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A "Bit" Of A Dilemma
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A "Bit" Of A Dilemma

A horse that is unhappy or uncomfortable in his mouth will not perform at his best and may even develop behavioural problems when ridden. These days there are such a range of designs and materials that there should be a bit to suit every horse no matter what the issue is. If you are unsure what to try for your horse's particular problem, contact one of the many "bit banks" available. They will be able to advise you on which bits to try and may even be able to fit one for you. This is definitely worth the time and effort rather than just guessing and spending a fortune on bits that aren't suitable.

First of all make sure that your horse's saddle fits correctly, that his back is not causing him discomfort and that the bit he is currently ridden in fits him properly. Lay the bit over your bare forearm and using your other hand (or a willing volunteer), apply pressure through the bit rings. If the bit pinches, is rough or feels uncomfortable that is exactly what it will feel like in your horse's mouth. Next, fit the horse's bridle and have a look at how the bit sits inside his mouth. It should sit well clear of his canine teeth and he should be able to close his front teeth comfortably together. Now stand beside him and pick up a light contact on the reins. Make sure that the bit does not dig into the roof of his mouth and study his reaction to your contact. He should quietly and willingly accept the bit without offering resistance to it.

Problem: Dropping behind the bit

It is quite usual for youngsters to drop behind the contact until their balance is more established and they are not working so much on their forehand. If a more experienced horse is inclined to come behind the bit it may be that the bit is too severe. Such a reaction is commonly seen when horses are first introduced to a double bridle and ridden with too much curb rein. A gentle, soft bit with a double joint should help this issue. Anatomically formed, double jointed designs follow the contours of the horse's mouth and give a gentle, even pressure on the tongue. Bits and nosebands which apply poll pressure should be avoided as these may exacerbate the problem and encourage the horse to over-bend even more.

Problem: Leaning on the bit, pulling

There are a number of reasons why a horse may be heavy in the rider's hand. This could be a temporary phase as he becomes more engaged and his balance adjusts so that he becomes more in self-carriage and lighter in the forehand. Some horses are naturally built more heavily in front and their natural way of going is rather downhill. Sometimes a double jointed bit will encourage a horse to become lighter in the hand. Horses which are inclined to pull or bear down on the hand might respond better to a single jointed style.

Problem: Fussy in the mouth, unsteady in the contact

Usually, horses which toss their heads do so in an effort to avoid the contact and the pressure the bit places on their tongue. An ergonomically formed, lozenge bit might help this as it lifts pressure away from the tongue. Another possible solution would be a combination bit which divides the rein pressure over three points on the horse's head before the mouthpiece is activated, providing almost complete tongue relief.

Problem: Tongue over the bit

Sometimes this is a reaction to pressure on a sensitive area of the horse's tongue although there can be other reasons for this behaviour. If the horse has a small mouth and the bit is too chunky, he may seek to put his tongue over the bit to relieve the discomfort. One solution would be to use a bit with a double lozenge joint. This design lessens the nutcracker action of a single joint and relieves palette pressure too which is especially helpful for a horse with a either a large tongue or a small mouth.

Problem: Steering failure!

Such communication failure can have many causes. A three ring style of bit that provides some poll pressure may help or a bit with full cheeks which apply a small amount of pressure to the sides of the face can help to correct steering problems.


The manufacture of bits for horses has come a long way from the leather and bone concoctions used by our distant ancestors. Today there are many different options all designed with the horse's comfort in mind.

Aurigan is an alloy containing copper, silicon and zinc. Horses like this material as it has a sweet taste and encourages them to salivate and chew.

Salox gold is a warm metal with a high copper content. Heat transfer from the body to the metal is eight times faster than traditional stainless steel offering a greater level of comfort and promoting better acceptance of the bit by the horse.

Sweet iron is made from black iron and copper. Again, a sweet taste is produced encouraging salivation and chewing.

Titanium is a strong, light and non-magnetic metal which is very resistant to damage and corrosion. This is especially reassuring for me personally as I have a titanium plate and screws in my arm following a fracture I sustained falling off a youngster some years ago!

Nathe is a pliable, soft plastic material. Many horses prefer the feel of nathe to metal in their mouths and it is also allergy free. Although it is pretty strong, be careful if your horse tends to chew on the bit as scuffing can occur which may cause sores.


Please feel free to comment and don't forget to vote if you enjoyed this piece!

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  1. Rene Wright
    Rene Wright
    Voted. There are so many choices out there these days. Good advice about seeking out someone who has experience with the different bits and issues that arise.
    1. autumnap
      Thank you. I think the bit bank idea is a really good one - try before you buy! x
  2. PonyGirl
    I enjoyed your article, although this is one where the English English and the American English did not always mix. Some of the descriptive bit terms are slightly different in (at least my part) of the U.S., so I had to think about things a bit before I could picture what you were talking about. I have never heard of a "bit bank" and can't think of an American equivalent. I often found, when galloping and when riding young horses, that narrow faced horses seemed to have problems with straight snaffle mouthpieces. The joint tended to stab them in the top of the mouth if the rider took much hold of the reins. A bit I like for young western horses (but which would probably be illegal for English classes) is a combination curb bit which has a broken mouth with a ring the size of a nickle for a join in the center which eliminates the nutcracker effect, a short shank with a small amount of gag action and a rope hackamore-type nose band. The bit works on the mouth, nose, and chin simultaneously and can be adjusted to work more on one part and less on others. For my older horses I use a "cutting horse" curb, which has a bar mouthpiece with just enough port to give the tongue room, and fairly long shanks. This bit is extremely mild unless you really tighten the reins and then it works on their chin. Since in the Texas style of western riding, there's no direct rein contact, our bit needs are quite different than in English riding. Ideally the horse should go on a loose rein at all times.
    1. autumnap
      That's really interesting. I think sometimes we ought to think about the effect bitting has on our horses and re-think what is competition legal and what isn't. After all, dressage is supposed to be all about harmony and partnership rather than forced submission to the rider's hand. Many horses would go much more sweetly in an "illegal" bit and the rider would be able use much less hand. When I rode in Spain, all the horses were wearing either Pelhams or Kimblewicks. The owner explained that they'd all been broken using Spanish bits which are pretty severe and therefore were much happier in something gentler but similar to that rather than a snaffle which would probably bruise their mouths as a stronger contact would be required to get the same effect.
      1. PonyGirl
        A lot of western horses seem to resent the snaffle mouthpieces, since a straight bar with a curb, works first on the chin and then on the mouth. If they're light enough to work off the chin, their mouths are very tender from lack of contact, so if you start riding in a snaffle, their mouths are totally unprepared for it. Young horses are started off slowly of course, so their mouths grow accustomed to their bit. But people forget this stage when changing bits on older horses. If the bit works on a different part of the horse's mouth or head than normal, he will need time to acclimate to it. It's no different than a person using a shovel or a pitchfork. I can clean stalls all day without gloves because I'm used to handling a pitchfork, but I have to use gloves if I'm going to do much work with a shovel, since I don't use one of those very often.

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