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A horse in our barn went from finishing races in the back of the pack to winning. I asked his trainer what changed, and he told me they switched out bits, going from a standard snaffle bit to a citation bit. Sometimes changing up your bits can make all the difference!
There are two primary types of horse bits: snaffle and curb sometimes referred to as a leverage bit. A snaffle bit works with direct pressure, and the reins attach directly to the mouthpiece. A curb bit asserts pressure through leverage, and the reins attach to a shank.
From these two basic bit styles, there are many variations. Understanding the specific needs of your horse and its quirks is key to finding a bit that will work for them. Take time when selecting one, because it’s essential not only in performance but also in comfort.
In this guide, I examine one of the most essential items of horse tack: bits. The right bit can make all the difference in a horse’s training and attitude. With this guide, you will learn about various styles of bits and what to look for when choosing one.
Horse bit basics.
Equestrians use bits to control the movement of their horse. Some of the earliest bits date back to about 3500-3000 BC and were made out of rope, bone, horn, or hardwood.
A bit assists riders in controlling the pace and direction of their horses and the position of its head. Modern bits are made of various types of metal, but you can also find one made of plastic or rubber.
The most common material used is stainless steel. Bits are typically designed to fit inside the horse’s mouth and rest on the gum between the incisors and cheek teeth. (The bit is the metal part of the bridle that goes in the horse’s mouth.)
The bit’s cheekpieces connect the bit and the headstall or bridle. Cheek pieces come in various shapes and styles, some are loose, and others, like the D-Ring, are fixed cheekpieces.
Note: The bit that works on your friend’s horse may not be the best fit for your horse.
As a horse owner, you should try to understand how bits work and be aware that they not only put pressure on your horse’s mouth but can target many different parts, such as the tongue, cheeks, nose, and poll. When using one and knowing what works where will help decide which is best for them.
If you are a beginner rider, it is best to go with a moderate bit. A harsh bit in inexperienced hands can cause a lot of pain to your horse, and too soft of a bit doesn’t allow enough control. It’s best to get advice from an experienced rider when buying bits.
Also, read Horse Riding Tack: Hackamores Guide.
Types of horse bits: English and Western
There are many types of horse bits. Some are used for English, and others are used for Western riding. The following is a list of the most popular bits in each discipline.
1. Snaffle Bits
Snaffle bits are the most common English bits, although they are also frequently used in western riding disciplines as well. These bits can be harsh or soft. They create pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth. I will discuss different types of snaffle bits later in this guide.
2. Pelham Bits
Pelham bits are ‘curb bits’ which use a lever action. They multiply the pressure applied by the rider. Depending on the length of the curb shank, these bits can amplify rein pressure several times over.
3. Dutch Gag Bits/Elevator Bits
Dutch gag bits consist of four rings. The reins pass through the lower rings depending on the kind of pressure you want to exert. The cheekpieces of the bridle pass through the top rings.
1. Curb Bits
Today, you will find curb bits in many English riding disciplines as well. These bits consist of port, curb chain, and cheeks. They work by exerting indirect pressure, and their advanced design offers more control options as well.
2. Mullen Mouth Bits
These bits have a curved mouth bar that exerts a lot less pressure compared to a straight bar. The curvature of the piece prevents it from exerting direct pressure on the tongue and avoids that nutcracker effect of bits with straight bars.
3. Roller Bits
The roller bits, as their name indicates, come with rolling parts that the horse’s tongue can “play with.” The bit’s rolling parts help the horse’s jaw and cheeks relax and make it easier for the mount to accept the bit.
4. Tom Thumb/Western Snaffle
Commonly nicknamed the ‘no purpose bit, the western snaffle does not give any pre-signal before exerting pressure on the horse’s mouth. It looks like snaffle bits but has shanks attached. Only experienced riders should use this bit.
5. Argentine Bit
This bit is similar to the English Pelham bit. It consists of a snaffle ring and a shorter-shanked curb ring. It is also similar to the Tom Thumb, especially when its single-link mouthpiece is used with curb reins.
6. Spade Bits
Only experienced riders use these. They are highly ornate and decorative, but horses need years and years of training in using them. Spade bits have decorative shanks, a straight-bar mouthpiece, and a high-narrow port with braces on both sides.
Types of snaffle bits.
Most people incorrectly categorize snaffle bits as ones with jointed mouthpieces, but a snaffle bit may have a solid mouthpiece or multiple links joined together. The hallmark feature distinguishing them from other horse bits is that they work off of direct pull pressure.
Snaffle bits are connected directly to both the headstall or bridle and the reins. When a rider pulls on the reins, pressure is created in the horse’s mouth. The horse will feel the same amount of pressure on the bit that you exert on the reins.
