A Bit that Fits
By Betsy Kelleher
After a year of dressage lessons on my gaited horse, Rocky, I felt we were making great progress. His straightness and bend were more consistent, and I loved the way Rocky collected and worked on the bit.
When I talked about riding a dressage test, however, I was told I had to use a snaffle bit. Ok, I thought, that shouldn’t be a problem since he was trained in a Tom Thumb. But that was long ago and of course trail riding is quite different from dressage. When we first got Rocky, a regular five-inch bit seemed too wide for his narrow mouth. I happened to find a 4-3/4 inch bit on eBay, a Mullen mouth Pelham in old English “never rust” nickel alloy. Rocky quickly accepted that bit and has worked well in it for seven years.
To comply with dressage requirements, I bought a 4-3/4 inch full cheek French link snaffle. And since Traveller’s old English bridle turned out to be too large for Rocky, I found a Cob/Arab size bridle (both on eBay, of course). Rocky took the new snaffle bit just fine at first, but when I asked for the same collection I’d gotten with the Pelham, that was a different matter! So I learned something. Different bits work on different parts of the mouth, and changes take time for adjustment.
A jointed snaffle bit puts pressure on the tongue and bars and corners of the mouth, in a different way than a curb bit. Rocky almost never pulled against me in the Pelham, a wonderful trait that I hadn’t found in my other horses. But when I asked for collection in the snaffle at anything but the walk, he chewed the bit and pulled against me. I got very frustrated, and I had to remind myself that patience and understanding would be more helpful!
I finally decided to just keep a light contact without asking for collection. It was like starting all over again. I also searched the internet for a list of “legal” dressage bits, and noticed that a mullen mouth snaffle was acceptable. Hey, maybe that was the answer! But I have looked everywhere for a 4-3/4 inch mullen mouth snaffle. I found a Sprenger D-ring curved mouth snaffle, for only $141.90 in a Dover catalog—not quite what I wanted. I also found an “Apple Mouth” (not mullen) round ring eggbutt (4-7/8 inch) for $30, in a Libertyville Saddle Shop catalog.
So far I’ve purchased four different bits, searching for one that Rocky accepts as well as the mullen mouth Pelham. I changed from the full cheek to a small ring jointed snaffle with curved bars, which he seemed to like a little better. Then I tried a five-inch “Apple Mouth” type bit—a bargain on eBay—and he did quite well with it on his first ride.
I must admit when a friend recently wanted to try several bits to find one her horse would work best in, I told her that changing the bit was not as important as teaching the horse to give to the bit. That was before I had this problem myself! But Rocky was very good at giving to the bit—the one he had used for seven years! So it depends on what the horse is used to.
A horse’s response to a bit depends on much more than the bit itself. Whatever bit is used, a rider’s hands must be “giving” and able to move with the horse’s mouth. And a rider’s body must be relaxed with a secure seat. If the rider uses the reins for balance, that is not a good habit!
And there are other factors to consider. During one ride, the bit caught on Rocky’s wolf tooth because it was hanging too low in his mouth. After I tightened the side piece one hole, moving the bit up a notch, that problem was solved. Problems with teeth often cause a horse to resist the bit. A sharp tooth can cause a sore mouth, or an abscess will cause sensitivity. It’s always good to have a vet or equine dentist check regularly for mouth problems.
A horse’s mouth is an individual thing. Beyond the actual width, there is the thickness of the tongue, width of the bars, and height of the hard palate. All these things can influence the way a horse accepts a bit. The thicker the bit, I’ve heard, the easier it is on the horse—but that depends again on the horse’s mouth. A thicker bit might be quite uncomfortable for a small mouthed horse.
Back when I started riding my first mare, an experienced old horseman told me, “I’ve got a bit that will give you good control.” Control sounded good for five dollars. But a few years later, I learned how terrible that bit was. It was too small and too severe. No wonder Fanny threw her head up and pulled on the reins. Horses tend to pull against pain. I still have that bit, as a reminder, but I would never use it on any horse again.
For those who might be interested, there is a bitless bridle that claims to be the answer for any horse who doesn’t work well in a bit. There is also a bridle called a “side pull,” which is like a bitless bridle.
With all my “experience” of thirty-some years, I thought I had “good hands” for riding. But when tense or frustrated, I catch myself pulling instead of squeezing the reins. I appreciate my riding instructor’s constant reminders. When you ride without lessons as long as I did, your bad habits become so much a part of you that it is difficult to change. That’s one reason I take riding lessons. Pulling on two reins often causes a horse to pull back. That’s the reason behind a one rein stop. It’s good to learn to use one rein to stop a horse, to teach a head down cue, to ask for collection or redirect a horse’s attention.
There is a lot of good information online, if you search for “bits and bitting.” If anyone is interested in the links I found, send me an email at email@example.com. I have a good DVD, “Understanding Bits” with Stormy May. And there are other DVD’s and books on bitting to help with any riding discipline. The differences between English riding and Western pleasure, however, call for more than a simple change of bits. Good training is better than a strong bit and is also a major factor in how a horse accepts any bit. I agree with Clinton Anderson that teaching a horse to give to the bit and to be supple to both sides is an important foundation in training. Remember that a bit is for guidance and communication, not to give you support in the saddle or to force your horse to do what you want. Light hands will work best in the end.
Even the Bible has something to say about bits. James 3:3 says, “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.” And in Psalm 32:9, we read, “Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle…” Horse training has come a long way since those times, but there is a message here. As Christians, we should be willing to give to His direction without the need of a bit in our mouths! Our source of guidance is in Scripture and prayer and meditation. Within a close relationship to our Savior, we find His guidance to be full of blessing and strength and hope, not a cruel means of control.
(Originally published in the June 2011 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)