Finding the Right Bit: A Matter of Patience and Respect.
In your hands, you hold your horse’s emotions. With the reins and the bit you are not only able to provide your horse with information about where you wish to go, how you wish his posture to change or how fast or slow to move. With the reins and the bit you impact directly a horse’s sense of self, his safety, his wellbeing and his desire to be present with you in the work. How light and careful or demanding and brutal you are affects not only your horse’s mouth and body but his understanding of the training relationship. It reveals your true self to him and it can lift him up or discourage him profoundly. Therefore our choice of bit and how we use it is something we have to give thought to daily. It is important to be aware of, and not take our horse’s mouth for granted. Bitting is very much an art and a science, like saddle fitting, shoeing or trimming. It demands we take into consideration the morphology of our horse’s mouth. There are many variables to consider: Our horses can have: -thick tongues -thin tongues -wide tongues -narrow tongues -wide jaw -narrow jaw -high palate -low palate -fleshy palate -long lips -small lips -etc... In our horse’s mouth the landscape may be quite different from what we pre-suppose a horse’s mouth “should” be like. It is important we learn to gently open our horse’s mouth safely (your vet can teach you) and check his oral cavity. Check the folds of his mouth, his tongue, gums and the roof of his palate for damages. Know what a healthy color is for him, look for bruises and blood. Mouth injuries can happen at any time. The conformation of the horse’s mouth will dictate how thin or thick the bit needs to be or how curved - a thick bit is not always kinder, nor is a thin bit harsher. It all depends. In my tack room, I have a large box with over a hundred bits. Half are for educational purposes for what NOT to use on any horse. The other half are bits that have been suitable for a horse at some point, and I keep them because they may suit another horse someday. I am flexible in my approach but in general, I am a fan of the eggbutt snaffle that has a small joint and a gentle curve. I find a simple D ring snaffle (with a small joint and gentle curve) is also suitable provided the point on the D are NOT sharp and do not poke the horses face when turning left or right. This is something I find riders rarely think about but it happens often when a rider does not have even contact, soft or not. The joint in the middle of the bit is of upmost importance - a large or flat joint can dig into the tongue and also dig into the fleshy part in the horse’s palate, even worse if the horse has a low flat palate. It is important that the noseband is not done up too tightly - a 2 finger gap allows enough room for the horse to open his mouth slightly if the bit does touch the roof of his mouth because if the noseband is done up tight the horse could bruise his palate. The shape of the bit’s branches is also important to the horse’s comfort. The branches should be slightly curved, not straight. Why? In my observation, when contact is taken on the reins with a straight bit it: -Makes a triangle shape in the horse’s mouth and the middle joint pokes the horse’s palate. - The bit compresses the lower jaw. On the other hand, a bit with too harsh a curve will put unnecessary pressure on the horse’s tongue. Even small actions in the contact will result in the bit rubbing too hard on the tongue and compressing the tongue towards one side of the jaw more than the other. I do not like loose ring snaffles very much because in my experience, they can pinch a horse’s lips and because when the rings are loose unlike an eggbutt they do not offer any support to the mouthpiece of the bit which drops in the horse’s mouth. (see photo). A bit with loose rings can be a good bit for a sensitive, experienced rider who has consistent, light and even contact but it is not suitable for beginner riders or riders with young horses because the young horses tend to play too much with this kind of bit and they do not learn to take the contact. I estimate about 60% of young horses come to me with this bitting issue. When I purchase bits I examine them very carefully. I have noticed that many bits are not balanced properly. One branch may be heavier than the other so the design is not identical, sometimes one branch will curve differently than the other. The joint’s are often different sizes too. This is uncomfortable for our horse. A dirty bit with encrusted old food matter or sweat is not just unsanitary and risk irritating our horse’s mouth, it is disrespectful as is a dirty or old saddle pad with hard or torn seams that rub the horses back. All equipment that interface with our horse’s body should be clean, smooth and in the very best condition. It is important to keep in mind that because a bit should fit in theory, it may not in practice. A horse can still dislike a bit that seems perfect for his mouth conformation. For example: Chantelle’s horse Mickey has a very delicate but soft mouth, a narrow jaw, flat tongue, small lips and low palate. Mickey was started in a side pull bitless bridle for the first three months of his training under saddle so he would not have any negative experience with the bit while he learned to adjust to carrying a rider and learned to respond to direction and gait cues. Then, we introduced him to a simple medium sized light eggbutt snaffle which we liked. However, even though it was the perfect fit for Mickey’s mouth, after a couple of rides, we knew it wasn’t suitable for him at that stage of his training. How did we