The Bit Guide 101
Let's de-bunk bits!
The idea is to use the 'softest' bit you can for the job, and increase severity only if and when required. Some horses that become strong, can be switched to a stronger bit for a period of time, then return to being ridden in a softer bit once again. If ever in doubt, seek advice from an experienced trainer who can advise you on your particular horse's needs.
Picking a bit in a nutshell...
You need to decide on what you are wanting to achieve with your horse before selecting your bit, then you have enough information to choose the most appropriate:
> Snaffle or Curb
> Cheek Style
...to suit the job required.
So here's exactly just what all these things actually mean:
History tells us that bits used to be made of bone or wood; yikes, sounds like a splinter in the mouth just waiting to happen. Fortunately we've had few years to improve on things, and now you can choose from a nicer selection of mouth-friendly bit wear. So which one is best for your horse? Depends on what your requirements are. Available options here at Bits, Stirrups and Spurs include:
> Stainless Steel (SS) is your go-to guy. Probably the most common material for bits these days; doesn't flake off or rust, stays shiny and nice looking. Some suggest that it doesn't warm up or encourage salivation as well as other materials.
> Sweet Iron/Black Steel encourages horses to salivate and become softer and more responsive in the mouth. Many 'old-style' trainers swear by the time-tested traits of this stuff. Doesn't stay as nice and shiny to look at, but when used to form the mouth piece of a bit, coupled with stainless steel rings or cheek pieces, you get shiny sides and a sweet iron mouth.
> Copper is another popular choice for mouthpieces. Either with the complete mouthpiece being made of copper, or copper inserts or rollers being incorporated into it. Copper helps some dry mouthed horses salivate and become more responsive to the bit. It can be known to "pit" though, so care should be taken to routinely check the copper portions of your bit to make sure there aren't any sharp edges to hurt your horse's mouth.
> Rubber mouthpieces are warmer on the bars of the mouth and the tongue and some horses prefer the softer feel they give. Rubber mouth pieces do tend to be quick thick though, and a bit of a 'mouthful' for young or small-mouthed horses. If you like the idea of the softness of rubber, but after a little less thickness, you may like to try a Happy Mouth.
> Happy Mouth bits are made of high tech plastics. They are soft and flexible, usually thinner and less of a mouthful than rubber, and come with an apple scent to encourage the most bit-shy of horses to accept them. A good option if you are going for the softest of bits
> Nickle-Plated bits are fine ...for a bit, but with wear, the nickel plating can flake off, revealing the core metal underneath. This may leave rough patches which can injure your horse's lips and tongue, and will also begin the process of rusting. Stainless Steel
Sometimes, finding the right material for your horse is a matter of trial and error. What works on one horse, may not work on another, but once you find what does work for you and your horse, you're sorted.
Bit Types & Styles
Snaffle vs Curb Bits
First, a bit can be either a snaffle or a curb and usually fits into one of these two categories. Both a snaffle bit and curb bit may have either a broken or solid mouthpiece. The difference between the two is:
> Snaffle bits are considered direct pull bits because when the rider pulls on the reins, that pressure is transmitted directly to the horse’s mouth. The key to identifying a snaffle is that it is a bit that operates off of direct pull; there is no leverage involved. The reins on a snaffle bit attach directly to the mouthpiece, (not to a shank.).
> Curb bits involve leverage, which means the reins are attached to a shank of some design. A curb strap of some type is often used under the horse’s chin. When the rider pulls back on the reins, pressure is applied not only to the horse’s mouth and chin but also to the horse’s poll; this is the leverage effect. It requires that the reins not attach directly to the mouthpiece, but instead to some type of shank on the bit. The reins attach to the bottom part of the shank and the cheek pieces of the bridle attach to the upper part of the shank.
As the rider pulls back on the reins, the top part of the shank moves forward as far as the curb strap will allow. This creates the leverage. The looser the curb strap, the more pressure can be applied to the poll as the top of the shank can move farther forward. Poll pressure can be a very effective tool in eliciting certain responses from the horse. Horses are naturally inclined to move away from poll pressure and therefore will often lower their heads and flex at the poll to escape this pressure. This is a desired response used to achieve greater performance in many disciplines. However, to perform correctly in a curb bit, the horse must have already learned how to be guided willingly and submit to bit pressure. Too much poll pressure too early in a horse’s training will often cause the horse to either fight or evade the bit.
OK, now the mouthpieces. The more 'broken', or 'jointed' a mouthpiece is, the more it conforms to the shape of the horse's mouth. Each horse responds differently to different types of bit pressure; some horses respond better to bits that are solid while some respond better to bits that are broken. The rider must experiment to determine which bit a particular horse performs better in.
