My father has built me one of the coolest tack rooms around, and when I am showing it off to someone new the first thing that they say is “Man you have got a lot of bits”. This may not sound odd to you, but it is because they notice this first before they notice that my tack room. It also has a full sized old time western bar in it! Not to mention the beaded wood ceiling and sky light along with the whole thing done in old barn wood. Thanks Dad!!
I have to admit that I am somewhat bit crazy. I just love bits and understanding all of their functions. I probably will not be happy until I have at least a couple hundred bits. So I decided to share a bit of my bit knowledge and their functions. Where better to start than with what I use to start colts.
Typically I will start horses out in their first week or so in the bosal, hackemore, or just a halter and lead rope. This allows me to give them their first ride with little or no pull from me. I will continue on with a halter or bosal for a couple of weeks or until I feel like they are ready for a snaffle bit. I usually make this decision when the colt feels like he is comfortable with me being on his back.
What snaffle bit to use? There are a ton of different snaffle bits out there and all work the same basic way, which is to teach lateral movement to your horse. In my opinion the kind of mouth piece that the snaffle bit has is for the horse and the kind of rings or attachment points are for the rider. What I mean by this is that you can get a snaffle bit that has regulation mouth piece, or one that has a twisted wire, textured, copper inlaid, hinged in the middle to create leverage. All of which come in contact with the mouth and effect the horse and his feel in the mouth. Regulation snaffle is a broken mouth piece being a minimum of 3/8 inch in diameter from the corners, with a gradual taper ending in no less than 5/32 of an inch at the middle of the bit. So, all the twisted wire or textured snaffle does, when used properly is create more feel in the mouth and a faster response for a quicker understanding. This is all based on the fact that a bit is only as harsh as the hands that use it.
The other part to the snaffle is the rings and they come in several different designs which are in my opinion for the rider. You can get O ring, D ring, gag type, and about a hundred different others. For me I prefer the D ring that has a bearing or type of hinge that is made out of stainless steel. I prefer the stainless steel because it lasts longer and does not corrode. The D ring gives me a flatter and more direct pressure to the bars when being used. More so than the O ring. I have also had some O rings that pinched the lip after being used for some time. Also a common mistake that I see being made when using a snaffle is the chin strap. This should be attached below the reins, if attached above the reins it gives leverage against the chin but not an effective leverage. More often it just confuses the young horse.
The snaffle bit in my opinion is one of the more important bits. It is just as important as the condition of the horses mouth. It is extremely important to have your horse’s teeth floated properly, without a comfortable mouth no bit will be comfortable. It is especially important during the young years when the horses mouth is changing so much. A good rule of thumb is to have your horses teeth looked at every 6 months.
I have a new widget that is going to turn the horse world on it’s ear. This is a tool you can use to train your horse to do anything in any event. This new tool has to be used in conjunction with a part of you anatomy that some people let lie dormant and is not exercised enough. Want to know what it is and how much it costs? The tool is knowledge and education and the part of the anatomy is your brain. What does it cost? Time and consistency.
One very useful place to get education and knowledge is clinics, demonstrations, and private lessons from accomplished trainers. Don’t shy away from going to a clinic or lesson from someone if you think that your horse is not ready, or is not at that level yet. How else are you going to get to the level of riding that you want to achieve if you do not know where it is that you are going. Sometimes clinics may not be as educational as you would like, or has a method that you do not agree with. But, you are still being educated as to what not to do. This is the same way that good trainers become great trainers. I feel that I am a fairly knowledgeable trainer. But, I did not get here by sticking to myself. I continue to learn from other trainers and work hard to increase my knowledge and skills. The only kind of trainer that I will not go to for knowledge, or attend one of their clinics, is the one that says his way is the only way. Why? Because it means that he has stopped learning himself.
Another great place to expand your knowledge base is a competition of the event that you are wanting to compete in. This is a good place for you to again, see where it is that you are going. This does not mean that you should limit it to a local event but, take a vacation and go to a national level or world competition. Where else are you going to get to see the level of competition at its best, than a high level competition. It is a place where the arena is exactly right, and the horses and riders are prepared to their best. This is a great way to see where it is that you are going.
