Curb bits are most often used in Western showing to hide riders' movements while the horse understands his cues. They are the reason riders in pleasure classes can ride on a long, draped rein and still direct their horse. Western curb bits often have gentle ports and long (up to 9 inches) or medium-length (4 to 6 inches) shanks. A Tom Thumb bit fits in this category. The bit has a jointed mouth and shanks. As the bit rotates in your horse's mouth, the broken mouthpiece is felt on your horse's tongue and bars. The bit can be severe in uneducated hands. Young riders can do well with more mild curb bits because they don't yet have the strength and feel to make a horse understand without a little amplification.
English curb bits also often have ports. However, their shanks are often shorter than the western variety. English riders may ride in a curb bit with a double bridle (where two bits, a Weymouth curb and a Bridoon snaffle, work together) for high-level dressage competition. English shanks are usually about 4 to 5 inches in length.
What is a snaffle bit? You might answer that it's a bit with a jointed mouthpiece. Many otherwise wise horse people would agree with you. However, a snaffle is simply a bit without leverage. In the last section you learned about curb bits. A snaffle bit is most any bit that doesn't have a shank or a purchase.
On a snaffle, you'll attach your reins directly to the bit's mouthpiece with side rings or cheek bars. As you apply pressure to the reins, your horse will feel an equal amount of pressure on the bars of his mouth. If your snaffle has a joint, the mouthpiece will fold with rein pressure and give your horse tongue room. He'll feel pressure on his lips where they cover the bars.
Many horses are started in snaffle bits because trainers can apply pressure to specific points--horses easily understand directional cues. The bits also allow riders to feel their horses' mouths and learn how much pressure to apply.
Snaffle bits come in a variety of styles. You may have heard of an eggbutt, D-ring, loose-ring, or full-cheek bit.
>>Eggbutt snaffles are popular and named for their egg-shaped side rings. The construction limits pinching--your horse isn't likely to be pinched between the mouthpiece and the side ring because the ring is attached with large hinges.
>>The loose-ring snaffle's mouthpiece is more moveable than the eggbutt's. The mouthpiece attaches to sliding side rings. The loose rings stop your horse from clamping onto the bit, but they can easily pinch the sides of his mouth.
>>A D-ring snaffle is less likely to pinch your horse. The "D" shape provides a loop for your reins, and provides a post so that your horse's mouth isn't pinched.
>>Full-cheek snaffles may help your horse refine turning cues. The side pieces stop the bit from pulling through the horse's mouth during lateral cues. You'll find full cheek snaffles with many mouthpieces including slow twists (a bit more severe than a smooth snaffle), French links (a figure-eight shaped link in the center of the mouthpiece, thought to be
good for horses with low palates), Dr. Bristol (a multi-jointed mouthpiece with a center link that lays at an angle and contacts your horse's tongue).
The Right Fit
How do you measure your horse's mouth and order the right size? If your horse's bit doesn't fit properly, he may develop cuts and rubs in his lips or tongue. Keeping your horse's teeth in check will also help his fit. Have his teeth floated regularly to avoid sharp points.
As a general rule, when your horse is outfitted in his new bit, you should see two wrinkles in the corner of his mouth. However, this rule doesn't apply to all horses. Your horse's bit fit may be affected by his sensitivity, lip conformation, and even skin type (if his skin is tough, it may not wrinkle easily). If your horse has short lips, one wrinkle around the side of the bit may suffice.
You'll also need to check your horse's tongue size. If your horse's tongue is large, you'll see it between his teeth if you lift his lips while his teeth are closed. Choose a bit with extra tongue room in the form of a groove or hinge. A thinner mouthpiece may also help.
Next, have your vet evaluate your horse's bars and palate. You'll want to make sure that the bit you choose doesn't take up more than half the space between his hard palate and bars.
Ready to measure your horse for the right bit? Using a tape measure or string, measure your horse's mouth from corner to corner, going through his mouth. Order a bit that is 3/4 inch larger than what you measured. He'll have enough room to avoid the bit pinching the sides of his mouth.