For starters, they're not as kind as you think...
We all started out our riding days using a good old loose ring, D-ring, or eggbutt single-joint snaffle, the thicker the better. We only wanted to do the best by our horse and these ‘traditional’ single-joint bits were the mildest bits to use, or so we thought.
In a moment I’m going to let you know about some very basic, but super important bit-ing information, that if you don’t know already, will change your view on the common single-joint snaffle bit forever. This is information all the top riders and experts already know and swear by, and can ultimately help you to improve your relationship with your horse too.
Let’s face it, everything evolves over time, as new and improved designs and concepts are thought up and expanded on; they replace the old, work better, are more comfortable and ultimately get better results. We see it across all industries, from computers to footwear, and sportswear to saddles. So makes sense the same would be true of horse bits too, right?
Be honest, hand’s up who is still using an old style single-joint bit on their horse...
Research suggests the single-joint snaffle was first being used centuries ago, so it could be safe to say that what was once the top of the range could quite possibly be now considered outdated. Emily Esterson author of The Ultimate Book of Horse Bits: What They Are, What They Do, and How They Work, tells how “Early Indo-Aryans, Mongols and Chinese were the first serious inventors of bits, the designs of which remain in use today. Museum collections contain simple, single-jointed snaffles made of bronze that look like they could be found in tack stores today.”
Riders wouldn’t be caught dead using a saddle designed centuries ago! We have all been educated on how important the correct design and fit is for horse well-being and performance. However, while we have collectively advanced to the point where we rightly devote a great deal of attention to the fit of the saddle, there is not nearly as much focus on the bit. For your horse, this could be a problem.
Single-jointed bits, in any cheek style, are outdated.
Just to be clear, we’re not discussing the difference between a snaffle bit or curb bit here.
Snaffles include eggbutt, loose ring, full cheek, and D-ring cheek pieces. These snaffle cheek pieces are all excellent for various purposes and hold lots of options to suit a broad range of horses. None of these cheek pieces are the focus of this article. But what we are referring to is the mouthpiece - the bit between the two cheek pieces, that actually sits inside the horse’s mouth. These are typically either straight-bar, mullen-mouth, single-jointed or double-jointed (there are other variations still, but not necessary to delve into here). We are focusing on the topic of the single-joint mouthpiece.
So what’s the big deal with a single-joint bit?
You may have heard the reference of a bit having a nutcracker action, which is apparently not a good thing, but what does this actually mean? Well, when you pull on the reins attached to a ‘traditional’ old style, single-joint bit, the arms (sides) of the bit are pulled back, exerting uncomfortable pressure onto the sensitive bars (bare gum area, where the bit sits) of your horse’s mouth. As the bit squeezes backwards, it proceeds to pinch the horse’s tongue between the arms. While all this is going on, the actual joint of the bit pokes upwards and may hit into the sensitive roof of your horse’s mouth. Overall, this causes a very ‘backwards style’ of pressure and discomfort.
Here’s a quick checklist to see if this may a problem your horse is suffering from:
While being ridden, your horse:
Some people find their horse tends to go ok in their old style, single-joint bit. But even when a horse in this style of bit is on a contact (or ‘on the bit’), this is actually what’s often called a ‘backwards contact’. What this means is that the horse is not going as willingly forward into the bridle as it might, because at any point when the rider puts pressure on the reins, the feeling of discomfort inside the mouth often results in the horse trying to open the mouth; raise their head; or drop back ‘behind the vertical’ - all forms of bit evasion (trying to avoid the bit), and thus a ‘backwards contact’. According to Moira C. Reeve and Sharon Biggs, authors of The Original Horse Bible: The Definitive Source for All Things Horse “research has shown that pressure of the horse’s palate (roof of the mouth) is one of the most common causes of bit problems”, and that “Horses that toss their heads, lean or place their tongues over the bit are often trying to relieve the pressure on their palates”.
Unless all you're doing riding at a walk on a loose rein, or other riding with little, to no ‘mouth contact’, (think small child on a lead-rein pony), your horse cannot possibly be performing to his or her best in an old style, single-joint bit. Even when used by a rider with soft hands, a single-joint bit is generally not the best fit for great results. If you’re working towards improving your horse’s way of going in the long term, in the form of steering, stopping, control at speed, or while jumping, or correct contact and better self-carriage on the flat, then you need a bit that is designed to comfortably fit the shape of your horse’s mouth.
