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Bits and bitless bridles – How they work and proper use

December 2, 2012

There are so many different bits out there that it can be quite difficult to decide which bit is best for you and your horse. Bits come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and composition materials, but basically there are only two categories of bits that go in the horse’s mouth: snaffle bits and shank bits – also called leverage bits or curb bits. There are also bitless bridles that work on external pressure points.

I hope that after reading this blog you can make an educated choice on which bit (or bitless bridle) to use based on facts rather than just guessing or doing what everyone else does without understanding why.

How do bits work

Bits work by putting pressure inside the horse’s sensitive mouth. The bit sits on the bars, a space between the incisors and molars, which are made of sensitive cartilage and have a lot of nerve endings. Bits may also apply pressure to the horse’s tongue, the corners of the mouth, and the roof of the mouth. On top of bits putting pressure on various parts in the horse’s mouth, the bridle itself may create additional pressure on the horse’s poll, on the cheeks, chin or nose.

The idea is that by moving away from the discomfort of the pressure, the horse moves in the direction the rider wants to go. However, with this being said, the purpose of the bit is NOT to pull your horse into the direction of where you want to go – that’s what your seat and legs are for – but rather to block unwanted movement. So basically your right rein should tell your horse not to look left or turn left, whereas your left rein should tell your horse not to look right or turn right. We need to learn to ride our horses from back to front using our seat and legs to direct the horse. Hands should only be receiving the energy created with our seat and legs and blocking unwanted movement, never pulling for direction. Pulling is backwards and causes pain, stress and even fear. We just need to look at the horse to see how he feels about it – high head, open mouth, ears back, swishing tail, head tossing, rooting down. All these signs are a horse saying that he feels stress and pain. Bits should never cause pain, only pressure.

Composition materials

Bits can be made of various materials, or even a combination of materials. The majority of bits nowadays are made of stainless steel because they are strong, easy to clean, don’t rust and will last a long time.

Nickel plated bits are less expensive than stainless steel, but over time the nickel coating may peel and flake off, exposing the material beneath, which can then rust. Some horses also have an allergic reaction to nickel.

Bits can also be made of copper, either the entire bit, or just the mouthpiece. Copper is thought to encourage salivation. However, copper is softer than stainless steel and therefore wears more quickly. Some bits have small amounts of other metals mixed in to counteract that. The most common copper alloys are brass alloy, which is a combination of copper with zinc. Another common brass alloy used in bits is Aurigan, a patented alloy of copper, zinc and silicon. Another, less expensive version, is an alloy of copper, zinc, and silicon with nickel or aluminum. Copper can also corrode, which is toxic to horses.

Sweet iron is either cold-rolled carbon steel (“mild steel”) or black iron and copper. Sweet iron bits are inexpensive and strong. They look rusty after a while and it is believed that the oxidization makes the bit taste sweet to the horse and increases salivation. Sweet iron is mostly used for Western bits.

Another metal sometimes used in bits is aluminum, which is lightweight, easy to maintain and inexpensive, however, it has a drying effect on the horse’s mouth, which may cause discomfort for the horse. Horses also often dislike the taste of aluminum. It may also be toxic.

There are also bits made of stainless steel coated or inlaid with copper, or made of a combination of copper and steel rollers. These bits are designed to encourage the horse to salivate.

Rubber and hard plastics are used to encase a thin core of metal and are generally thicker bits. Some horses seem to like the softer feel of a rubber or plastic mouthpiece, while for others those types of bits may be too much of a mouthful due to their thickness. Rubber bits may also cause rubbing in your horse’s mouth, especially if the horse doesn’t produce a lot of saliva. Older plastic or rubber bits sometimes give off a funny smell. Many plastic bits are made with a scent thought to encourage the horse to accept the bit more readily. However, this may encourage some horses to chew the bit and not carry the bit quietly. Both rubber and plastic mouthed bits wear over time, leaving rough spots, cracks or exposing the metal core. It is important to check any bit you use periodically for cracks, wear or rough spots.

Not very common are bits made of leather, however, they are kinder to the horse’s mouth than rubber or metal bits, and are especially useful for horses that are particularly sensitive or even those with allergies to metal. Leather bits do not wear out any quicker than other types of bits, even though it is one of the softest materials you can use in a bit. Overtime, the leather will shape itself to the horse’s mouth. The leather also helps the horse to mouth the bit and encourages salivation. Leather bits are a great choice for starting young horses.

