Bits & Pieces
Bits – what does what?
There are hundreds of bits on the market – all offering to achieve wonderful results – but before you rush out and buy yet another new one take a look at what you should be using to tackle different problems.
Bits vary in strength but it’s worth remembering that it’s not the bit that’s severe but the rider’s hands. When young riders are involved it can be hard to find something that not only helps the rider stop, steer and slow down it also looks after the pony!
There are hundreds of bits on the market but really two main types. Curb bits – those with a chain and snaffles – those without.
Curb bits – pelhams and kimblewicks work on the poll, the chin groove and the bars of the mouth (the gums of the lower jaw).
Snaffles work on the corners of the mouth, the tongue and the poll.
The words severe and strong are often used in connection with curb bits but a rubber snaffle can be 100 times more severe than a pelham if you have to tug on it continuously. If you’re subtle and careful you may only squeeze on a pelham once. Put yourself in your horse’s position. Which would you prefer?
‘Strength’ simply refers to the speed and affect a bit might have on your horse’s mouth. As a general rule the more places a bit can affect (its actions) the stronger it is. It’s a guideline that you can use when choosing a bit but every horse is different. Your horse may respond well to something another horse would resist.
The most important thing about a bit is that your horse is comfortable with it. If he’s settled and not worrying about it you’ll have his complete attention. Imagine having something in your mouth that’s bothering you and then being asked to concentrate? You’d find it difficult too!
The thickness of the mouthpiece alters a bit’s action. As a general rule the thinner it is the sharper it is. BUT the shape of a horse’s mouth can change things. If the roof of his mouth is low and flat or the distance between his front and back teeth is small then he’s likely to find a fatter mouth piece more uncomfortable than a thinner one.
The number of joints makes a difference. Some horses go better if the bit stays still in their mouths – others prefer something more mobile. The more joints you have the more the bit can move. If your horse is always playing with his bit then opt for a single joint or even a straight bar. If he grabs hold of it or his mouth is always dry try something more mobile like a French link (double jointed) orWaterford(multi-jointed)
Rollers on mouth pieces can help your horse to relax because he has something to play with in his mouth. Thick rollers (like cherry roller bits) stop horses leaning – the minute they try to get hold of the bit the rollers spin. Some bits have a single cylindrical joint in the centre. This encourages horses to move it with their tongue. That small movement can be enough to stop them tightening their jaw.
Bits can be severe when square edges, rollers that spin from side to side or twisted mouthpieces are used. These should be used with caution as they sit directly on the horse’s tongue and in the wrong hands will do much more harm than good. Try alternatives before you opt for one of these.
The bit rings are more important than you think. The closer your rein is to the mouthpiece the faster the affect. Bits with a long shank (side) to them with a rein attachment at the bottom (e.g. American and Dutch gags) may work well on the poll but you’ll find them less effective for steering or subtlety. The smaller the bit ring the quicker the effect on the horse’s mouth like the bridoon (snaffle) part of a double bridle.
Rings vary. Eggbutt and D rings are fixed onto the mouthpiece. This gives your horse a solid, static feeling in his mouth. A horse that plays with his bit or doesn’t settle into a contact will often relax more easily in one of these.
Loose rings have the opposite effect. The ring is fitted through the mouth piece allowing it to slide if your horse decides to lean or tries to get hold of it. This can make a simple snaffle far more effective.
Cheeks help steering – as do D rings and rubber/leather bit guards to some degree. They also stop the bit sliding through a horse’s mouth – very useful when young riders are trying to steer. (A fulmer snaffle is a loose ring version of a snaffle with cheeks.) Remember if you do use one of these that your legs and body are far more important. Turning a horse’s head doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the horse will follow! You can use a variety of snaffles with cheeks and D rings under British Dressage Rules* but you can’t use any form of rubber/ leather/brush bit guard.
Different metals and plastics are also used. All riders have to start somewhere and a rubber mouth piece will be more comfortable for the horse while its rider finds his/her balance and co-ordination. Some horses prefer the taste of rubber or plastic to metal but all horses are different. Others go well in copper, sweet iron, nickel or stainless steel. Plastic and rubber mouthpieces are softer for your horse than metal but keep an eye on them for chewed, sharp edges that may cause problems.
Not Strictly Dressage – but useful brakes!
Whilst not allowed in dressage curb bits can be really useful for hacking, jumping or cross country. The poll pressure they give helps to lower a horse’s head. The pressure on the bars of the mouth pushes the lower jaw back towards his body. Some horses will accept the pressure from a curb chain without any trouble but others find it too restrictive. There are many snaffles on the market that will give you poll pressure without the curb chain.
