Bits, How They Fit and Work


The anatomy of a horse’s head plays an important role in the form, function and design of a bit. By understanding where the bit applies pressure in or on the horse’s head, we can better judge the response we want to achieve. If we are creating excessive physical pressure, keep in mind that this gives the horse the opportunity to resist, and he will win. When we use our hands to feel the horse he will respond mentally, and his mind controls all his physical maneuvers. By using pressure points, i.e. lips, tongue, palate, bars, curb, pole and nose, we can understand how a bit effects the horse. When we figure out which pressure point or combination of pressure points the horse best responds to, then the bit can be selected. I believe the mouthpiece is for the horse and the cheekpieces are for the rider.

With the above information in-hand, the purpose of the bit becomes much clearer. If the intention of a bit is to create physical discomfort, then the choice of bits does not matter because you can do this with most bits. With the bit being used as an ultimate communication tool, we can discuss design. I will begin with the cheekpieces. In direct pull we can have a ring, D-ring or Full cheek etc. but all of these create direct rein contact with no leverage. When we add leverage or a shank of some length, we then have to be able to calculate leverage. Leverage can seem complicated, but keep in mind the shank is only one aspect, the more important part is where the fulcrum is, i.e. mouthpiece or point of swivel. By moving the mouthpiece closer to the ring which attaches to the bridle we create more leverage, if we move the mouthpiece closer to the rein ring the less leverage we have. This means you can have a longer shank with the mouthpiece at the bottom which will create very little leverage.

The degree to which the cheekpiece sweeps back from straight up and down creates delay in the movement of your hands. I like to think of this as the yellow light (warning), so the more the shank is swept back, the longer the yellow light and the more time it gives the horse to respond to the command. There are numerous styles of cheeks i.e.: S-shank, Pelham, Argentine etc. all which create different degrees of leverage and delays in pull. The Santa Barbara or spade I feel falls in a balance category because it is intended to provide a signal to the palate by the way it balances in a horse’s mouth.

Mouthpieces come in varieties too numerous to mention, I like to first look at the overall fit and comfort to the horse. As far as design, the longer the bars the more leverage, so a 2-piece mouthpiece is more severe than a chain because of the length of the levers. Things to watch for in broken mouthpieces is excessive bridging, which can cause pressure to the roof of the mouth, and excessive width of ports which cannot be accommodated between the molars. If we become familiar with where the mouthpiece makes contact, i.e. lips, tongue, bars, it is easier to understand what style the horse likes. By having available a variety of different styles we can use the process of elimination to find the mouthpiece of a horse’s choice.

With solid type mouthpieces, we have to look at width and height of ports which depict where contact is made, i.e. tongue, bars, palate. The horse has to be educated in how to respond to these different pressure points in order for the rider to get satisfactory results.

When we add a mouthpiece to a cheek there is a combination of leverages and pressure points. Whatever the combination, you have to always allow a yellow-light period for response. Each bit has to be analyzed based on its design. The rider needs to check the adjustments of the headstall and curb strap. This is an overlooked area that riders need to pay attention to. Adjusting the headstall moves the mouthpiece up and down in the horse’s mouth. There is no perfect placement, but by making subtle changes your horse will tell you what he likes. When you adjust the headstall, this affects the curb strap, because of the shape of the horse’s head. You can check the curb by putting your hand between the curb and chin then applying rein pressure, make sure you do not allow the shank to rotate to a position where it becomes only an extension of your rein.

There are different types of curbs, i.e. leather, chain, bars, and each one has a place depending somewhat on the type of mouthpiece and cheekpiece. Curbs can be the subtle changes needed to enhance performance without changing bits.

If the horse does not like mouthpieces, there are bridles without mouthpieces that can be used, some can create leverage and usually work on the nose and the curb area, others work on direct pull on the nose. Make sure you have given your horse the proper education with a mouthpiece before giving up, if there are teeth problems be sure to attend to these because this may be causing problems.

Other accessories such as mouth-closers, martingales, etc. can be used as aids, but make sure you are not trying to cover up a problem that you are creating. For example, if your mouthpiece is bridging and causing pressure to the roof of the mouth, tying the mouth closed does not fix the problem it only creates other problems.

Become familiar with the bits that you use, check on the legality for your event. Understand that usually less pressure is better for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the horse, if trained, will usually respond, if not he will not necessarily respond to more pressure. Secondly, if you use more pressure at the start then you have used all your options and have no place to go if more pressure is needed.

Be aware of marketing information about bits and what they can do. Some of the information can be misleading. Before buying a bit be sure to analyze it to see if it fits into your program because there are no miracle bits. Bits are only as severe as the hands that they are in and usually less pressure is better.


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