Where to start with so many available bits? As overwhelming as choosing a bit can be, it is an important part of the tack that deserves more attention than it generally gets. When a bit does not fit right, the horse may show difficulties in using its body properly or show other signs of discomfort. Considering every horse has its own unique anatomy and preferences, it is impossible to offer a ‘quick-fix’ suitable for every horse. Since it might take some experimenting to find the right bit, consulting an expert on bits can make choosing easier.
Two of the basic things to consider when choosing a bit are the length and thickness. The easiest method to determine the needed length is to try different sizes of bits. A bit that is too small will pinch, if it is too large it will slide back and forth. If the bit fits correctly, you should be able to place a small finger between the mouth and rings on each side. Finding the right size is easier than deciding on the required thickness of the bit.
It is a common belief that a thicker bit is softer and friendlier. The theory supports the belief: more surface means more distribution of pressure and thus a milder effect on the mouth. In practice, modern horses are bred for elegance and as a result have less space available for a bit. In this case a thick bit is neither friendly nor soft: it does not fit. The choice for a certain thickness should be made based on the anatomy of the mouth. The bit should be comfortable and the horse should be able to properly close its mouth.
The mouthpiece is the part of the bit that rests in the mouth of the horse, it partly determines the effect a bit has on the mouth. There are roughly three common types of mouthpieces but in combination with the rings many variations of bits exist.
Want to feel what effect a bit has? Hold the rings of the bit and let someone else give rein aids.
The Mullen mouth or straight bar is an unjointed bit seen on both snaffle and curb bits. If the mouthpiece is combined with rings, the bit is considered to be very mild and has an effect mostly on the tongue and almost none on the bars. If the bit has a tongue port, it does effect the bars and is more severe. This mouthpiece makes it impossible to give single-sided rein aids, therefore making the bit unsuitable for riders that have yet to learn how to ride with mainly weight and leg aids.
The single jointed bit works mainly on the bars but also exerts pressure on the edges of the tongue, the corners of the mouth and sometimes on the palate. When rein aids are given, the bit forms a V-shape. Due to the single joint, the tongue has more freedom than it would have with a double jointed bit.
The double jointed bit consists of three parts. The middle section of the mouthpiece lies flat on the tongue, causing more pressure on the tongue than a single jointed bit would. The thicker the middle section, the more pressure it will create on the tongue. Variations exist that, for example, feature rings in the middle to further stimulate chewing.
Although the mouthpiece and rings together establish what effect a bit will have, the rings mostly determine if a bit is a mild or severe. The mullen mouth is, for example, seen as a very mild bit. Add shanks and a tongue port and it is only suitable for advanced riders as it is considered to be a very severe bit. To clarify the differences between bit rings and their specific effect and severity, we will look into the most common ones below.
Loose ring snaffle
A loose ring snaffle allows the mouthpiece to move freely relative to the rings and offers room for movement. This type of bit works well for horses that tend to lean on bits with fixed rings too much. Bit guards can be used to prevent chaffing of the sides of the mouth.
The eggbutt snaffle has fixed cheek pieces. Aids have a more direct effect and the bit allows less freedom of movement compared to the loose ring snaffle, making it better suited for horses that tend to play with the bit too much. The stability this bit offers sometimes results in the horse leaning on the bit too much, in this case a loose ring snaffle might be the better choice.
The Dee-ring bit has fixed cheek pieces, aids will therefore have a more direct effect. The form of the bit prevents it from being pulled through the mouth and provides a lateral guiding effect, making them an excellent choice for young horses. The Dee-ring bit is a mild bit, but slightly more severe than the loose ring and eggbutt snaffle.
The main purpose of a full cheek bit is to exert lateral pressure, this emphasis on the turning aids is especially useful for young horses. The arms prevent the bit from being pulled through the mouth and ensure stability of the bit. A full cheek can be used in combination with keepers, also known as Fulmer loops. These keepers add extra stability and offer a slight leverage action. The full cheek is a more severe bit than the above mentioned bits.
Loop ring snaffle
This bit is also known as a Wilkie snaffle or Bevel. The bit has two extra half moon loops on the inside of the rings. The cheekpiece of the bridle connects to the upper half moon, the reins are generally attached to the lower half moon but can also be attached to the large ring like a regular loose ring snaffle. If attached to the lower half moon, the bit obtains a slight leverage action. This leverage makes the bit more severe than bits without leverage, yet milder than bits with shanks.
The cheek of the hanging cheek bit is quite similar to the upper part of a Pelham bit. The arm of the bit extends upwards from the ring with a small ring on top for attachment of the cheek pieces. Contrary to popular belief, the bit does not exert pressure on the poll. The hanging cheek actually reliefs poll pressure when rein aids are given. Due to this unique effect, poll pressure is lower than in any other snaffle. The bit is well suited for sensitive horses.
Three ring gag
The three ring gag has two extra rings: one on top and one at the bottom. A variety to this bit is the four ring gag which has yet another ring at the bottom. The upper ring attaches to the cheek pieces of the bridle, the reins can be attached to any of the underlying two rings. The lower the rein is attached, the stronger the leverage on the poll. The bit can be used with one or two reins or with Pelham roundings attached to the middle and bottom ring.
Pelham & Baby pelham
A Pelham is a bit with long or short shanks, a Pelham with short shanks is called a Baby Pelham. The longer the shanks, the more severe the leverage action. A Pelham bit offers four different rein positions: a single rein attached to either the middle or bottom ring, a double rein or a single rein in combination with Pelham roundings. The Pelham is used in combination with a curb chain and is considered to be a severe bit. A Pelham bit is often used for strong horses or in situations that require more control such as show jumping or eventing.
Next to the above mentioned varieties, there are bits that cannot be put into either the mouthpieces or rings category. Some examples are:
· The bradoon. Often used in combination with a Weymouth curb, available as loose ring bradoon or eggbutt bradoon. The small rings leave room for the Weymouth curb. Should ideally be 0,5-1 centimetre larger than the Weymouth Curb.
· The Weymouth Curb. Often used in combination with a bradoon in higher dressage classes or for instance in academic dressage in combination with a cavesson.
· The Kimblewick. Has a curb chain and slight leverage action. Popular in driving and jumping.
· The Liverpool driving bit. Mainly used in driving. Reins can be attached in several ways, the lower the reins the stronger the leverage action.
· The final choice
Despite there not being a ‘one size fits all’ kind of solution, the information from this and the previous blog should help you assess which bit could be a match for you and your horse.
Do you compete or want to start riding competitions in the future? Definitely check out the competition rules and regulations for showing in your country to ensure the bit of your choice is allowed at competitions.