Humans and horses have intertwined throughout history, dating as far back as 2600 BC. Using historical evidence, it is believed that the first bits were made out of hemp rope, bones, horns or hardwood.
As the Bronze Age began, metal started to be used with horses and it triggered a new type of horsemanship. By 900 BC, horses became used for more than just for survival, but as a weapon. Most of the bits used in this time where simple straight bar mullen mouths and the horses didn’t have a ton of steering control. Around the 4th Century, the Celts invented the curb bit. This allowed leverage action allowed more control on the battlefield, and place for designs of crests and defense. Bits created in this era, were incredible barbaric by today's standards, but people only knew how to train horses with a large amount of pressure.
Things did start to change around 350BC, when one of the first renowned horseman, Xenophon wrote the book, The Art of Horsemanship. His writings are still taught today such as "If you desire to handle a good war-horse so as to make his action the more magnificent and striking, you must refrain from pulling at his mouth with the bit as well as from spurring and whipping him. [...] but if you teach your horse to go with a light hand on the bit, and yet to hold his head well up and to arch his neck, you will be making him do just what the animal himself glories and delights in".
There are 4 basic families that bits are divided into;
Bits work off multiple pressure points on the horse’s skull. Seven of these points are the poll, tongue, lips, palate, bars, chin groove and nose.
The action of the pressure from a simple snaffle bit usually follows the following order.
A snaffle uses a direct pull from the rein. It is a straight connection from the bit to the rein, with no leverage, poll pressure or a different direction of force other than the direct aid. When a direct rein applies an equal amount of force in the mouth that is in being applied by the hand. A bit with a broken mouthpiece is not always a snaffle.
The cheek pieces are the side on the bit. There are many different types of cheek pieces such as Loose Ring, Dee Ring and Egg Butt to name a few.
In Western Bits, the check pieces include the Purchase and the Shank. The average curb has a 1.5” purchase and a 4.5” shank. This creates a 1:3 ratio from the pressure from the purchase, which puts pressure on the chin strap. It also creates a 1:4 ratio from the length of the full shank and cheek of the bit. This amount of pressure is produced in the horse’s mouth. Which translates to for every 1lb of pressure created from the hands, creates 3lbs of the pressure of the chin strap and 4lbs of pressure in the mouth.
The Purchase is the part of the bit that sits above the mouthpiece. The length of the purchase determines how quickly the bit will react in the mouth. The shorter the purchase, the faster the bit will engage in the mouth, the longer the purchase the slower.
The Shank is where the leverage of the bit’s design comes in. The longer the shank, the larger the ratio of pressure that is applied. This means that you can ask less in the hand and get a larger reaction in the mouth. Shank sizes can vary from 2” to 8”.
The canons are the parts of the bit and are set over the bars of the horse’s mouth. It is important to remember that the bars of the horse’s mouth are very thin and boney, with very little muscle covering.
Loose Ring snaffles are not fixed between the mouthpiece and the cheek pieces. They allow more movement and pre-signal from the rider’s hand to the horse’s mouth as the rings slide before activating the mouthpiece. This allows for a lighter conversation between horse and rider. It is important when using a loose ring snaffle to go ¼” to ½” larger to prevent from the rings pinching the horse's lips. Bits guards can also be used to prevent pinching.
Eggbutts, D-Rings, Full Cheeks and Western Dees are some examples of fixed ring snaffles. These styles are usually designed with hinges, so there is no movement between the mouthpiece and cheek piece. A fixed ring bit will also apply lateral pressure on the opposite side of the horse’s cheeks, as a direct rein aid is applied. This makes them an excellent option for young horses that are working on steering. Some horses prefer this type of bit over a loose ring as they have less movement.
When using a full cheek bit, it is important to use to use with bit keepers. Otherwise, it is possible for the cheeks to get caught on items causing a horse to panic.
With so many options between different styles, makes and types, it is a journey to find the perfect mouthpiece for your horse. In general, a thicker mouthpiece is kinder than a thinner mouthpiece. But this does not apply to all horses, as each horse has a different mouth. Some horses have a large tongue and a low palate and they require a thinner bit.
Loose Ring Snaffle
This is the most common type of mouthpiece, mostly due to the historical tradition of bits. It works well for most horses as it allows independent side action. However, it is important to know that this type of mouthpiece can cause a nutcracker effect. This happens when both reins are pulled on at the same time, and the bit closes into a V Shape. The canons of the bit go down on the bars and at the same time the break points up into the roof of the horse’s mouth. You may notice this by the horse opening their mouths, throwing their head up or other forms of resistance.
Loose Ring French Link Snaffle
Using a double jointed mouthpiece is a great solution to the nutcracker problem that can occur with a single jointed mouthpiece. There are many types of double-jointed mouthpieces such as French Links, Dog Bones, Lifesavers, Copper Rollers, and Dr. Bristols. Each lie on the tongue differently. The horse always has influence over the center of this bit, which allows them to accept the bit more willingly. It still allowed the independent action of each side of the bit.
