A Bit Is Not Just A Bit

The bit is not just a bit, it is a communication tool just like a telephone.  The bit interprets our language into a message that the horse can comprehend.   Our hands are the info center,  the reins are the telephone lines going to the telephone – the bit.  The telephone interprets a message that the horse is taught – not forced – to respond to.  The horse needs to learn everything about the language of the bit.  You can’t insert the bit like a computer chip and expect immediate results. 

The clarity of the interpretation of your message to the horse is totally determined by the quality of the telephone – your bit.  The quality of the bit is not determined by its cost but by its design.  A horseman will understand how to lay a bit out with what we call Pre-Signals to create a message the horse can understand as it develops not as an abrupt “Ouch!”  If, when the rider picks up the reins,  the horse gets a painful jab in the mouth  then every time the bit moves we’ll have tension.  Tension blanks out everything as far as communication goes.

It’s In The Neck

Once the message gets clearly to the telephone it goes up to the computer (his brain) and from there to his body.  But in order to get to the body it has to go through the neck.  I tell people who clinic with me that they can call me if they have trouble and I return all the calls but I’ve often thought my voice mail message should say,  ‘Hi,  this is Les Vogt.  I hope you’re having a wonderful day but if you’re not – it’s in the neck!  Thank you for calling.’  99.9 percent of the problems you have with your horse no matter what discipline you do – it’s in the neck.  Think about it  - when you’re having a perfect day, that neck is perfect and when that neck is perfect you’re having a perfect day. 

When that neck freezes up,  when there’s a glitch in the neck then you are not going to have a very good ride.  You’ve never had a horse that’s soft in the neck flat run off with you.  That’s just not going to happen.  But even when  your message to the brain is perfect,  if there is any resistance in the neck your message will get back to the body distorted or dim at its best.  No one can maximize a horse’s performance if it has resistance in its neck. 

It’s critical that we as horsemen choose our bits to create the neck posture that makes the magic happen.


Our Tools

We need to know what effect our bits have – in other words,  why does it do what it does and what does it do?  When we know the answer to these questions then we can pluck the right bit off our tack room wall.
The biggest job any of us have as the trainers of our horse is to reverse weight distribution from the front of the horse – where 60% of  their weight is normally carried – to the hind quarters.  Then we can have collection,  then we can execute any maneuver from a jump,  to a lead change,  to a horse that’s comfortable to ride as a trail horse.  Then your horse can gallop and stop without dumping in front.
Choosing the correct bit will help us in this weight re-distribution.  We will be able to lift the shoulders and flex at the poll if the horse is really heavy shouldered,  low withered,  dumpy, or caves in.  For a nice, round, light shouldered horse with an ideal neck who does a lot of stuff naturally we might want him to flex at the middle or crest of the neck.

The Snaffle Bit 

How do we get neck flexion where we want it?   In the snaffle bit one of the ways I encourage the horse to drop his head and neck is to ride with the bit   ½ to 5/8 in. lower than normal.  It also gives him what I call Pre Signal – he will feel the bit slide up to the corners of his mouth and know that something is coming.  I’d like that if I was a horse rather than just having somebody pulling on my lips.

If the horse is dumpy I’ll hike the bit up,  creating a slight smile.;  this will lift the neck a bit and give them more break at the poll. 

It used to be we made all our snaffle bits with  a 5 in mouthpiece but now we make them 5 1/2 to 6 ins in width and here’s why:  If I’m using a 5 in snaffle and I pull on the right ring instantly the left ring is in his face pressing the fatty tissue on the side of his face into the molars.  If his teeth have any edges at all you’ll shred the inner cheek. 

When  the horse we are riding starts to get a little heavy on the snaffle (as some of them do) we can move that snaffle back and forth creating friction,  I like to call it warming the corners of the mouth..  You can move the hands fast or slow - although not hard – and as soon as he gives you a ‘gesture of surrender’ and starts to get off the bit you stop the pressure.  It is important to understand that you will not get the final result immediately but as the horse starts to understand what this warming means you will gradually be able to ride your horse with that ‘float’ in your reins.  The wider mouthpiece allows us to do this without making the horse uncomfortable in his mouth.

I feel like I get so much more done with a wider mouthpiece – I’m happier and my horse is happier.

Bit Leverage

The snaffle bit has no leverage value.  You can buy snaffles with sliding or fixed rings and snaffles with different widths and of different weights but they are a pretty straightforward bit.

Now let’s talk about bit leverage and what it does.  All my life I always heard the old timers say that you don’t bridle your horse with a leverage bit until he’s five because he doesn’t have a full mouth yet.  I always thought they meant that you should wait – because we know young horses loose and replace teeth – that they might have sore spots either from loose or missing teeth.  It took me a while to figure out that what they really meant was that the teeth on a young horse are short and stubby but by the time the horse is five, full mouthed,  his teeth are much longer.  This gives more clearance from the tongue to the roof of his mouth,  enabling him to carry a leverage bit more comfortably.

The leverage ratio of a bit is determined by measuring from the middle of the mouthpiece to the middle of the ring where the cheek piece attaches,  then we measure from the middle of the mouth piece to the middle of the loop where the rein attaches.  Then divide the smaller number into the larger;  say your top number is two and your bottom number is six that will give you a three to one ratio or leverage.

Different leverage values create different neck postures.  Higher leverage ratios will drop the neck  whereas lower leverage ratios tend to lift the neck  which will help exchange weight from front quarter to hind.  Of course the bit alone can’t do it,  the rider has to get the horse round on top.  But it can give you a little more help if your hands are getting tired on a horse that’s just built wrong.

Higher leverage ratio will drop the neck and cause it to break right in front of the saddle horn to give your horse that real contemporary reiner look.  This looks good on a light shouldered,  short backed horse that’s high withered.

Leverage is also a matter of how strong you make the bit.  A low leverage bit is not as powerful as a high leverage bit.  A dumpy horse might need a lower leverage bit to help the rider lift the front end.  Of course  you always want to start with as low a leverage as you can;  most horses as they get older and are shown more will need a little more bit so we want to save all we can for the future.

Bit leverage ratio also affects the speed with which the bit delivers its affect.  Take a pen and hold it about an inch from the top; now move the bottom of the pen back and forth;  if that was the shank of the bit  you  would have to pull on the reins a lot before the horse felt the curb strap.  Likewise if you hold the pen in the middle and pull on the end you can see it takes very little movement from the bottom of the pen to move the top quite a lot.  This demonstrates how much faster a low leverage bit is than a higher leverage bit.  A high leverage bit will need to have the curb strap adjusted fairly tight otherwise you’d have to pull on the bit a lot before it took affect.