> Solid (Mullen) mouthpieces will place more pressure across and over the tongue.
> Single jointed (broken in the middle) bits will take some pressure off the center of the tongue when the reins are pulled, thereby placing pressure more on the bars of the mouth and the sides of the lips. May come into contact with the horse’s palate as the rider pulls back on the reins - referred to a 'nutcracker' action, and can be uncomfortable for the horse.
> Broken/Jointed (broken in two places or more) bits will conform around the tongue and place pressure more equally over the tongue, bars and lips. Many horses are more comfortable with bits that conform around their mouth.
Cheek Styles (Rings, Cheeks & Shanks)
> Eggbutt snaffle is a FIXED CHEEK snaffle - the cheek is securely fixed to the mouthpiece, which cannot move or rotate on the ring at all. This means that the mouthpiece is very still and steady in the mouth. So, if the rider has unsteady hands or a bouncy seat (eg a novice rider or child), this bit will help the horse out by not transmitting quite as many of those bumps and wobbles. It can also be of benefit to an inexperienced horse, not yet comfortable and confident enough to come forward into a consistent, seeking contact. It' also helps prevent pinching of the corners of the horse's mouth.
Who would an Eggbutt Cheek not suit?
If your horse tends to lean on the bit, then the stability and “fixed-ness” of an eggbutt would not suit you, as it is easier for the horse to lean-on or grab the bit, and harder for the rider to use a little bit of play and give to loosen him up.
> Loose Ring snaffle has rings that are completely loose from the mouthpiece and can rotate freely. When the horse is in a good consistent contact with the rider’s hands, the rings are steady and still, as the weight of the contact holds everything in place. Compared to the eggbutt, it is easier for the rider to give quickly and shift the mouthpiece if the horse is tending to lean or get a little rigid. The rider has more play and finesse to their aids with the loose ring, as very fine movements will transmit to the horse as the rings shift with the change in rein pressure.
Who would a Loose Ring not suit?
If your horse is a little hesitant into the contact, not established being ridden into the hand, or tends to head toss, a loose ring can be detrimental, as it then creates a lot of movement in the mouth which can be distracting or uncomfortable for the horse. Or, if the rider is very fussy or fiddly with their hands, or does not keep a consistent, elastic contact it can also then be moving too much and transmitting unclear and inconsistent aids to the horse.
> Dee Ring snaffle is a compromise between an eggbutt and a full cheek snaffle. It has vertical shanks that extend above and below the mouthpiece, and these are joined on the top and bottom by a D-shaped ring on swivel joints. Like the eggbutt, it helps prevent pinching at the corners of the mouth, though generally without as much bulk. Because the shanks are longer and straighter than the sides of an eggbutt, the dee ring exerts more lateral force on the sides of the mouth, and is less able to be pulled through the mouth, thus affording more control in turning, though slightly less than with a full cheek snaffle - though without the dangers posed by the arms on a full cheek snaffle.
Who would a Dee Ring not suit?
As with the eggbutt snaffle, the fixed position of the cheeks and mouthpiece mean that this bit is less mobile in the horse’s mouth, for better or worse. In disciplines where high sensitivity is required, such as dressage, the fixed position is generally disadvantageous. With the dee rings attached at the top and bottom of these shanks, the point of rotation is somewhat further away from the mouthpiece than on an eggbutt horse bit, thus making it arguably less mobile and somewhat harsher through a slight leverage action, depending on the angle of the force applied, so not ideal for a rider with unsteady hands. However, with horses who need extra control in high energy situations, the tradeoff is undoubtedly worthwhile.
> Full Cheek snaffle is the most extreme type of corrective cheek piece to aid in turning that can commonly be found on a snaffle. With a small ring fixed to the mouthpiece on a swivel joint, and two arms extending above and below the mouthpiece, the main purpose of this bit is to exert lateral (sideways) pressure on the horse’s mouth. When one side of the bit is pulled, as in turning, the opposite side presses against a broad section of the lips and cheeks to assist the aid. Along with helping with turning, the full cheek can sometimes help correct horses who tip their heads trying to evade direct rein pressure, and help prevent the bit being pulled through the mouth of a horse that opens it's mouth while being ridden.
Who would a Full Cheek not suit?
The biggest danger with full cheek snaffles is that posed by the lengthy arms themselves. These arms can get tangled up with reins, leg wraps, and even with the nostrils and lips of the horse. A full cheek should always be used with a restraining loop on the bridle, which hooks over one of the arms and helps keep them in a fixed position. A novice rider may find this type of cheek style cumbersome in comparison to the simplicity of one of the other styles mentioned above.