Straight From the Horse's Mouth

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Bits and their effect are among the most talked-about concepts in the horse world—anyone with a barn full of riders has heard endless discussions on what this or that horse should be wearing.

Bitting, by the nature of the mechanical device, combined with the interaction of the rider’s hands and the horse’s ingrained responses, can neither be fully an art nor a science. There are strong elements of both, indeed, but for probably 75 percent of the riders in your barn, the bit they’re using is a choice based on “what’s current” in their sports and gives them brakes without flipping over backwards. Once they’ve achieved stopping ability, there may or may not be infinite iterations to perfect the nuances of their performance. . . lifting a shoulder here, raising the poll there or dropping them into their hocks sooner for a great reining slide.

The dressage riders, working from a strictly prescribed and limited list of snaffles in the lower levels, focus on their half-halts, given that the classic snaffle doesn’t inspire a lot of creativity except for choices in mouthpiece materials and relative weight. Once they achieve the higher levels, the double bridle, bit and bridoon is de rigueur, but to admit that bitting is an issue is often to reduce the importance of one’s basic training, with more focus on seat and leg than hardware.

Eventers and jumper riders can play with a far broader range, even discounting mouthpieces altogether with hackamores becoming more common. The trends in those sports don’t seem to be particularly swiftly changing, though, with the multi-named “bubble” bit seeming to have held on for the last 10 years or so. Listed in catalogs as the European Jumping Gag, Pessoa, 3-ring, 2-ring or Bubble, this gag-actioned snaffle has won a wide range of users, especially since the rein can be adjusted up and down the rings for control options ranging from plain snaffle to far more gag-like, with both the snaffle’s nutcracker action and the upward leverage and poll pressure. If the bit is adjusted too low in the mouth, however, the desired gag action won’t happen, trainers note.

Another big item in the eventing and jumpers tool kit is the familiar old Pelham, used either with or without the double reins. The handy-dandy rein converter strap, once the sole domain of little kids and neophyte adults, has grown up and come out to play in the big leagues. Mike Huber, international event trainer and rider of Gold Chip Farm in Flower Mound, Texas, notes that while a rein converter would seem to reduce the effectiveness of the Pelham down to the one-size-fits-all effect of a Kimberwicke, it’s worthwhile. Pelhams come with a wider choice of mouthpieces and shank lengths, he says, more than you can find in Kimberwickes. “I try to keep the rider using one rein, rather than two,” he adds.

The mouthpiece choices of Pelhams are also a big plus in the winter, he says, when he can take advantage of the rubber and “Happy Mouth” composite materials for a more comfortable horse.

How to choose which bit is better, gag-action, plain snaffle, or curb type? He says it’s a matter of knowing how that horse is going, whether it’s a stopping issue, or changing the way the horse is galloping.

“For just slowing down,” Huber said, he goes to a different mouthpiece or picks up some leverage with a curb chain. “If it’s balance and [the horse] needing to be up more, I go with an elevation bit like a gag, that brings the bit up in the mouth. Some horses get strong and curl up, so you need elevation effect. Already high-headed horses might go better in a Pelham to bring them down a little.”

Huber’s not a fan of the hackamore option for cross country, particularly as he resists the idea of anything that could restrict a horse’s air flow. He’s open to it as a stadium-jumping option, however. Flexibility is the name of the game, though, and a number of top riders, such as Florida’s Ralph Hill, have resorted to the bitless approach for their own horses or those of their clients when either facing a horse with an injury to the mouth, or one that simply has ceased to respond to mouth cues.

Another option is the combination of hackamore and bit, either by simply applying both in a double-bridle type arrangement, or through current products such as the very popular Myler Combination models, or other “hackabit” products more often seen in the Western catalogs. The approach of having both mouth and nose/curb effectiveness can be very useful with a bold horse and prevents a rider from having to be as forceful on the mouth.

John Nunn, owner and founder of the Bit of Britain eventing tack shop, notes that, “One thing that I see is that competitors are realizing that it isn’t always the most severe bit that’s going to help with that tough horse.

“I see the use of two different training devices that work extremely well,” he says, “and those are, first, the lever noseband.What it does is it keeps a horse from being able to lock its jaw, thus this is the mechanism that most riders apply when they want to get tough. You can use just about any kind of bit with this and usually after time you can begin to bit down. Horses don’t usually have a tendency to fight this piece of equipment.

“Second is a Kineton. This piece of equipment has pieces that go under the bit and over the nose and and pressure is put on both the nose and slight poll pressure when you pull back. Effective, but you really can’t use another noseband with this, and if your horse has a tendency to open its mouth, this is less effective,” he said.

Another bit that is seeing more and more use in both the hunter and the jumper ring, according to Beval Saddlery buyer Darci Willman, is a D-ring snaffle with a double-jointed Segundo-style mouthpiece. Looking fairly dramatic on the tack room wall, the bit is designed, in theory, to offer space for the tongue and its rounded edges conform to the upper palate. Used with joints on either side of the center portion, a rider can affect one or both sides of his horse’s mouth, the tongue, palate and either side’s bars. Whether a horse chooses to slide his tongue up into the Segundo’s port or not, there is considerable effect on this part of his mouth.

Both hunters and jumper riders are liking the clean, elegant look of the big D cheekpieces, but the variation of what’s inside the mouth is quite broad. Hunter folks with slightly strong-mouthed horses still stand by the old double-twisted wire, or consider the tongue and palate effects of the Segundo, but the larger majority, according to the Beval buyer, opt for the more subtle bar effects of the corkscrew or slow twists.

On the Western side, particularly in the all-around divisions such as Western Riding, trainer and judge Leslie Lange of Greeley, Colo., works through a full range of bits as she brings her horses along. She and her husband Tom have produced seven world and reserve world champions and numerous congress champions in the quarter horse show ring.

“Depending on age and training, we start with twisted wire snaffles on young horses, first smooth then a partial twist, with a German martingale,” she said. Once they’ve made the transition from snaffles to a jointed snaffle with curb action, she says the popular option is a curb correction bit, such as the Don Hanson Correction bit. With a double joint on the sides of the center port, it is not as heavy as a Segundo, she said, but “it’s got some bite to it, but is a good step up from a shank snaffle.”

Depending on the horse, she sees a lot of other correction bits in the ring these days, such as the double break, where the port is higher and diameter of bars is bigger. Another favorite is a Tom Balding design with a square port, hinged on either side of the port. It has some movement and independence, she said, but will get them to give at poll and wither. “If he comes out with something new, we’re game to try it, since we’ve had good luck with other bits in his line,” she notes.

“I see a lot of throwbacks to heavier bridles with the big ports and elaborate cheekpieces. Elaborate is big now,” she said, in the all-around, western riding, horsemanship and trail classes. It just goes to show that whatever you’ve got in the barn, new or old, is probably worth keeping. “Anything that’s got quality, you hold onto it, even if it’s not right for a horse in the barn right now. Eventually a horse will come in that it’s right for.”