Ten Common Bit Myths
- Myth #1: There is no such thing as a harsh bit, but only harsh hands.
- Myth #2: Any bit can be severe in the wrong hands.
- Myth #3: Bits with broken mouthpieces are snaffle bits.
- Myth #4: Snaffle bits are inherently milder than curb bits.
- Myth #5: All long shank bits are inhumane, unforgiving, and severe.
- Myth #6: A horse that is difficult to stop requires a more severe bit.
- Myth #7: Bits with solid mouthpieces can be used for direct reining.
- Myth #8: Tom Thumb bits are very mild.
- Myth #9: Wonder bits are useful, effective tools for gaited horses.
- Myth #10: Bitless bridles and hackamores are more humane that bits.
Isn’t it amazing how many inaccurate ‘facts’ there are regarding the subject of bitting a horse? There are certainly bits that are harsh regardless of how tactful the rider may be, and other bits that are very forgiving, even in insensitive hands. Snaffle bits work directly from the rider’s seat and hands to the horse’s mouth. Therefore, if a rider has anything less than perfect balance and timing, the horse is likely to experience a continual ‘snatching’ on his sensitive mouth. Some curb (shanked) bits are much more humane than snaffle (non-shank) bits. A bit that has the proper ratio of purchase to shank and a well designed mouthpiece (such as the 2nd Generation Imus Comfort Gait Bit) can be an effective, humane communication device even in less educated hands. I’ll explain exactly why this is true later on in this article.
A horse that is difficult to stop needs to be retrained to give to lighter and lighter rein pressure. Increasing the severity of the bit only increases the horse’s ability to resist its rider’s aids, and ultimately exacerbates the problem.
Bits with one piece, solid mouthpieces should never be used for direct reining, lateral work, or one rein stops. At best, the horse is just being yanked around by his mouth. At worst, he’s developing a strong insensitivity to his rider’s rein. I can never figure out why bit designers would produce loose cheeked, shanked bits with solid mouthpieces. They give the rider the illusion that he can work effectively off one rein, but the solid mouthpiece makes that impossible, and only confuses the horse.
The jointed, loose cheeks combined with the solid mouthpiece give conflicting signals to the horse when the rider works from one rein. The high port on this bit raises to hit the horse's palate, causing it to overflex to avoid discomfort, and the hinges at the joining of the shanks are likely to cause pinching and chafing.
So called Tom Thumb bits – or any bit with a broken mouthpiece and shanks – are extraordinarily severe, no matter how good the rider’s hands may be. The slightest take on the reins causes the mouthpiece to suddenly collapse across the horse’s tongue and bars, the joint in the middle rises to hit the upper palate, and the curb chain tightens up to place the horse’s entire lower jaw in a vice-like grip. There’s no way that such a device can be used tactfully. Many horses ‘work well’ out of these broken mouth curbs (all bits with shanks are curb bits, regardless of the style of the mouthpiece). This is simply because they respond quickly in order to have as little contact with the bit as possible. Many riders confuse fast, obedient responses with willing cooperation. There’s a vast difference between the two.
This Tom Thumb bit is not a 'snaffle,' as it has shanks. The leverage from the shanks/curb chain, combined with the jointed mouthpiece, causes this type of bit to exert a 'nutcracker' like effect on the horse's tongue, bars, and jaw. The longer the shanks, the more severe the effect.
So called Wonder (or gag) bits also work from the principle of pain avoidance. There is no communication at the horse’s poll to warn of an upcoming request at the mouth. Instead, the mouthpiece is pulled harder and harder across the tongue and at the corner of the horse’s lips. To avoid the pain of this contact, the horse will overflex and tuck, creating a ‘collected’ look. Failing to do so results in a sudden jerk on the horse’s mouth once the gag has been fully engaged – so most horses quickly learn either to overflex, or to become star gazers in an attempt to avoid contact. Besides the immediate pain inflicted by a gag bit, there are negative long term effects as well. True collection originates through the loins and back, and allows the horse to move in a way that is healthy and well balanced. Encouraging false collection is highly detrimental to the horse’s long term soundness, often resulting in hollow backs and hock and stifle issues.
The Wonder Bit's mouthpiece slides up high in the horse's mouth (having a 'gag' action), which encourages over-flexing.
The snaffle bit on the right, below, has a thick mouthpiece, which would make it quite mild. The large joint in the center, however, makes pinching likely - and there will also be pinching where the O-Ring is connected at the cheeks. The thin, twisted wire mouthpiece on the bit on the right will abrade the tongue (some trainers call it 'sensitizing' the tongue). The will cause the horse to respond very quickly in order to avoid pain. Effective? Yes. Humane? Not in my opinion!
While the idea of riding without a bit might seem ideal, hackamores and bitless bridles also work from pain avoidance. Don’t believe it? Take your index finger and push hard on the cartilage at the side of your nose, and hold it there for five seconds. Repeat this a dozen times over the next hour. Wait an hour or so, and do this again. It’s remarkable how sore that cartilage becomes when pressure is applied! The cartilage on the horse’s face is equally sensitive, and the pressure of a hackamore or bitless bridle against that soft tissue creates swelling and tenderness that the horse avoids. . .by responding quickly to a rider’s cues.
I greatly prefer a well designed curb bit, for a mature horse, over a snaffle. Such a bit offers the rider the opportunity for logical and consecutive communication not available via a snaffle. When you pull on the rein of a curb bit, because of the shanks, there’s slight pressure at the poll that notifies the horse of an impending request, while at the same time encouraging him to lower his head. If you place light downward pressure at the back and top of someone’s head, you’ll see that it takes very little for them to lower their head. This lowering of the head serves to a) relax the horse and b) prepare the animal physically for the next step of the request.
