Bits come in hundreds of designs and variations, but all share characteristics in common whether used on race horses, show horses or Shetland Ponies. Grad Prix dressage horses in Europe wear bits that, in purpose and design, are not so very different from the spade bit of the California vaquero (but tell either rider!). Consider the variables which affect a bit’s performance: the rider’s skills, the horse’s mouth and level of training, and the mechanical qualities of the bit.
Let’s discuss these in order:
The rider’s skills are the most important variable in the bitting scheme. A naturally light-handed rider who is experienced in training horses may never need anything but a simple ring snaffle in her tack room, while a more aggressive rider who is in a hurry to train her horse may end up with an arsenal of bits to retain control as the horse rapidly becomes dull to each new device.
Humans shape the horse, and kindness and time invested yield the best results. Choosing progressively stronger bits is usually indicative of a training or communication problem, not a bitting problem. Horsemen know that it’s best to use the mildest bit that gets the job done, even if that’s just a classic snaffle.
Horse’s mouths vary as with every aspect of their physique---some horses have thin, sensitive mouths, while others have thick, rubbery lips, tongues and gums. Thin-skinned horses often are more sensitive to bit subtleties. A trained horse that has not been abused of frightened by bits has what horsemen call “an educated mouth,” and respond to mild bits as a more callous horse would respond to an authoritative bit.
Horses also suffer dental problems including sore teeth or scrapes on the tongue or gums which can cause head tossing, fidgeting and acute discomfort. Many bit problems are reduced or eliminated with proper dental care, so horses should have their teeth checked by a veterinarian at least once a year, and more often as they age.
Bit mechanics combine hardware and action. Hardware is described in two main categories: mouthpieces and cheek pieces. Actions or effects of bits that depend on these combinations of mouthpieces and cheek pieces include leverage, flexibility and balance. Let’s look closer:
Mouthpieces are of two main types: snaffle or jointed mouthpieces (generally considered mild), and solid or curb mouthpieces that are deemed to be more advanced and sophisticated than snaffles. There are seemingly endless variations of materials and shapes for mouthpieces, each flaunted as a panacea for all horses at some point in history. Basic jointed ring snaffles, much like today’s have been unearthed dating from more than 1,000 B.C.. Most cheek bit styles are relatively unchanged since the 1700’s.
Cheek pieces also show tremendous divergence. The earliest bits used thousands of years ago often had bone or antler cheeks and were used somewhat like bookends to keep the mouthpiece from sliding through the horse’s mouth---just as round or D shaped mouthpieces today.
When men decided that it might be useful to train a horse rather than just point it towards the enemy, cheeks with leverage (created primarily by the braking action of a chain or strap under the horse’s chin) were developed. These cheeks usually have rings to attach the headstall at the top, some short distance to where the mouthpiece attaches, then more length below the mouth terminating in bottom rings for the reins. Cheeks, also called shanks, range in length form perhaps three inches to extremes of twelve inches or more, but…the longest cheek is not necessarily the strongest. Why?
Leverage ratios! A leverage bit acts like a teeter-totter in your horse’s mouth, transferring energy form the reins to the mouthpiece, which rotates and absorbs some of the energy then sends the remainder along to the headstall rings and curb strap. On a teeter-totter, even a skinny kid can launch a chubby playmate into the air with a long enough plank (lever) and a log (fulcrum) placed strategically close to the heavier child. Likewise, overall length of a bit Is not as relevant as the placement of the pivot point (mouthpiece or fulcrum).
Let’s look at it mathematically: a simple western curb or English Weymouth bit usually has the headstall ring about an inch up from the mouthpiece of fulcrum---we’ll call that unit “1.” Now, from the mouthpiece down to the rein attachment is usually about four inches, so, we’ll call this unit “4” and express the ratio as 1:4.
The greater the difference between these two numbers, the more efficiently the bit will transfer the energy originally sent from your hands on the reins to the horse’s mouth, chin and poll, and the sharper it will feel to the horse. (Ring snaffles are considered neutral or 1:1, because without a fixed mouthpiece or curb strap, true leverage is not created).
Leverage is powerful stuff, in fact so powerful that a bit with a high leverage ratio tugged at the wrong time by a one hundred pound girl can make a thousand pound horse lose its balance and fall over backwards. Leverage bits are often deceptive in that a benign-looking bit can pack quite a wallop when the placement of the mouthpiece is considered.
A bit’s flexibility is its mechanical construction that transmits a message from the rider’ hands to the horse’s face. Bits made with flexible cheeks (such as swivel cheek English bits or loose-jawed western bits) allow a horse to feel the nuance of rein pressure long before that pressure becomes a pull. Simply moving the reins an inch or so warns the horse, as he feels his bit shift ever so softly, that he’s about to receive an important phone call from his rider; whereas a fixed cheek bit tends to deliver a more blunt message, with little warning.
Flexibility in mouthpieces works the same way: a horse’s exquisitely sensitive mouth can feel (or be trained to feel) the faintest vibration on the reins long before a pull actually changes the mouthpiece’s position. However, many horses and riders do not recognize the subtle touch of pressure or change in rein tension that is emphasized by flexible cheeks and mouthpieces. For these teams, a solidly joined bit works well. Bits with solid cheeks and mouthpieces are simple to understand and to use for ordinary riding, but flexibility is of paramount importance if a feather light touch and instant response is the goal.
Balance is the last element we’ll discuss. Bit shoppers sometimes old a bit’s mouthpiece across their palm to “check its balance,” but this is irrelevant because bits hang or balance from their “ears” or rings, not the mouthpiece.
A thoughtfully designed bit inherently has balance because it is made to hang from the headstall so that the mouthpiece fits comfortably in the horse’s mouth. Flattened headstall rings can add stability to a bit’s balance as well. Quality bits will show consistent thickness of the mouthpiece and cheeks when divided in half from the center of the mouthpiece, smoothly finished seams and joints and equal “play” in all flexible parts.
When evaluating a bit, take into consideration the combination of mouthpiece and rings or cheeks as well as the rider and horse doing the shopping. You’ll learn from every bit, whether it’s perfect for your horse or not---and keep experimenting, because bits are like horses themselves---one is never enough!
Visit www.lesvogt.com or www.lesvogtscalclassics.com for our ever-expanding bit and spur gallery, Les’ clinic schedule, plus practical training tips and helpful information.