Three ring gags/bubble bits/Dutch gags are the most common of the snaffles with poll pressure. They work on the poll, the tongue and the corners of the mouth and, because they’re loose ringed, are ideal for horses that lean or put their heads down. The lower the ring the greater the poll pressure but when one rein is used on the lowest ring steering is less effective. Leather roundings can be used to connect the top and bottom ring to one rein but this does lessen the poll pressure. Using two reins gives you the greatest effect – the top rein gives you accuracy and the bottom greater control.
If you find riding with two reins difficult or you’re having trouble with steering in a Dutch gag try a hanging snaffle. It gives you poll pressure and with the single bit ring means your rein aids are quicker and more effective. Another huge plus is that you can use it under British Dressage Rules*!
Pelhams and kimblewicks are very effective on strong horses. A pelham ridden with two reins is one step nearer to using a double bridle. The longer the shank (side) the stronger the pressure on the chin groove and poll and the more difference there is between the snaffle and curb rein. Many horses accept a pelham used in this way far more easily than they’ll accept the two bits of a double bridle. There is also less room for rider error. Although pelhams can be ridden with one rein attached to a leather rounding (joining top and bottom rings together) kimblewicks are a good alternative as they have a single ring. The poll pressure isn’t as strong as a pelham but they can be very effective for ponies – and easier for their young riders.
The effect from a curb bit is stronger (but not necessarily better) if it has a straight bar mouth piece. The bit sits down on the bars (gums) of your horse’s mouth and when you apply pressure the shanks (sides) rotate, putting pressure onto the back of your horse’s chin via the curb chain and on the top of his head (his poll) via the cheek pieces. When the mouth piece is jointed the effect is lessened as the bit works up into the corners of his mouth first, easing the pressure on the chin groove and poll.
Because of the curb chain and its position in the chin groove only a cavesson noseband should be used with a curb bit. To soften the effect of the curb chain a rubber cover can be used. (These also prevent rubbing)
Bits and Schooling
Ideally when you’re schooling use the kindest, mildest bit you can. Schooling is all about acceptance of your aids. Your horse needs to learn to trust your hands and your contact. He’ll find it easier if you use a mild snaffle – French links, fulmers or eggbutt/loose ring jointed snaffles are ideal.
Evasions and resistance come in many forms. Rather than use a stronger bit look at yourself and your position – especially your hands – first.
Before you resort to a new bit have a look at your horse’s noseband. If you ride in a plain cavesson make sure it’s fitted a finger’s width below the cheek bone. Do it up tightly so you can just get a finger between the front of your horse’s face and the noseband. This will stop your horse opening his mouth and avoiding your aids.
Flash nosebands are a wise investment. You can always remove the drop section but try schooling with it to start with. Fit it well and you’ll find you have far more control of your horse. Make sure the top strap sits just below the cheek bone and that it is done up tightly enough so it runs straight around your horse’s face – it doesn’t fall down over his nostrils. Then do up the drop strap tight enough that you can slide one finger beneath it.
A drop noseband should be fitted above the soft parts of your horse’s nose. The sides should drop down and fit snugly beneath your bit.
If you’re struggling to control your horse because he lifts his head up too high try schooling in a standing martingale. This must only attach to a cavesson noseband (or the top of a flash) never a drop. These are useful martingales as they don’t interfere with your reins like a running martingale or draw reins.
There’s another article (including a few case studies) at horseandponyinfo.com Check it out here – http://horseandponyinfo.com/id165.html
Remember Why You’re Schooling!
Schooling it’s all about pushing your horse forward to a steady, relaxed contact. It’s not about pulling his head in. Pulling back on a stronger bit with your hands or draw reins won’t get his hocks working or his back relaxed. A horse will go ‘on the bit’ if you push him to it – pull back and he’ll come straight off it!
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.
Show Day Rules
Whether it’s dressage or eventing, Pony Club or Riding Club you’ll often read ‘under British Dressage Rules’. If you’re not sure exactly what they are find them here –
*British Dressage Rules on equipment for horse and rider – http://www.britishdressage.co.uk/uploads/File/Equipment%20and%20Dress%20Rules.pdf
FAQ at http://haynet.co.uk
As the Anything Equine Agony Aunt at hay-net I get asked questions on every subject imaginable! Here are a few answers I’ve given on bits, schooling and strong ponies and the subsequent conversations. Hay-Net is an online blogging site. It’s a friendly site and members are very supportive and helpful. If you like ‘tack room chat’ without the bitching it’s a great place to go.