After the poll pressure, the action of the curb strap or chain comes into play. This should be adjusted so there’s approximately 3” between the chin groove and the curb chain when the reins are at rest. That way, there is a beat of time between when the horse is notified at the poll and lowers its head, and when the curb chain takes at the chin groove, encouraging the horse to flex at the poll and tuck its head.
If you lower your head, and then tuck your chin, you’ll notice that this action stretches and relaxes your upper back and neck. It is the physical equivalent of a horse raising its back – which is what happens when the horse first lowers its head, and then flexes at the poll to tuck its chin. You have the very early stages of true collection, and haven’t even touched the horse’s mouth yet!
Finally, the mouthpiece takes hold and signals your specific request, whether it be to halt, turn, rein back, half halt, etc. The beauty of this is that the horse has been mentally and physically prepared for this request in a logical 1-2-3 (lower, tuck, take) manner. Of course, the problem is that many bits on the market are not designed in such a way to permit this kind of logical, sequential communication.
So what constitutes a good, effective and pain free bit design? Glad you asked!
When considering a curb bit, one important feature is the ratio of the purchase (upper shank above the mouthpiece) to the lower shank. This should be approximately two-to-one. If the purchase is much shorter than this, then there’s no early communication at the poll, and the horse is simply grabbed at the chin and in the mouth at approximately the same time. This can result in a high-headed, false collection with little lateral flexion through the body. This is often the way Tennessee Walking Horses are trained- for a high 'headset,' with their noses tucked toward their chests.
A typical Walking Horse bit has a very short purchase in relation to the shank. Therefore there is little notification at the poll before the curb chain and mouthpiece takes hold. The horse's head is still quite high, with lots of 'tuck.' This is false collection.
On the other hand, if the purchase is too long in relation to the length of the lower shank, then there’s an exaggerated request at the poll, and all of the actions take hold all at one time. You are likely to get overflexing with this kind of bit.
Bits with broken mouthpieces and 50/50 ratio of the purchase to the lower shank are called 'Argentine Snaffles.' They are not truly snaffles, as they work off leverage from the shanks. The exaggerated length of the purchase does not give the horse a chance to lower it's head before the mouthpiece takes hold. This makes for a jerking sensation when the rider takes on the reins.
The mouthpiece should be smooth, and reasonably thick. A thinner mouthpiece has a cutting action on the soft tissues. Ideally, there is a center joint so that the rider can work the horse laterally, or on one rein. That joint needs to be pinch free – no small task, but it can be done. Hold the bit over the soft tissue of your lower arm and take on the shanks to see if there’s the potential for pinching. Ideally, there is no potential for pinching or chaffing at the corner of the horse’s lips, either.
I like to see a mouthpiece with lots of tongue relief, since horses have very thick tongues. If the tongue is trapped by a straight mouthpiece, it’s impossible for the animal to swallow. I get a kick out of how impressed some people are when a horse exhibits a foamy mouth. Sure we want to have a moist mouth, but it’s not necessary for the poor animal to slobber all the way down the trail! This is a result of the tongue being trapped by a straight mouthed bit.
Below is a photo of the 2nd Generation Imus Comfort Gait Bit. Because the ratio of the purchase to the lower shank is 2 to 1, it has the following action when the rider takes on the reins:
- The horse feels slight pressure on the poll. This signals that a request is about to be made, gets his attention, and causes him to lower his head.
- The curb strap (always adjusted so there's a 3" gap between the curb strap/chain and chin groove, when the reins are slack), takes hold under the chin. This causes the horse to flex at the poll, and tuck its nose.
- The mouthpiece takes hold, asking the horse for a turn, stop, half-halt - etc.
So the horse has a logical, 3-part sequence of communication: lower the head, tuck the chin, take on the mouthpiece. There is plenty of time for the horse to understand and respond before any leverage is applied to his mouth - and the result is a very soft, giving horse who is unafraid of his rider's hands.
In addition to those features, the mouthpiece is designed to extend beyond the horse’s lips. This allows it to fit a very wide variety of horses, avoids pinching the corners of the lips, and gives a swivel action on the tongue and bars that encourages the horse to lower its head and bend softly into a turn. Since horses instinctively resist direct pressure, this indirect pressure is effective at eliciting a relaxed response.
The 2nd Generation Imus Comfort™ Bit boasts a mouthpiece that offers plenty of tongue relief for the horse, encouraging him to drop his head into the bit, rather than stiffening up against it. It boasts flush brass fittings in the pinchless mouthpiece, and smooth, independent action from side to side. This allows the rider to work the horse laterally, as well as lift a shoulder or use a leading rein. The stainless steel roller ball in the center helps to keep the horse focused, and copper strips under the mouthpiece encourage a nice, wet mouth.
The 2nd Generation Imus Training/Transition Bit™ is actually two bits in one. A young horse can be started with the reins in the center, snaffle ring position for easy-to-understand, direct reining cues. Once he is able to balance a rider easily over various terrain, and responds well to all basic riding cues - stop, turn, rein-back, give to leg pressure - then the rider adds a curb strap and moves the reins to the lower rings for a very mild curb action. This will help the horse to learn the beginning aspects of collection, and giving at the poll. Because the mouthpiece is nearly identical to the 2nd Generation Imus Comfort Gait Bit™, it is very easy to transition the horse up to that bit once he is ready for more advanced gait work. The copper mouthpiece helps to keep nervous young horses mouths soft and wet - and gives him something to distract himself with, should he become uptight or excited. (It acts somewhat like a pacifier.)