know? He wanted to travel with his head too low, as though he was being weighed down. We switched him to an old favourite, a fine, gently curved, soft metal eggbutt snaffle. Mickey took to that lighter, fine, soft metal bit and so far we have not looked back. The lesson here is that it is not always about what the “perfect fit” is either…. It’s a combination of fitting the morphology of the mouth AND how the horse likes and responds to the bit. Because fitting bits has both a physical and a mental dimension, it is extremely important to allow horses the time to adjust when we decide to introduce a bit or a new bit to them and not make assumptions about what will fit them based on previous history. When we look at bits, they may look quite identical to us. One bit may appear to be a little thicker or a little thinner but the design will look the same to our eye. Or the difference between bits may be more obvious, we may be looking at a bit with one joint and a bit with two joints but because both bits are the same thickness we may put them into the same mental box and make assumptions about their comfort and purpose based on what our eyes tell us. In reality, it does not matter what we see or even how a bit feels when we test it on our arm or our shin. Even a change we think is minor may feel like a very big change to the horse. Very small variation in shape, size, texture will get magnified in the horse’s mouth and he will need time to get accustomed to the new feel and decide if he likes it - or not. At La Mancha if we decide to try another bit because one of our horses is telling us its current bit is no longer working (horses tell us this by becoming fidgety, not wanting to take the contact, becoming heavy, etc) we do it carefully and with patience over several days. We do not change a bit for the sake of novelty or because of trends or what a friend or trainer told us. We listen to our horse. If our horse is going well and is calm in his mouth, if our dentist doesn’t see any bitting issues when he checks our horse’s teeth - we do not need to change the bit. First, we double check that our horse does not have any of the injuries we mentioned previously. When we are satisfied that there is no physical issue, on Day One, we install the new bit on our horse’s usual bridle (one he is comfortable in, we do not want to change too many variables at once) and we make sure the bridle is re-adjusted to fit correctly with the new bit. Then we: - Spend time walking with a soft contact and then on that first day, we keep the training very simple. - We do not teach new things and we do not practice movements that are not already confirmed and easy for our horse. - We give our horse a nice simple ride, we forgive mistakes that he does not normally make. - We do not insist that our horse perform exactly as usual or carry his head and neck exactly as usual. - If our horse wants to carry his head a little higher or a little lower then we allow for this different posture. Our horse is simply trying to adjust himself to the new bit and we want to support him during that adjustment period, not work against him. - We take our horse walking out in the field or around the property for a walk with a soft, even contact so that he can feel the new equipment without being in “work mode”- we want to feel what the contact is like when our horse’s mouth and mind are relaxed. On Day Two and Three we do very much the same. By Day 4, most horses who like their new bit start to feel settled and show us that they are comfortable in their working posture. This is an important moment in time for us and it demands patience. Why? Because even though our horse is giving us every sign that the new bit is working, we still cannot quite start working again as we did before changing the bit. We have to keep in mind that our horse is still adjusting to the new bit as we begin teaching new things to him again and ask more of him. We have to be mindful of what we ask and how our horse responds as it takes a couple of weeks before a horse is back to feeling 100% comfortable with a new bit in their mouth. How do we tell if our horse doesn’t like a new bit? We know - and pretty early on. Because we have been very careful on Day One and Two we know that the new reactions are mostly from this new object in their mouth. If our horse who never threw his head up and down suddenly starts to - he doesn’t like the bit- this is simple to see. If he is more fidgety than before and hasn’t settled in the first Two Days - he more than likely won’t settle. If he is becoming too heavy or sucking back - this is probably not the bit for him. In conclusion: In our every interaction with our horse’s mouth we are considerate. This is especially true when we ask our horse to take the bit or remove the bit. We do not push the metal against its teeth while pushing a finger harshly in its mouth to force him to take the bit and we do not clang the bit on its way out of its mouth. We teach our horse to open wide for the bit and we hold the bit for him when we remove it so his experience is pleasant. NOTE: These are one horseman’s thoughts and experiences. Yours may differ and that is fine, we are not looking for arguments or debates. In addition, it is not possible or wise to make specific recommendations about a horse’s bitting need without seeing the horse in person so this Note is general in nature by necessity. As we indicated throughout the text, your horse is the one who you should listen to when it comes to bits and in our experience, paying attention to your contact and using common sense go a long way in creating positive bitting experiences for horses.