A Bit of Control

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Lots of equestrians seem to be looking for that magical piece of equipment that is going to fix everything. I know this because I’m asked a lot. About THE ONE thing that’s OMGTODESAWSUMMUSTHAV!

There are a ton of gadgets, bits, devices, and tricks that are supposed to make your horse do everything correctly. Problem is, if you rode well and asked correctly, most likely you wouldn’t need all that. The only thing that is going to fix everything is for you to ride better.

Most horse and rider communication issues can be solved with…time. And hard work. And patience, and listening, and care. In a few cases regarding confirmation, attitude, and/or poor initial training/starting/re-training, store bought tools are genuinely required for intervention.

I’m going to use this article to discuss a few gadget and bitting principles. It’s probably way too long. Maybe I’ll get more specific in the future. So—broadly, I want to attempt to offer relief, suggestions, or catharsis to direct questions I’ve received. And importantly, let’s review…

Three of the most commonly overused, misused, and ineffective “training” gadgets around.

Draw Reins
German Martingale
Neck Stretcher

Many people think draw reins are the answer for every green horse who goes with it’s head up in the air. Or even more commonly, the horse who is “hot”. This makes no sense. First off, a green horse shouldn’t be forced to put his/her head in any position. The horse doesn’t have balance—let alone the ability to set it’s head. Draw reins are not going to put a horse on the bit or make them use anything but their head/neck “correctly”. Much of the time, green horses are put in draw reins indefinitely, thus preventing from every learning correct balance. The worst is when people put these on horses who buck. Horses can buck even better with draw reins.

Draw reins can offer assistance for a horse who has been properly trained through the gaits. For a non-green horse, draw reins allow the ability for a horse to use themselves better. Draw reins aide horses who are potentially unable to canter without getting incredibly strung out, allow collection for incredibly upside down horses, or provide an extra set of brakes for a horse who just needs them every now and again. Draw reins are a once-in-a-while tool, to be used with experienced hands AND legs. You cannot use draw reins if you aren’t pushing your horse into them with your leg. You also need to be soft AND be able to adjust them while riding as needed.

The German Martingale (also called the Market Harborough) is also wrongly used to set a horse’s head—but worse. The German Martingale is REALLY an extreme Running Martingale. Generally, most people ride in this too much to get a head set or as they think, a horse “on the bit”.

The German Martingale can be a great tool for the horse who maybe gets too heavy in the draw reins. But again, the German Martingale should only used in moderation and only in experienced hands.

The neck stretcher is a new phenomenon. It’s trendy and is seen more and more often unfortunately being abused. The idea behind this device is to encourage the horse to stretch through his/her back and bring his/her head and neck down.

In reality, the neck stretcher is a bungee that a horse basically fights against because IT IS STRETCHY, creating tension. Riders do not want tension on the neck when trying to get a horse to use their back, be soft, and be round. Duly, this device is cheap and thus very attractive. Neck stretchers only look effective on horses who already go around with their head down—that’s a nice way of saying these devices are useless.

OK, so those devices suck. What are some beneficial devices if used in the right hands?

Chambon/De-Gogue – There are a few different definitions and descriptions of both these tools, and there are a few ways of using each. Basically, the idea for any use/application is for the device to create pressure on the poll (not resistance) when the horse inverts—thus rewarding the horse (removing the pressure) when the horse lowers his/her head. Lowering the head helps round the back and encourages the horse to use himself, so-on and so-forth.

The good thing about this tool is that a horse cannot lean on it. However, depending on the horse, it can be restrictive and should be used in moderation (see a pattern here?) and only with the an experienced rider (ditto?). This is a device beneficial for a horse who is built upside down (Frankie), or is very tense through the back.

Side Reins – Side reins can offer some benefits, but they cannot replace good riding. Too often people overuse these especially on young horses. If a horse doesn’t understand how to use themselves, the side reins are only going to teach them to lean. If the horse is not balanced, they are going to balance ON the side reins. So they are often counter productive.

Standing and Running Martingales are often necessary pieces of equipment. They’re commonly used and probably the most commonly, correctly used. These keep the head down for jumping. That’s it. Very basic in principle and practice.