Bits made of silver aren’t as common as most other materials as they are quite expensive to make.

Solid or jointed mouthpiece

Both snaffle bits and curb bits can have a jointed mouthpiece or a solid mouthpiece. Just because a bit has a joint doesn’t necessarily mean it is a snaffle bit. What makes a bit a snaffle bit is that the reins connect directly in line with the mouthpiece and there is no leverage action to multiply the rein effect.

Thickness, shape and size/length of the bit

Horses have a variety of differently shaped mouths, so that needs to be taken into consideration when choosing a bit.

Thickness

The thinner the mouthpiece, the more severe the bit will be, as it concentrates the pressure on the tongue and bars. A wider mouthpiece covers a larger contact area and therefore distributes the pressure. However, you will also need to consider the size of your horse’s mouth. Some horses, because they have a small mouth, a low palate or a large tongue, may find very thick bits uncomfortable to carry. Rubber snaffles as well as some eggbutt snaffles are often too thick for horses with a small mouth.

Western snaffle bits are narrower and generally have larger rings than English snaffle bits. The smaller the ring, the more direct is the pressure from the rein to the bit.

Shape

Another thing to consider is the shape of the mouthpiece. Jointed bits will put more pressure on the bars. Bits with a straight solid mouthpiece put more pressure on the tongue. Bits with a solid mouthpiece that is slightly curved, such as a mullen bit, allows more room for the horse’s tongue, however, it tends to put more pressure on the horse’s bars.

Size/length

The mouthpiece needs to be long enough to fit in the horse’s mouth without pinching the corners, but also not too long so that it moves back and forth. In general, the mouthpiece extends approximately a quarter inch beyond the horse’s lips on either side.

Headstall adjustment

The headstall should be adjusted so that the snaffle hangs comfortably in the horse’s mouth. Too loose, and it will bump the horse’s teeth. Too tight, and it will apply uncomfortable pressure against the corners of the mouth and may touch the horse’s molars. Generally if the snaffle pulls one to two mild wrinkles back against the corner of the mouth, the snaffle is in a comfortable position. Take a look inside your horse’s mouth by lifting the lips and check where the bit is sitting on the bars. Adjust the bridle so the bit sits balanced on both sides and sits comfortably in the centre of the bars.

Curb bits are generally placed lower down in a horse’s mouth than snaffle bits, just touching the corners of the mouth or creating a single slight wrinkle. The lower the bit is placed, the more severe it is as the bars of the mouth get thinner and so pressure is more concentrated.

The importance of salivation

We want our horses to gently chew on or mouth the bit; this is why a lot of the older style curb bits had rollers. Chewing produces saliva, which originates in the salivary gland. Chewing not only produces saliva and therefore a moist mouth, it also softens the horse’s poll, thereby loosening stiff neck and back muscles.

Snaffle bits

How they work

Snaffle bits have no shanks. Instead, the reins attach right next to the mouthpiece to a ring on either side of the mouthpiece. This means that snaffle bits do not employ leverage. Pressure is applied to the mouth in the same direction as the rein pressure. In other words, the amount of pressure you apply to the reins with a snaffle bit is exactly the amount of pressure the horse feels. When applying pressure to a snaffle bit, the rein aligns directly with the mouthpiece and either the rein or the mouthpiece or both will slide on the ring to align the rein with the mouthpiece.

Snaffle bits are designed to be used when riding two-handed and are used primarily for lateral control of the horse and to teach and soften your horse.

Pressure points

Snaffle bits apply pressure to the corner and/or bars of the horse’s mouth, depending on the angle of the horse’s poll. When the horse’s nose is stuck out, the pressure is only on the corners of the horse’s mouth, which are less sensitive than the bars. When the horse flexes at the poll, the pressure moves from the corners to the bars of the mouth depending on the amount of flexion. If a horse’s head is too high or too low (“behind the bit”), a snaffle bit can easily touch the horse’s first molars, which can annoy the horse or even be painful to the horse. That’s one of the reasons we want to have the horse’s nose slightly in front of the vertical.

Jointed or solid mouthpiece

Snaffle bits can have a jointed (broken) or a solid mouthpiece, such as a “straight bar” as used in some driving bits or a curved mouthpiece such as a mullen.

