Back to Basics ~ The function of a Bit

Back to Basics ~ The Function Of A Bit

History has shown that horses were first controlled by rope or rawhide being placed over the bridge of their nose and pressure was exerted on the nose to gain control. Later, the idea of placing antler or bone inside the horse’s mouth became a new mechanism of controlling this large animal.  Over time as civilization developed and people had access to other materials the idea of the bit, resembling bits that we know today, was born.  The Romans were the first to develop something similar to a snaffle bit, rings on the side with various mouth pieces, some broken and others not.  Some bits also included rings that either went over the nose of the horse, similar to a combination bit today that exerts pressure on both the nose, the bars, corner of the mouth and the chin. Other “ring” bits, commonly used by the Spanish later on, had a ring that went under the chin.  As horsemanship started gaining in popularity during the Renaissance period, methods of controlling and equipping horses with tack began to take on a new and more humane approach.  Also, during this time period the idea of using a bit or “biting up” on a horse became popular in hopes the horse would be even more responsive to the bit after lunging him with his head placed in a frame with reins attached to the bit and then to a girth. So, how does a bit work and where is pressure placed on the horse’s mouth, nose, or chin? The concept of Equitation took the idea of riding horses past just the tack and equipment, so one could learn to ride their horse with other aides as well as with the help of tools like the bit.  The idea behind equitation, dressage or horsemanship is to get the most out of your horse through effectively communicating with him.  Obviously, one of the ways that riders for centuries have corresponded with their horse is through their hands, which are linked to the bit. Various bits are designed for certain functions and levels of training.  For example, a snaffle bit considered to be one of the first bits you would introduce to a horse after training in a bosal or hackamore, applies direct pressure on the corner of the lips or mouth of the horse as well as pressure on the tongue and bars (inside the horse’s mouth).  As one’s horse learns to respond to the pressure by moving to the right or left, stopping or backing, or even flexing at the poll, the rider must use other aides to effectively send the message. A rider must also know when to release the pressure so the horse can be rewarding to responding to the form of communication. As a horse progresses in training, generally a horse trainer or rider will change bits that are in accordance to the level of training of their horse.  Once a horse has learned the basics of stopping, turning, and flexing at the poll in a snaffle; then one may move onto a bit called a curb or shank bit.  It’s also important to consider the mouthpiece.  The mouthpiece can create different responses from the horse. The snaffle bit will generally be broken in the middle with either a smooth mouthpiece or possible twist of various degrees. The idea again is to not solely rely on the bit to communicate with your horse but all of your aides. Once your horse is in a shank or “curb” bit then your horse should easily guide off of your hands, seat, legs, and even body position.  At this point a rider and horse should not rely heavily on the direct communication from the hands through the reins to the bit.  A shank or curb bit can have a variety of mouthpieces that are solid, broken or even with a port in the middle. The port can vary in height and be solid or broken.  A shank or curb bit can also have a curb or chin strap that’s placed under the horse’s jaw and attached to the shank also known as the purchases.  Again, a rider has a lot of options when choosing a bit for their horse.  One should consider purchasing a bit that’s made of palatable metals such as cooper or sweet iron that will promote saliva production in the horse’s mouth.  Generally, this will help make the horse more comfortable with the bit.  Also, the bit needs to fit the horse, a bit suitable for a pony will obviously be smaller than one suitable for a draft.  Also, consider how the bit is placed in your horse’s mouth.  Generally, most horses are comfortable with one wrinkle in their check.  The same is true for how the curb chain is adjusted. The idea behind the curb is to apply light pressure when the rider applies pressure or contact to the reins and this may also help with setting the horse’s head (causing flexion at the poll), stopping or backing.  Keep in mind a shank or curb bit is not intended or made to be used harshly! These bits are for well-trained horses that know their job and respond readily and quickly to the rider’s subtle aides and ques.  A shank bit overall can be used to apply even more pressure than the direct contact applied by a snaffle but all bits can be harmful in the wrong hands! For the best results when choosing a bit, consider the level of training your horse has had, choose the appropriate bit according to the size of your horse’s mouth, make sure the bit and curb chain are appropriately adjusted, not to tight or not to loose. Also, consider getting a bit that’s made from a malleable metal that also promotes salvia production.  Last but not least remember what works on one horse may not work on all horses, so try different bits and work with a bit maker that can help design or select the best bit for your and your horse! Dr. Amy McLean, PhD


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