Simple tools for problems with training, personality, and work ethic:

Plain Noseband – Does nothing unless cranked REALLY tight, which you shouldn’t have to do. If you do, then use one of these…

Flash Noseband – A plain noseband with a flash attachment that discourages the horse from opening the mouth to evade the bit.

Figure Eight Noseband - Offers a little more evasion discouragement than the flash as it puts pressure not only over the mouth but also over the top of the nose. BONUS POINTS F8NBz look really cool.

Drop Noseband – My least favorite. Mostly because it is difficult to fit correctly and terribly often misused. The drop noseband should not be used with a standing martingale and should not sit too low to interfere with breathing. The idea is to discourage the horse from opening his/her mouth to evade the bit, but too often it is misfitted and I have seen them cause rubs and interfere with the bit.

The Kineton – This isn’t used as much anymore but can be very effective for a horse who pulls, lays on the bit. However, it doesn’t help discourage a horse from opening his/her mouth. And it can be over-used and used in the wrong hands. A good training device, but not for the inexperienced.

Tack & Chain Nosebands – Not SEEN as often anymore but still used more than the feint-of-heart care to imagine, these are just nosebands with either tacks or a chain on the inside of the noseband touching the horse. It is used with a standing martingale so if the horse hits the standing martingale—they usually remember it (guess why?)

I’ll go on the record saying the following two pieces about tack and chain nosebands: they are often misused and overused, though they have their place with certain horses. In experienced, non abusive hands, they can allow riders to safely return to a horse prone to doling out bloody noses or to prevent above-average evasion and temper tantrums. These can also freak out sensitive horses (you knew that, though, right?) I always suggest putting a horse on a lunge before riding with these—if they hit it, they can jump out of their skin pretty bad. I don’t think there are many horses out there that REALLY need these—it’s an easy/lazy way to get things done for the most part.

Specific training issues people are commonly looking for tools to fix:

Tongue over the bit – This problem can stem from so many different things there is never an easy answer. Instead of looking for a specific tool, start with different nosebands (try figure eights or flashes at first). Then move to different bits with more or less tongue pressure, the cheeker, and/or tongue ports. Many problems, especially concering a horse with baggage, require trial and error to find the “fix”.

Head shaking – Often this is allergy related. A product called Net Relief Muzzle ($70) works well, but if you don’t want to spend the money or if you aren’t sure, try a hair net ($1) over the nose first. Some horses respond well to it but often they don’t like the feeling. In that case, the shaking might be relieved but also there’s a new response. The test is worth a shot.

Pulling – SURPRISE, generally this is a rider’s issue more than the horse. Give leg, leg, and more leg. Don’t complain about it, do it. Sure, different bits might help, but if you don’t have enough motor, the horse is going to be on his/her forehand pulling you down with them.

Inverted - Well, nine times out of ten, the horse is probably built a little inverted so you have to work against the horse’s conformation. That just means harder work for you. Be diligent, work hard, stay relaxed, and always try to get lighter and softer with your seat and leg. There are tools and devices that help, but none are going to help overnight. Correcting inversion—if you can call it a correction, might take months or years.

Everyone has a problem that could be solved with the correct bit…right?

Errrrr…sure. Bits can make a world of difference. However, before going on a perfect-bit-hunting spree (no such thing), consider maybe YOU are not riding very well (no, not YOU-you. Of course YOU you are always perfect). Do you need to add leg? Do you need to work on your flatwork? Do you saw with your hands (sheesh!)

Sure, strong willed horses might need a bit that gives control. Though heavy horses likely just don’t have the proper schooling (or riding).

TRUTH: Generally a horse should go fine in a snaffle bit unless confirmation, attitude, or training (read: baggage) issues persist.

Here is a basic explanation of the traditional bit cheek pieces from easy-peasy to barely-harsh:

Loose Ring – The most simple cheek piece—offering direct application from the rein with some play to the horse’s mouth.

Eggbutt – The next step up from the loose ring, still offers direct application from the rein, no play to the horse’s mouth, and no concern of “pinching” or pulling through the horse’s mouth.