The most common types of snaffles are:
- Eggbutt – The eggbutt snaffle has fixed oval cheekpieces that prevent play in the rings, which you find in loose-ring snaffles. They work well for young horses in training.
- D-ring – Also called racing D Snaffle, you will see these on racehorses, hunters, and jumpers, but usually not on dressage horses. The straight piece of the D-ring exerts pressure on the sides of the horse’s nose and aids in turning and steering.
- Loose ring – Loose ring snaffle bits are not fixed on the canons of the bit. Instead, they slide through the mouthpiece, and their sliding action distracts the horse and allows its tongue to lift it. However, the sharpness of the piece still elicits a strong reaction. That is why loose-ring snaffles are recommended for horses that don’t turn easily.
- Full-cheek – Also called the Fulmer full-cheek bit, this is a good bit for early training. They are designed with full cheeks to keep them in position. Full-cheek snaffles are mild yet effective, suitable for developing sensitive mouths and disciplining a young horse’s rebellious whims.
What is the gentlest bit for a horse?
Snaffles are the most straightforward, and some styles are gentle and a good place to start your horse’s bit training. These days you also get rubber or rubber-coated metal snaffles which are even softer on a horse’s mouth.
In general, a jointed large diameter mouthpiece with no twist is the least severe bit. A good model is a double-jointed snaffle with a rounded centerpiece (Lozenge); it’s also a gentle bit that most horses find comfortable.
How to choose a bit for your horse?
If you’re looking for a new bit, think about what kind of discipline your horse does or will do. The type of event might have regulations that may affect the choice, and some horses need different bits based on their mouth health and how they react to pressure.
You should also consider any input from an experienced trainer or anything currently used with this rider’s tack setup! (The best bit is the one that suits your riding discipline.)
You can also choose a moderate snaffle bit. Many western riders who ride for pleasure train their horses on snaffle bits and use them throughout their riding life.
Irrespective of the type of bit you use, you must also learn to use your legs, seat, hands, and weight aids instead of just relying on the bit to control your horse.
Remember: a bit is a tool for communicating with your horse. It should convey ‘subtle’ requests to the horse regarding its head position and give context to the rider’s demands using his leg, weight aids, and seat.
In short: you must learn to use the bit with gentle finesse. Only then will the horse accept the bit calmly with a soft mouth and relaxed jaw.
Here are some points to keep in mind when selecting a bit:
- Severe bits should be reserved for experienced riders.
- Some horses will pull against and ignore cues when using a soft bit.
- Soft bits are generally large and don’t work well on young horses.
- Moderate bits are best for most riders.
- The bit you choose should rest comfortably in the corners of your horse’s mouth.
- Its rings should not press too hard against the animal’s cheeks – if they do, it indicates that the bit is short in length.
What is a good bit for a horse that won’t stop?
Most riders opt for mechanical hackamore with a tie-down or use the severest of bits when they want more stopping power. Sometimes, it works; at other times, it does not solve the root cause of the problem.
It is important to do a lot of groundwork training to curb head tossing and pulling in horses. You can also use a hackamore and bit combination because it gives more stopping power and can be easily released. You can also soften the hackamore reins if the combination seems overkill.
Remember: hackamores work great, but their effect can wear off. The combination system is beautiful in that; it acts as an emergency brake. It gets you stopped in a hurry but with a bit that isn’t so severe. Using the same combination principle, you can opt for a Hackabit, a customized bit that combines a hackamore and a bit. It has shown great results in show-jumping horses.
Bitting a horse needs trial and error. Every rider has a different sense of touch for a given horse with a particular bit.
Bits are classified as Western or English. The gentlest type is the snaffle bit which is used in both disciplines. The snaffle bit is also of different types: Eggbutt, D-ring, Loose-ring, Full-cheek, etc. The common feature in all snaffle bits is the presence of rings for reins at both ends, along with a mouthpiece that is jointed or straight.
When you go shopping for a bit, seek the help of your trainer or an experienced rider. Remember: a bit should always be used as a communication tool in combination with your hands, legs, weight aids, and seat.
Below is a helpful YouTube video explaining how bits work.
What is the harshest bit?
In general, harsh bits are thin and tightly twisted, but in reality, the harshest bit is the one used by an inexperienced rider with heavy hands. Likewise, even some of the harshest styled bits can be gentle in the right hands.
Do bits hurt horses?
Bits are subtle tools of communication and, when used correctly, don’t hurt horses. A rider with soft and gentle hands knows how to communicate to their horse without causing pain.
- The Riding Horse Repair Manual: Not the Horse You Want? By Doug Payne
- Considering the Horse: Tales of Problems Solved and Lessons Learned By Mark Rashid
- Horses: A Guide to Selection, Care, and Enjoyment By J. Warren Evans