I call them my Pheasants, but of course they don't…
For both the comfort of the horse and to optimise successful communication between the horse and rider, attention to detail when choosing a bit is vital. Common behaviours expressed by the horse that can be a result of an unsuitable bit include opening the mouth, leaning on the bit, snatching the reins, holding the head unnaturally high, rushing or conversely not wanting to move forwards.
Unfortunately, whilst there are a handful of bit manufacturers that have produced new designs in more recent years, there are still a huge majority of horses that are ridden in bits that were first designed decades ago. Many of these bits follow old fashioned horsemanship ideas and are actually quite crude, offering scant suitability to the horse’s mouth conformation.
Take for example the plain old Eggbutt Snaffle (picture F), thought of by many as a nice, kind and ‘soft’ bit. I have a differing opinion! Rarely are the branches of the mouthpiece symmetrical, they are also frequently very fat and the single joint is perfect for digging in to the roof of the mouth and also pinching the tongue (D). How can we train a horse and rider to be equal on both reins if one of the parts connecting the two isn’t itself symmetrical? A fatter mouthpiece may spread the pressure more but is there enough room in the horse’s mouth? If the horse opens its mouth because the mouthpiece is too fat, or to get away from the bit joint stabbing the roof of the mouth then why do people then strap the mouth shut (E)?
Vulcanite or rubber mouthpieces (G) are thought to make the bit kinder, however they also make the mouthpiece very big and not many horses have enough room in their mouth. Happy mouth bits (H)- a great name for marketing but will the horse really be happy with a mouthpiece that can be rough and sharp after just one bite and what exactly are the lumps in the middle of the mouthpiece for? I would argue not for comfort! In hand bits (I) are often used with young horses and as first bits. Should a young horse’s first experience of wearing a bit be with a rock hard, unyielding bar pressing on the soft tissues?
The primary consideration when choosing a bit should be the horse’s mouth conformation. The skull in the pictures is from a Dartmoor pony and pictures A and B show just how little room there is in the mouth, without any soft tissues present. Add just a tongue (C) and there is hardly any room left for a bit; many ponies, (let alone horses) have big tongues, equivalent to the size of my forearm. From here other considerations for bit selection include level of training of the horse and the ability of the rider. Any bit can be harsh in the wrong hands but even more so if used incorrectly. The fashionable Dutch Gag (Three Ring Gag/Bubble Bit) for example is designed to be used with two reins but hardly ever is. Used with just one rein its action is completely different and results in huge relentless pressures on the mouth and poll, which is a recipe for bruising and even potential injury to the bone. Just because everyone only uses one rein doesn’t make it correct, it just makes it easier for the rider at the expense of the horse.
Successful bitting is an art worth learning but remember, research not fashion! Happy riding.