Dee Ring – Direct application from the rein offering a more immediate response than that of the loose ring. On a very sensitive horse, one may get some poll pressure depending on how the bit is sits in the mouth and how the bridle is adjusted. Again, no pinching or pulling through the horse’s mouth.

Full Cheek – Direct application from the rein offering the same amount of response as the Dee Ring. However, with keepers, this bit will offer more poll pressure than any of the other traditional cheek pieces. Again, no pinching or pulling through the horse’s mouth.

Bouche – Direct application from the rein, with added poll pressure providing some leverage.

The more “advanced” cheek pieces:

Pelham – This is a dual purpose bit. You can use the snaffle rein and get direct pressure with some poll pressure. With the curb rein you have a leveraging bit putting even more pressure on the poll and the curb. You can also put on a converter which makes two reins into one – easier to use and no direct option.

Kimberwick – Basically a single rein to a Pelham bit. You choose your rein position depending on how much curb and poll pressure is desired and you have a bit that is a leveraging bit. The top setting provides more direct action, but moving the rein position down creates more leverage by adding pressure on the poll and curb. Some Kimberwicks don’t offer different rein positions—those are less direct than the top setting of a Kimberwick with options, but more direct than the lower setting .

Elevator – I never tend to call the two and three ring bits gags, but many people do. These bits are 100% leveraging bits. They exert pressure on the poll, and if a curb chain is added, it is more severe. Then there’s a leather cheek piece elevator which will stop a freight train.

Gag – The traditional gag does not offer any direct application to the horses mouth, unless (which rarely seen) a second rein is attached to the cheek piece. Most commonly, the reins are only attached to gag cheek pieces which run through the bit. This creates direct pressure on the poll only to bring the actual mouth piece of the bit in more contact with the horse via the added pressure of the gag cheek pieces. Another spat of leverage.

Hackamores – There are several different hackamore “bits” all of which do not actually put any pressure on the horse’s mouth since nothing goes in their mouth. That doesn’t mean they cannot be severe “bits”. Hackamore nosebands are the
gentlest. Mechanical Hackamores range in severity depending on the shank length.

Combination Bits – Hackamores with a bit. There are many, many different varieties, but basically the main point of the cheek piece is to offer leverage and more “control,” thus more “submission”. Severity again depends on the length of the shank, the style of curb, and the style of noseband.

That’s the most common list of cheek pieces. Just remember a bit isn’t just about the mouth piece—the cheek pieces play a very important role between the communication of horse and rider.

Mouth piece bits—too many to list here, but there are a lot of misconceptions about mouth pieces. The next axiom applies to riders of all skill levels:

TRUTH: Mouth pieces might feel soft, but the the softest mouth piece in the world can become very severe in the wrong hands.

Rubber is not the softest mouth piece. Rubber is thick and often creates a dry mouth making it much, much less soft.

The thickness or diameter of a mouthpiece does not necessarily equate to softer/harsher. The fatter the bit, the harder for the horse to swallow, creating less salivation.

Lets go through a quick breakdown of what different mouth pieces do.

Single jointed plain snaffle – Your most basic mouth piece. Puts pressure on the tongue and the bars of the mouth.

Double jointed snaffle – This can use a Dr. Bristol, French Link, or Lozenge as the middle piece. All are considered double jointed and all offer some tongue relief—thus creating a “kinder” bit.

Mullen mouth – Straight bar of whatever material. This bit is gentler than a single jointed snaffle mouth, yet encourages a horse to break at the poll. Often creates less resistance in the form of inverting, tension, and getting behind the bit.

Those are the basics. Then there are modifications to each of those.

