Before buying their own horse, many horse riders don’t get a say in what bit they get to use. If you’re like most others, the owner of the horse you were riding made that decision for you. You may have tried straight bits, D-ring bits, or jointed mouth pieces without really ever understanding why. When standing in front of a wall of bits in the tack store, the choice can then seem daunting.
But the large variety is actually a good thing. It allows you to find the closest possible match to your horse’s needs. It allows you to discard one thing that your horse may not react well to, and find something else that will. After all, the point of good gear is that it aids you in your work with your horse, making communication between you as easy as possible.
How bits work
The bit is attached to the bridle, a necessary part of any horse rider’s tack collection. You won’t hear of any horse riders that go riding without using some kind of bridle.
A normal bridle with a bit allows you to give the horse signals by applying pressure inside its mouth. You give the signals via the reins that are attached to either rings or a shaft on each side of the bit. Different bits give different levels of pressure. Skinny bits are generally sharper, as the weight of your hand is concentrated on a smaller area – a bit like a stiletto heel – and thus need less pressure on the rein for the same effect as a thicker bit. Curb bits amplify the force of your signals through the shafts, so they also give stronger signals than a normal snaffle. Jointed mouthpieces tend to be harder in the horse’s mouth, while hollow bits are extra gentle.
However not all bridles have bits. Bitless bridles allow the rider to communicate with the horse just like a normal bit, although they do so in a different way. Instead of putting pressure inside the horse’s mouth they instead put pressure on the muzzle. The mechanics are different from bitless bridle to bitless bridle, but that’s the general concept.
Bits remain the most popular choice with most horse riders, however. With many different designs, there is enough to choose between. Let’s take a look at the different kinds of bits you need to know about.
Different kinds of bits
There are two main kinds of bits: The curb bit and the snaffle bit. The snaffle bit is the mildest, as the reins are attached directly to the bit, which gives a soft contact between the rider’s hands and horse’s mouth. The curb bit has a shaft on both sides that amplify the force of the rider’s signals, making it stronger.
Both snaffle and curb bits come with different mouthpieces:
The straight bar bit
One of the mildest bits is the straight bar bit. Like the name suggests it has no joints, so it doesn’t put as much pressure on the horse’s mouth.
Thin, thick, or hollow?
The thinner the bit, the more severe it is. If in doubt, it’s good to opt for a thicker bit, because that’s what most horses will be comfortable with. However, some horses have small mouths and won’t have space for a thick bit, so in that case a thin one could be better. Hollow bits are just like any other bit, except that they are lighter. More weight in a horse’s mouth makes the impact more severe, so a hollow bit is milder than a non-hollow equivalent.
Jointed mouth pieces
Jointed mouthpieces have either one or two joints. A bit with one joint is quite hard as it can sometimes “snap” and touch the top of the horse’s mouth, as well as create a nutcracker effect. However it still works well for some horses.
Bits with two joints and a middle piece are much milder, as they don’t create as much pressure on the sides of the horse’s tongue while still maintaining the benefits of the jointed mouthpiece.
There are also many other versions of the jointed mouthpiece such as the Doc Bristol and the ball link bit, where the shape of the middle link changes the effect of the bit.
The point of all kinds of jointed mouthpieces is to be able to move each side of the bit independently.
Other designs: rollers, ports and twists.
Some bits have more advanced designs that can be hard to understand the purpose of. What’s the idea of a port, twists, or rollers for example?
Rollers are sections on the bit that can roll back and forth. They encourage salivation and also prevent the horse from leaning on the bit. Rollers make the bit more forceful than a similar bit without rollers.
Ports also make the bit more severe, but in a different way. They put pressure on the top of the horse’s mouth when the rider moves the reins. It’s a very powerful tool and can create damage if used by an untrained hand.
The same can be said of twisted bits or wire bits. These bits are often very thin, and the twists make the impact of the reins much more forceful in the horse’s mouth.
Snaffle bit rings
Snaffle bits are snaffle bits because they don’t have shafts. Instead, they have rings on which the reins are attached. The fact that the reins are attached directly to the bit instead of shafts makes it a lot less severe, because it doesn’t have anything leveraging the force of your hands.
There are quite a few different kinds of snaffle bit rings.
A loose-ring snaffle has a normal, round ring that gives space for the mouthpiece to slide around it. Full cheek snaffles prevent the bit rings from being pulled through the mouth, eggbut snaffles prevent the skin around the mouth from being pinched, while D-rings prevent the bit from moving around too much.
The D-shape stabilizes the bit to some extent, although not as much as the full cheek snaffle. The D-rings also have the anti-pinch properties of the eggbut snaffle.
The D-ring and full cheek snaffle are generally better in high-energy situations where finesse is less important, but where you need more control, and where you need the bit to be able to stay put. In dressage you would generally benefit from the finesse that a more mobile bit ring would give you.
Some horse riders also use a third kind of bit, the Weymouth bit or the double bit that uses one snaffle and one curb bit together for extra refined control.
Understanding the many different bits on the market
There are many different kinds of bits, and many varieties of them as well on the market. It may seem confusing at first when having to understand the difference between them and choosing the right one for your horse. However, the variety means that you can find the bit that fits your horse the best. It’s a great way to find a tool that will help you communicate with your horse in the best possible way.