You may have noticed many new fangled bit designs making their way onto the horsey market, and I’m not trying to tell you you need to drop everything and go buy the newest, most expensive bit contraption out. But if you are still riding around in an old style, single-joint bit, then this may come as a wake up call to you: This bit style may be (and probably is) causing your horse discomfort and even outright pain. This is particularly relevant for horses with a flat palate or a small mouth space, and as written by Emily Esterson in The Ultimate Book of Horse Bits: What They Are, What They Do, and How They Work, where she interestingly reveals overall horse body size does not directly correlate to horse mouth size - a big horse can have a small mouth. Esterson also states that, “while a thick, single-jointed snaffle was for years considered the mildest of all bits because it was believed that it spread the pressure across the mouth relatively evenly. However, researchers have use mouth X-rays to discover that the single-jointed snaffle bit is not quite as benign as once thought”.
Sure, some may argue (and probably will) that horses have been ridden in single-joint bits for ages, and ‘have been doing just fine up until now’, but have they really? This is one of those things, that as we become better educated, we can make a conscious choice to use equipment that opens up communication between a horse and rider. We now have the knowledge and resources available to us to work towards creating a ‘gilding contact’, a much more comfortable way of going for any horse involved. In the day and age we live in, with technological advances all around us, don't you think it's time that you upgrade your bit to something that is knowingly more comfortable for your horse? So that when you get on and ride you know that you’re eliminating one more possible cause of pain or discomfort that your horse can't tell you about?
How to 10x your riding with one small adjustment
So where to from here? As much as some marketing campaigns may have your believe, you don’t have to spend ridiculous amounts of money (over $200, really?) to provide your horse with a bit that sits more comfortably, offers enhanced communication and that can help create a wonderful gliding contact.
The magic pill? A double-jointed bit. Double the joints is not just double the difference, switching to a double-jointed bit can dramatically improve on the results of a single-joint, simply because it conforms better to the shape of your horse’s mouth. Double-jointed (double broken mouth) bits include French link bits, lozenge link bits, and bits with rollers in the middle; anything where there is more than just the old style, solo joint in the middle of two bit arms.
If you want to take it to the next level and 10x your riding, you need something with an even higher level of comfort and more detailed level of communication. Worth a look are Myler style bits, or the very similar (and less expensive, but very effective) Ultimate Contact Comfort Bits. These styles offer a lovely shaped mouthpiece, which actually follow the natural contours of the inside of a horse’s mouth, increasing comfort and the horse’s ability to swallow more easily. The thinner mouthpiece suits horses with an average sized mouth, as well as the trickier-to-fit types with smaller mouths or flatter palates, and the difference in the communication level it offers is like the difference between bare fingers or wearing gloves while you’re trying to write a txt! With one of these styles, you’re opening up a whole new world of communication between you and your horse; saying goodbye to backwards contact and hello to a lovely gliding contact.
Standard double-jointed mouth pieces and the Ultimate Contact styles alike, are all available in various degrees of mildness to control, depending on which cheek pieces you couple them with. (Even straight bar or mullen mouth pieces may be better than a single-joint bit, depending on you or your horse’s requirements). It’s important to note too, that just because you may now choose to opt for a more comfortably-shaped mouthpiece, does not mean you have to compromise on a gliding contact, or control and security when you need it. Each can offer any level of mildness or control that you may require.
All disciplines are covered; get control and steadiness while show jumping against the clock or out thundering down the cross country; and get the perfect communication device for everyday schooling on the flat and riding beautiful dressage (which is very specific on which bits are legal or not). There are even a multitude of double-jointed bit styles available to Western riders - still with either snaffle cheeks or curb shanks, so you really don’t have to compromise on the features that are important to you, but can still choose a mouthpiece which is more comfortable for your horse.
As a professional riding coach and horse trainer, I wouldn't recommend a single-joint snaffle to any of my clients.
It's time to take your antique style single-joint bit off your bridle and hang it on the tack room wall as art, like the olden day relic that it is, because there are better things you can be putting in your horse’s mouth. It’s time for a bit revolution, and for all riders to upgrade to something that your horse can actually be comfortable in, relax in and perform to his best in. For competition or pleasure, whatever your field of choice, your horse will thank you for it and you’ll never look back.