Horse Training Tips: Selecting the Right Bit for Your Horse
By: Teresa McDonald, Riding Instructor, Virginia Tech and 2009 recipient of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Lifetime Achievement Award
Whether you are selecting a bit to fine-tune your prize show horse or to counteract some equine shenanigans, choosing a bit can be a challenging endeavor. When my students ask me for advice on bit selection I remind them to think of the word brakes.
B – Did you do your "background" work? What type of bit has the horse worn in the past? Did it work? Did he seem to be comfortable with it? Has the horse had dentistry work done in the last six months? No bit will do the job of a good teeth floating. If you are experiencing behavior problems, is the basis of the problem medical or are you are asking your horse to do things above his training level or physical ability? If you have any doubt about the horse's soundness then schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. If you are not sure you are asking your horse fair questions within his physical ability then ask your trainer for advice. Be realistic, for as much as we would all like to believe it, there are no "magic bits."
R – Will the bit be within the "rules" of your sport? It does no good to find the perfect bit and then discover you cannot use it during competition. Refer to the rulebook of the governing body in which you will be showing and be sure the bit you have selected is legal. The rules for United States Equestrian Federation, like most organizations, can be easily accessed online at http://www.usef.org/contentpage2.aspx?id=ruleshome.
A – What is the "action" of the bit? A snaffle bit is generally jointed and impacts the corners of the mouth with a nutcracker effect. A curb bit impacts the bars of the mouth and works with a leverage principle. Some bits such as elevators will have an effect on the poll of the horse. The diameter and surface of the mouthpiece will also effect its action. Generally speaking, the larger the diameter and smoother the surface of the bit, the softer the effect on the horse. When considering a curb style bit the length of the shank and height of the port will affect the strength of the bit. The longer the shank and the higher the port the more severe the bit can be. The bit's material will also have an influence on how the horse reacts. Some horses prefer metals to stainless steel. Copper or sweet iron will usually encourage a horse to salivate more, while rubber may be just the ticket for a very sensitive soul.
K – Are you being "kind" with your hands? Select a bit that will allow you to be kind with your hands. A rider using a soft bit but with very harsh hands can be very cruel to a horse. At the same time, a rider can be very kind to a horse with a more severe bit using sensitive hands. As I like to remind my students it is never a good thing to repeatedly beat on the steering wheel or to stomp on the brakes of your car. If you do this, your car will soon be out of whack.
E - Did you "evaluate" how your bit selection is working? Give your horse a few days to get used to the new bit and then be honest with yourself. Just because it is the coolest new bit on the show grounds and you just spent the family fortune on it does not guarantee that it is a good fit for your horse. Don't be afraid to try again. Also realize that as your horse's training advances and his job changes, his bit needs will also evolve.
S – Is the bit the correct "size"? When it comes to bits, size does matter. Be sure that the bit fits your horse's mouth both in width and diameter. You may have selected exactly the right bit for your horse, however if the bit is too small and is pinching his mouth or so big that it's hanging out the side of his mouth when you turn, he cannot be comfortable. If your horse has a small mouth, a large diameter bit can be gagging and may not allow him to even properly close his mouth – also not comfortable. If you have a bit that fits your horse well you can simply take it with you to the tack store to use as a template, or use a ruler and measure the mouthpiece of the bit. The average horse wears a 5-inch bit but many warm bloods will need a much larger size. Some loose ring snaffles will need to be a little wider to avoid pinching the corners of the mouth. If you are unsure about the fit of the bit seek advice from an experienced horseman.
So the next time you decide to shop for a new bit, whatever reason, just remember brakes. This simple acronym will you help you find the bit you're looking for.