We had a request from a person to do an article about bits. This is a big topic and one that I feel very passionate about. So much so, that I am working with a bit maker to make a line of bits, based on my experience and seeing what works with training horses.
There are a maximum of seven different pressure points on a bridle. They are the bars of the mouth, each corner of the mouth, the tongue, the roof of the mouth, the chin groove, over the nose, and the poll. Different bits engage some or all of these pressure points. Take a look at your bridle and think about what pressure points your horse feels.
There are as many types of bit as there are opinions on bits! I am going to talk about two types of bits: snaffle bits and shank bits. Let’s begin with the snaffle bit. A snaffle bit, when used properly, is the least severe bit. The snaffle has either an O ring, egg-butt or D ring check piece and never has a shank or any means of leverage. There are many different types and diameters of mouth pieces. According to most breed associations, the mouth piece must have a minimum diameter of 5/16” or 8 mm in the area that is an inch from the ring. If your mouth piece has a smaller diameter than that and you want to show with it, check your association guidelines. The mouth piece of a snaffle can be jointed in one or two places (as in the case of the ‘dog bone’ snaffle). Regardless of the mouth piece, the center of it must lie flat on the tongue.
There are is a very large variety of snaffle mouth pieces, some are legal in the show ring and many are not. I prefer to use a smooth snaffle when starting a colt in a bit. Always use a leather chin strap on a snaffle bit, positioned in front of the reins. The purpose is not for leverage but to keep the bit from pulling through the horse’s mouth.
A snaffle bit is not a pulling bit. It is meant to be used by working the bit laterally, sliding across the bars of the horse’s mouth. Pulling on this bit will only encourage your horse to pull back. You never hang on a snaffle, you simply work is laterally by working your fingers. When you feel you horse give even the slightest, you reward them my releasing the pressure (hence I’m always hollering “Let Go!”). The great thing about a snaffle bit, you can give instant relief from pressure. For this reason, it is my number one training tool. I use it, along with my leg pressure and position of my body to teach a horse to bend and give all parts of their body.
A shank bit in one with shank side pieces that extend down below the mouth piece. When rein pressure is applied, it engages several of the pressure points mentioned above. There are a huge variety of mouth pieces and styles of shanks, each with their own purpose. The shank on the bit, to be legal in most stock horse breed associations, can be no longer than 8.5 inches (from the top of the top ring to the middle of the bottom ring on the shank where the rein attaches). In other breeds such as gaited breeds, a longer shank is permissible. The bit diameter requirements are the same at those for the snaffle. The mouth piece of the shank can be jointed in one or two places or is can be a solid piece. The amount and variety of the mouth pieces is amazing, with ports (that curved middle piece), spoons, frogs, mullen mouth, A frames, spades, half breeds and mouth pieces that have rollers, crickets, just to name a few. Most mouth pieces are sweet iron, sometimes with copper inlays, which encourages the horse to salivate and keep a moist mouth. The position of the mouthpiece on the shank dictates how much leverage the bit will create. The more space on the shank piece that is above the mouth piece, the more leverage the bit will have.
As I said, I always start a horse in an O or D ring snaffle. I may move to a large twist on my mouth piece if I need to create more friction on the tongue. When I get an older horse in for training that is having trouble giving to the bit, I treat them like a colt and start at the beginning with a snaffle bit. When I have the horse giving well to pressure, I move them to a shank bit, usually one with a jointed mouth piece. With most stock breed associations, a horse that is 6 years or older is expected to be trained enough to be shown in a shank bit.
A snaffle bit is a training device to teach a horse to give to the bit. The most complex of shank bits, say a spade bit, is used only as a signal bit, with the movement of the riders hand barely perceivable. To me, a horse graduates to a bit based on the accomplishments during their training. The most severe bits are only severe if the rider and horse are not properly trained to use them. Look at it this way, a gun is deadly only when used with deadly force. A bit is only as severe as the hands that are applying the pressure.
So much can be written on bits, that it is the subject of entire books. We are thankful that the Horsemen’s Corral gives us this column space, but we are pretty sure they don’t want me to take up the entire issue, talking about bits. But if you only remember one thing from this article, if you are having problems, more bit is not the solution. Problems are resolved by training and learning, not by force.
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Terry Myers is a national clinician and champion horse trainer with a depth of knowledge developed from over 45 years in the horse industry. Myers has been a popular clinician at multiple expos in the U.S. and Canada. To learn more about Myers’ Ride-In-Sync methods as well as clinic and training services available, visit Myers at www.tmtrainingcenter.com or on Facebook.