In the single jointed snaffle you will most often see:

– Single Twisted Wire
– Double Twisted Wire
– Slow Twist
– Corkscrew
– Copper Roller
– Rubber
– Hollow Mouth
– Keys

In the Double jointed snaffle you will see the middle piece change into the following:

– French Link
– Dr. Bristol
– Lozenge (of many different shapes, sizes, and metals)
– Rubber
– Roller – Revolver
– Segunda

Then you have the different Mullen mouth pieces:

– Different Ports
– Rollers
– Shaped
– Rubber

All of the above mouth piece modifications may also incorporate these options:

– Curved/ergonomic mouthpieces
– Independent side movement
– Different metals – Copper, Aurigan, Silver, Stainless Steel, Iron, and often a mixture of these
– Different synthetic materials – Rubber, Plastic, & Flavored Plastic

In truncated form, the remaining bit options are from two manufacturers who offer bits/bit lines they say tailor to specific “bitting” problems…

Mikmar
Myler

…and then we have stand-alone bits that don’t really fall into any one category:

The bicycle chain bit – Not as common as it once was, but then again, a lot of things aren’t SEEN as much. Doesn’t mean they aren’t used.

Fulmer – A very cool combination of a fullcheek and a loosering snaffle. Underused and under appreciated.

Off the top of my head, that’s a more-or-less complete rundown of bit types and usage. Clear as mud, huh?

With all the different options, how does one know the correct bit for their horse?

TRUTH: No one has the answer. Not even these companies that have a ton of research and development behind them.

Primarily, you have to remember it’s not just for your horse—bits need to be right for you, your experience, and your hands. The latter needs to be addressed prior to even thinking about going after the former’s needs.

Every horse is different and ever rider is different. Each horse has a different preference of what is in their mouth—and then you throw the rider in the mix which changes it even more. Finding a bit that you and your horse communicate wonderfully through may take 5-20 tries. And that one bit may not stay THE bit forever. Training levels change, goals change, horses lose interest, and your ability, feel, and communication through the reins/bit may change. All these things make for the possibility of finding that right bit all over again.

There isn’t a miracle bit for any horse. If a “trainer” tells you X bit will create X response, there is no guarantee. Every horse responds differently to different pressures, and some horses are far more sensitive than others.

Don’t fall into the picking up fashionable bits. Every couple of years a bit becomes the “cool” bit, and people start to forget these things serve a functional purpose.

Another thing to remember, the goal should always be to ride with the least amount of bit possible. Feeling the need to over bit is generally in response to a training issue (/failure). Yes, a more severe bit might be needed to get past that issue, but always look to work back to the softest bit both you and your horse can happily communicate through.

Of course you must always remember – if you have a horse you are jumping; it is very likely that you have a bit for flatwork and a bit for jumping. Often jumping is where more “correction” is needed. Always continue to work hard on your flatwork because I promise it will transfer to your jumping.

Fixing a problem through the mouth should be a last response.

Not to state the obvious, but make sure your horse is healthy. This means sound. If your horse is sore—whether it’s the back, the hocks, or any other possibly lameness/soreness area, you are fighting a losing battle. A horse cannot perform well through the mouth if they are not sound in the body. Then, of course, make sure their teeth are in good shape. You can’t except a horse to tolerate any pressure from a bit if their teeth are sharp.

If you have established your horse has overall good soundness, you can then take a look at training issues.

First, make sure you are riding! Use your leg, work hard, make sure the horse is physically fit to be doing what you are asking, and then make sure you are asking appropriately.

People always run for a new bit only to find out that all bit options have been exhausted only because you haven’t been riding the horse well enough to begin with. Ride, work, learn, don’t just take the lazy route and throw a double twisted wire in your horses mouth because he/she is leaning on you.

A harsh bit will never take the place of a good rider. Ride well, bit less.

And no, I’m not a fan of bitless riding.

All in all, if you have a horse with backwards conformation for what you are doing, you just have to work twice as hard to get to where you and your horse need to be to perform well. If you have a horse with a bad attitude, you need to change his/her attitude or get a new horse. Working against conformation is much easier than working against a bad attitude. Undoing bad training, re-training, and not knowing a horse’s history can put you in difficult shoes. With gadgets, remember, less is more and, the whole idea is to have good communication between you and your horse. Listen to him/her and make sure you are always clear in what you are asking of him/her.

In the end, if you had the perfect horse it would be far too easy. Have fun figuring out how to best get the job done you and your horse are out to do. Don’t let some trainer (or tack store employee) tell you solutions are only one magic product away. There’s no buying your way out of bad riding or bad training.

Most times, only sweat will do.