Bits and Bitting (AAEP 2001)

"The way to ride a horse," Dwight Bennett, DVM, PhD, professor emeritus at Colorado State University, told his listeners in a session on Bits and Bitting, "is with the seat of your pants and your legs."

The session on bits was something of a departure from normal AAEP programs as it offered a practical approach in learning how to place the appropriate bit in a horse's mouth and how to use the bit in a manner that stimulates response, but not injury. This session was sponsored by The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.

"Bits and bridles are for communication," Bennett told the sizable group that gathered to hear the three-person presentation. "They are not handles  to stabilize the rider in the saddle or instruments for punishing the horse. Accomplished riders use their seat and legs before the bit to communicate their wishes to their mount. Indeed, the most important factor in having soft, sensitive hands on the reins is developing a good seat."

Bits and bridles, Bennett explained, exert pressure in a number of areas, including the bars, lips, tongue, hard palate, chin, nose, and poll. Of these, the most sensitive are the tongue and the hard palate.

Bennett said there are many types of bits, but all of them come under two basic headings--snaffle bits and leverage bits.

A snaffle is any bit, whether with a jointed or solid mouthpiece, that provides a direct signal from the rider's hands to the horse's mouth with no mechanical advantage. The cheeks of the bridle and the reins attach to the same or adjacent bit rings.

A leverage or curb bit provides a mechanical advantage to the rider. There are two sets of bit rings, with the upper rings attaching to the bridle and the lower rings attaching to the reins. It is the ratio of the length of the shanks of the bit (the portion below the mouthpiece) to the cheeks of the bit that determines the amount of leverage. For example, in a standard curb bit with 4 1/2-inch shanks and 1 1/2-inch cheeks, there is a 3:1 ratio. This means that one pound of pressure on the reins translates into three pounds of pressure in the horse's mouth.

"One of the most common misconceptions in bitting," Bennett said, "is that a low port (the U-shaped rise in the middle of the bit) makes a mouthpiece mild. The error in such a concept becomes evident when we consider that the tongue is the most sensitive and most easily injured part of the horse's mouth, and that the purpose of the port is to prevent the bit from applying the majority of its force directly to the tongue. A high port is severe only when it comes into contact with the horse's palate. In most horses, the port must be at least 2-2 1/2 inches high to contact the palate."

A mouthpiece's severity, Bennett said, is inversely related to its diameter--the smaller the diameter, the more severe the bit. The diameter is measured one inch in from the attachment of the bit rings or shanks. A standard mouthpiece is three-eighths inch in diameter and is considered to be moderate. A mouthpiece that is one-fourth inch in diameter or smaller is considered to be severe and is banned at many horse shows.

It should also be remembered that the shape of a horse's mouth will change as he ages. Thus, the bit that was just right for him at three years of age might be inappropriate for the same horse at 13 years of age.

"As with all methods of training and communicating with the horse," Bennett said, "the key to the proper use of bits and bridles is the principle of pressure and release. A horse does not intuitively move away from pressure. Rather, he learns to seek a position of comfort to relieve the pressure applied by the bit in his mouth. Consequently, the rein pressure must be released the instant that the horse complies, or even tries to comply, with the request sent to him via the bit.

"If the pressure is not released, the horse has no way of knowing that the response was correct and becomes confused. When you apply rein pressure, you're asking the horse for a response; when you release the pressure, you're thanking him for complying."

Correct adjustment of the curb strap is vital when using a leverage bit, Bennett said. It is commonly said that the strap should be loose enough to let one or two fingers to slip between it and the horse's chin groove. A better method of adjustment is to set the curb strap so that a pull on the reins gives the desired amount of bit rotation in the horse's mouth. A curb strap that is applied too tightly, he said, can cancel out a bit's signal, balance, and points of contact in the horse's mouth.

Bits, Bitting, and Dentistry

R. Dean Scoggins, DVM, of Illinois, said, "The bitting or bridling of a horse is more of an art than a science. But too often opinion rather than knowledge guides the thinking when picking a bit."

 A horse with dental problems can suffer severe pain when pressure is applied via the bit, he said. "You do not want to create pain. Horses do not learn when they are in pain or scared."

The pain sometimes can result when soft tissue of the mouth is pressed against the sharp edge of a tooth projection.

"A variety of equipment can cause discomfort to dental abnormalities," he said. "Problems may range from failure to shed premolar caps to sharp enamel points  along the edges of the cheek teeth. Various cavesons, hackamores, full-cheek snaffles, and even halters can press soft tissue into these dental projections when leads or reins are pulled laterally. A study of several hundred slaughter horse heads revealed that more than 80% had significant mucosal erosions (in the mouth's lining) associated with sharp dental projections."

A procedure that often is helpful to the performance horse, Scoggins said, involves rounding off all four first cheek teeth, which are often called "bit seats." When this is done and tissue is pushed against the teeth, there is far less chance of laceration.

He said that wolf teeth in young male horses should be removed routinely at an early age. If one waits until the horse is three years old, he said, there is danger that the wolf teeth will have fused with the upper molars.

Using Bits on Performance Horses

The third speaker on the program was bit maker Greg Darnell, who is also president of the National Reining Horse Association. He said early horsemen didn't use or need bits because those early-day horses were small and weren't strong enough to run off, so a bit really wasn't necessary for control.

By contrast, he said, when the Crusades rolled around, huge horses were being ridden by small men, and the long-shanked leverage bit came into use.

In order for a bit to work well, he said, the horse must have a moist mouth. When the mouth is dry, he said, the horse's lower jaw doesn't move. When the lower jaw doesn't move, the horse will tend to lug or push on the bit. Bits that contain copper and some other metals stimulate salivation, he said.

In many instances in dealing with bits, he said, less is better than more. Sometimes a horse which appears to need a more severe bit is one whose mouth has been injured. In many cases, putting a milder bit in that horse's mouth will elicit a more positive response.

"Bits don't make horses," he said. "Training does."

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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