Bitting is one of the most discussed topics in the equestrian world. Bits can be broken down into categories, snaffles, gags and pelhams. Which bit to get your horse can be a difficult decision to make and there are a lot of things to consider before settling on one.
What bit suits my horse? What bit should I use? Should I change my bit? Do I need a bit?
Questions that despite being asked so often, get the wrong answer. Owners are often given ill-advice and when you consider you’re putting more (or less) metal in your horses mouth, it can have disastrous consequences. All too often nowadays (in my humble opinion) there are far too many riders ‘bitting-up’ to try to fix problems quickly. You see, often in show-jumping, horses flying round with inches of bit protruding down their face, heads up in the air and mouths gaping. Now again before anyone jumps down my throat, I know that show jumpers (certainly at a higher level) are high energy, difficult horses a lot of the time. I’m not saying don’t use strong bits, or that they should all be hopping round in rubber snaffles and that’s that. What I AM saying is that often, horses are over bitted and it in fact makes them ten times worse. A horse that is gaping it’s mouth is uncomfortable, fact. The problem is, rather than addressing the problem (why is the horse uncomfortable?) and fixing it, we invented the flash noseband. Then the grackle and drop, and now we have countless others. All designed to quite literally clamp the horses mouth shut. Again, not saying don’t use strong nosebands! On incredibly strong horses that cross their jaw, or ones that get their tongue over the bit, things like a flash or grackle can be very useful when used correctly.
One thing I would say to any horse owner, research your bit. If you’re having a problem with your horse, go to that first. Researching your bit can often lead to the realisation it is designed to do the opposite of what you need or want.
I ride a very strong horse. Freddie isn’t very big, only 15.2, but he is quite a chunk and when he goes he’s very hard to stop, and would often tuck his head down and evade the bit completely. He came in a hanging cheek snaffle and drop noseband, but I would rather see a horse go round in a stronger bit being used gently than ragged round in a snaffle, so we switched him to a cavesson and Dutch-Gag (also known as a 3 ring gag or continental snaffle.) A few people have previously said that a dutch gag is a type of snaffle. It isn’t, even on the ‘snaffle ring’ it is not a snaffle and never will be! The purpose of a dutch gag is to give a little more ‘brake power’ and lift the horses head. The 3 rings give varying amounts of leverage depending how low or high the reins are attached. It was designed to be used with two reins, one on the snaffle rein and one on either of the two lower rings. This is so you can use the leverage ‘brake’ effect as and when you need it, rather than constantly. After working with him (we’ve had him nearly 3 years) I can ride him in a snaffle, though he is still strong at times and I have yet to let loose in an open space!
So, things you need to know?
- Hanging cheek snaffles. A couple of my friends will know the story behind why this is such a personal bugbear for me, but that’s another story.
Hanging cheek snaffles do not apply poll pressure, or leverage. To apply leverage, the rein needs to be lower than the horses mouth (like on a tom thumb, for example.) The cheek pieces come away from the horses face when pressure is applied, so poll pressure is impossible. If anything, it relieves poll pressure. Horses that don’t like much tongue pressure may like this bit as it lifts in the mouth when pressure is applied. It is also good for youngsters learning how to turn as the half cheek gently presses into the side of the face when the opposite rein is pulled, almost pushing them round the bend. The ring is also fixed, offering more stability than a loose ring, but some may lean on it.
- Leverage = power
Bits with leverage can be effective in the right hands, but can be disastrous in the wrong ones. Leverage means the rein isn’t attached to the horses mouth. They are often attached to another part of the bit below the horses mouth. Bits with leverage allow the rider to apply much more force to the horses mouth than they are actually applying. Dutch gags apply leverage, as do pelhams, tom thumbs and most curb bits. Hackamores – despite being bitless – have a lot of leverage as generally have very long shanks. Shanks are the strips of metal that come down away from the horses mouth. Google ‘german hackamore’ and you will see what I mean. A “Stephens Heavy Duty Long Shank German Hackamore” I found for sale (£170 new!!) has 20 cm shanks. This is almost 8 inches, which apparently means if 20lbs of ‘pull’ pressure is applied to the reins, 160lbs of force is exerted on the horses nose. See why they need gentle hands?
- Sizing Matters
As a general rule, you should have ‘a finger’ space between the bit ring and your horses mouth. For loose ring bits, you should go half an inch bigger than the usual size your horse takes. If your horse has a small mouth or large tongue, a thick mouthpiece may not suit. For a large tongue, a port may help. It gives a little more room, but may apply different pressure on the tongue that the horse must get used to. If a bit is too small, it may pinch the horses mouth and cheeks as well as become uncomfortable. If it is too big, it will slide out of the horses mouth and be ineffective.
- Only snaffles are dressage legal at lower levels. At higher levels, double bridles are compulsory. This never makes sense to me, surely a horse that can do a Prix St George test in a snaffle and get the same mark as a horse in a double is just as good? I understand the rules aim for ‘more accurate’ aids but not this one. Heyho, I’ve never been much of a dressage diva.
- Curb Chains
Attached underneath the horses chin, curb chains are most often used with Pelhams. It’s important you don’t fit a curb chain too tightly, as they tighten considerably when the curb rein is applied. Curb chains sometimes have leather straps in the middle rather than being made entirely of chain. This distributes the pressure more evenly and isn’t as ‘harsh’ as a full chain.
- Bitless bridles aren’t always ‘softer’ and kinder than bits. Bitless bridles use pressure on different parts of the horses face for control, rather than the pressure in the mouth from a bit. A lot of bridles tighten when pressure is applied, which some horses will not tolerate due to the amount of incredibly sensitive nerves in the horses face. Hackamores apply a lot of pressure directly on the nose, whereas a crossunder bridle (like Dr Cooks bitless) cross under the jaw and tighten slightly when pressure is applied, though the main aim is to pull the horses head round (though not as rough as it sounds) rather than tighten, it works on their cheeks.
Which bit you choose and stay with is again, a big decision as ultimately your horse is trusting you to put a chunk of metal on one of the softest, most delicate parts of it’s body. You should consider what you want from the bit (to help alter way of going, head carriage, give you some extra brakes, bending etc) and why you are changing from the one you have. Bare in mind a lot of issues you have with your horse take time and proper schooling to correct. Quick fixes (i.e getting a very strong bit to slow the horse down, or one with masses of poll pressure to lower the head) don’t usually work for long and don’t actually fix the problem, they just mask it. It CAN actually make the problem ten times worse, as some horses will fight even harder.
Let’s remember that in a lot of cases, a bit is only as harsh as the hands on the reins (this statement includes all bitless bridles too!) and damage can be caused even by rubber snaffles in harsh hands.
Do your research, don’t be tempted by a quick fix and if you want to try before you buy, i recommend ‘The Bit Bank’. They will give you lots of advice and even let you borrow bits before you buy them to make sure they’re right for your horse!