Mullen Mouth Snaffle
An example of a single bar mouthpiece is a mullen mouth, they are also common in western bits. Mullen mouths usually have a slight curve that allows the curve of the tongue in the mouth. This is a very common mouthpiece for driving bits and a good option for sensitive horses that do not like a lot of movement in their mouth.
Low Ported Kimberwick
Ported mouthpieces are found in both English and Western Bits. Ported bits work off leverage, as leverage is applied the port will rotate to touch the top of the horse’s palate, the bottom edged of the port go into the tongue. Ports can come in a variety of sizes such as high, low, wide and narrow. A well balanced ported bit at neutral will rest on the horse’s tongue.
Slow Twist Eggbutt Snaffle
There are 2 common types of twisted bits, Fast and Slow. The slow twist has a larger surface area and when used will pull and grab the tongue and tissues in the mouth. The canons on a slow twist will dig right into the horse’s bars. The Fast Twist is more of a texture difference that can pinch the lips of the horse. Both of these bits are to be used as a tool in the right hands.
This is a bit that works for some horses but not for all. Because of the multiple joints, it conforms to the horse’s mouth. Due to the movement and flexibility in this design, horses cannot grab this bit. It is also an option for horses that have a very low mouth and a big tongue. Due to all the bubble of this bit’s design in can be severe if it is dragged across the horse’s tongue due to the multiple pressure points it creates. In a poorly made Waterford, the joints can create pinching actions as well.
Professional's Choice Bob Avila Daisy Shank Swivel Port Bit
Leverage bits are designed to teach the horse to flex at the poll through the pressure of the curb strap on their chin. These bits are generally most precise than a direct contact snaffle and used to advanced training on finished horses. The longer the shank on leverage bits, the more pounds per square millimeter are applied. A single joint on a leverage bit does not make it softer, as it actually allows the bit to collapse more and use a nutcracker effect. The wider the port in leverage bits, the more room for the horse’s tongue. Too wide, however, will sit directly on the bars.
Pelhams are designed to be used with two reins, to use as a direct contact and a second rein that works off of a leverage rein. This allows the rider to apply more precision in their aids. Pelhams come in a variety of mouthpieces and cheek lengths. A shorter shank is traditionally called a Tom Thumb.
A low ported Kimberwick is an excellent option for horses who need a little bit of leverage, but not enough to go into a shank or a curb. For this bit to be most effective, a solid mouth is preferred since when a single joint is added with leverage it tends to mix up the cues given by the rider.
These bits have a high port that allows room for the tongue. However, a correction has a large port, high enough to touch the top of the horse’s mouth. This makes it a bit to be used in knowledgeable hands. When looking at a Correction bit it is important to take a look at the hinges for the port, as these rest on directly on the horse's tongue. Do they have sharp square edges, or are they rounded?
This is an awesome bit for those moving off of a snaffle into a curb bit The curved shanks are what makes this bit dramatically different from a Tom Thumb. This is a great bit for horses that need to show in a curb bit, but don’t need the finesse of a larger bit.
There are a lot of misconceptions about the Tom Thumb and is often sold as a beginner safe bits, however, it is actually a very strong and severe bit due to the lack of pre-signal in the shanks, and the nutcracker effect in the mouth.
Gag bits should only be used in the hands of an experienced horse person or trainer as they can be quite severe.
When using a gag without a curb strap, there is no limit on how much pressure can be exerted on the horse. Gag bits work on applied pressure to the lips of the horse, rather than the tongue or the bars. As the gag is activated the bit pulled the lips back in the horse’s mouth, which raises the head. Gag bits can be seen commonly in the Polo Arena, where the riders need quick reactions from their horses.
This bit is the one with the rope cheek pieces that allow the bit to slide. Most of this style has a stopper which will limit the amount of gag the bit can produce. It is common for this style to be used in a 2 rein set up, one rein as a snaffle and one rein on the gag.
Wonder Bit (left), Elevator Bit (Right)
This bit has a variety of names such as a Wonder Gag, Elevator, Bubble Bit, however, the physics behind it remains consistent. They are all designed for the horse to raise their head, as the gag lip pressure is applied. This type of bit does have more pre-signal that a single reins conventional gag. If there is no curb strap on this bit, then there is no limit to the rotation and draw in the horse’s mouth.
When choosing a bit, think about the horse who you will be using it with. The size of their mouth, the thickness of their tongue, high versus a low palate, the width and depth of the bars, their training level, personality and what type of metal they prefer are all factors to consider when searching for the right bit for your horse.
If the horse can not close his mouth around the bit, it is a sign the bit is too wide for his mouth. A bit too long with have too much movement and misplace the pressure on to the narrow bony bars of the horse’s mouth. A bit too short will pinch the lips.
Most horses will take a bit between 4-3/4” to 5-1/2”. When fitting a bit, there should be roughly one index finger of width between the lips and the edge of the bit, roughly ½”, for loose rings. Fixed ring bit can have less room.
Loose Ring Bits (Left) should have enough room that the movement of the ring will not pinch the horse's lips, compared to fixed right bits, (right).