It is extremely important that your quest for knowledge include education about the tack and tools that you use. Let’s take a look at a couple of the tools that we as horseman use. Some in our everyday work and some that we use on occasion to help us get through a sticky spot. It is important that you not only learn how they work, but how to use them in a way that does not cause you to rely on them as a crutch. The first tool that I will talk about is the martingale.
The most important part of a martingale is that it is adjusted correctly. Make sure the rings that the reins run through are long enough. When the horse’s head is relaxed and the neck level, the rings should be adjusted long enough to reach the throat latch. If they are shorter, then you are limiting the amount of lateral or side to side work on your horse. Having it shorter helps you to keep your horses head down, but it is being used as a crutch. A good way to see if it is being used as a crutch is to take it off. If your horses head goes up when you pull, then you have over used or improperly used your martingale. The thing to remember is that the horse learns from the relief of pressure. Make sure that when your horse gives to the pressure of your reins, and the downward pressure of the rings on the martingale, you give relief by giving more reins.
If you have any questions or would like for me to address a particular piece of tack in the next article feel free to email with your suggestion or question.
The last article that I wrote took us to the use of the snaffle bit. So it only seems fitting that we continue with bits and take you into the shank bits or the bridle. I think the best place to start with this is the first bit that I use when transitioning a horse into the bridle. That bit would be a short shank snaffle bit, like a Tom Thumb style bit. I actually do not like using the Tom Thumb bit. They just do not feel right to me in my hands and I think they are an ugly. I have two short shank snaffles; one is custom made and the other I can’t remember when or where I got it. The short shank snaffle has a shank that is around 4 to 5 inches from the snaffle part that goes in the mouth to the ring or hole where the reins attach. This gives you plenty of leverage to start with but not to much for the young horse. One thing to be mindful of when purchasing any of the shank bits is the distance from the mouth piece to the hole or ring where the headstal and curb chain attach. The more distance between the two the more leverage that you create on the curb chain. By the way, even if you have a separate hole to attach the curb chain to on the bit you should still attach it in the same hole where the headstal is attached. Also, when attaching a curb chain make sure that it is not twisted or kinked. This will create more bite and is also illegal when showing. The chain should lay flat against the chin of the horse, and you should be able to put 3 fingers in between the chain and chin when the bit is relaxed in his mouth. Also, if you do not use a curb chain you have no leverage, which defeats the purpose of having a leverage bit. The shank snaffle works the same as the o-ring snaffle but now with leverage.
Once I have introduced the horse to a short shank snaffle, I will advance to a knuckle bit, or hinged bit. This bit is made very similar to the snaffle in the mouth piece, but the connection in the middle of the mouth piece is a hinge that only allows the for movement forward and backward. I use this bit because it has the same feel to the horse as the snaffle. However, it has less movement which slows the horses movement down from side to side. Slowing down the movement helps me teach the horse to stay between the reins better. If the horse is doing all that I want for it to do and can do it well in this bit, I will leave them in this bit. I do not advance to anything more.
I have some other favorite bits that I use quite often. The one that I use the most is the correction bit. This is a good bit to transition into from the knuckle or hinged bit. The correction bit, like the snaffle, hinged, and knuckle bit, works on the bars or corners of the mouth, but also introduces a port. The ports in the correction bit come in several different sizes. The one that I like the most is the low port correction which is also one of the hardest to find. Another of my favorites is the medium port grazer type bit. The one in particular has a wide opening at the bottom of the bit. This one is used primarily for a horse that has an injured tongue, but I use it for a narrow jawed horse which gives him some tongue relief. The grazer type bit is also great for the older horse that looses some of his flexibility. I also use this bit to finish horses because, it has none or next to no movement. This allows me to really get a horse to level out and stay straight between my reins throughout his whole body.
Now we have hit a couple of the bits that I use on a day to day basis. However, there are a ton more out there. But, the most important part to the bit, in my opinion, is the hands that use them. No bit out there is going to fix everything and if not used properly it will not fix anything. It is also important to remember the quality of the bit that you are using is extremely important. You have to understand that a horses mouth is very sensitive. If the bit that you are using is not quality made and smooth then it will not be accepted well by the horse, no matter how good the bit looks to you.