Since straight bars put more pressure on the horse’s tongue than on the bars, some horses prefer them. However, straight bars can give confusing signals to the horse and aren’t suitable when not riding with contact as pressure on only one rein will cause the opposite side of the bit to hit the roof of the horse’s mouth. They are also not suitable for riding tight turns. If you’re just riding down the trail, a straight bar may be a good choice for your horse though, especially if your horse has not had his wolf teeth removed as it is less likely to hit them than a jointed snaffle.

A mullen bit, which has a slight curvature, sits comfortably over the horse’s tongue. This type of mouthpiece will be slightly more comfortable for a horse to carry than a straight bar mouthpiece. The mullen mouth is thought to be a gentler bit than a bit with a jointed mouthpiece, as there is no nutcracker effect or palate pressure.

Jointed mouthpieces generally lay better over the horse’s tongue than a straight bar bit, but they can have a nutcracker effect on the horse’s jaw. Many snaffle bits have only joint in the centre of the mouthpiece, but there are also snaffle bits such as the French link, the Dr. Bristol, the ball joint and other types of snaffle bits that have a third piece in the centre and therefore have two joints. Double jointed snaffle bits are generally milder than bits with a single joint as the single jointed bits can pinch the horse’s lips and have a nutcracker effect if the rider pulls back on both reins. However, even a double jointed bit such as a French link, which has a bone-shaped flat plate, can pinch and put more pressure on the tongue. A ball-joint bit is even more severe than a French link. I prefer the type of double jointed bits that have a bean (or peanut as some call it) in the middle. These 3-piece mouthpieces are a great choice for horses that have a rather flat palate as well as for starting young horses.

Types of snaffle bits

There are many variations of snaffle bits including full-cheek, half-cheek, D-ring, O-ring or loose ring, egg butt, but they all work pretty much the same.

There is a chance that the horse’s lips could be pinched if the rings of a loose ring bit slide or are pulled into the horse’s mouth. You can add rubber protectors that sit between the horse’s mouth and the bit ring to prevent that, however, in that case you need to use a bit that is slightly wider.

D-ring, eggbutt, and full-cheek snaffles don’t pinch the horse’s lips or get pulled into the horse’s mouth and they also lay quieter in the horse’s mouth. They also give the horse more support, which is often desirable when riding young horses.

Full-cheek bits are often used with keepers that attach to the bridle and keep the cheeks more or less vertical. Using the keepers also acts to exert a slight downward pressure on the horse’s poll.

Using a chin strap attached to each ring on a loose ring snaffle bit does not create leverage, but instead keeps the bit from sliding through the horse’s mouth.

When training or re-training a horse, I prefer a full-cheek snaffle bit because the outside bars prevent the bit from sliding horizontally through the horse’s mouth and keep the bit quieter in the horse’s mouth. As well, a full-cheek bit allows me to create lateral bend with my seat and legs as the bar of the bit provides a block on the outside of what is going to be the horse’s bend (a D-ring and eggbutt both provide the same kind of block, the full-cheek just has a stronger block).

The loose ring snaffle bit works best for a horse that has lateral bend established and gives where the neck meets the shoulders but counterflexes at the poll, meaning the horse is following the bend with his neck, but tips his nose in the opposite direction.

If a horse is often high-headed but also counterflexes, I use a loose ring snaffle bit as long as the horse is giving to the bend cue from the leg so I can correct the counterflex. One of the causes of a horse counterflexing can be because his teeth need floating and the full-cheek style is more likely to push sensitive cheeks into sharp teeth. You should of course get your horse’s teeth floated regularly but if you must ride in the meantime the loose ring bit puts less pressure against the cheeks.

Leverage bits

The second category consists of shank bits, also called curb or leverage bits. If a bit has shanks and employs a curb strap or chain, then it is a curb bit. Curb bits can have a solid or a broken mouth piece.

How they work

A curb bit works differently than a snaffle bit in that the reins are not directly connected to the mouthpiece but are instead attached to shanks that hang down from the horse’s mouth. Thereforethe reins do not align with the mouth piece when pressure is applied.

Pressure points

Curb bits not only apply pressure to the bars, but may also apply pressure to the tongue, the roof of the horses’ mouth, the poll as well as the chin groove.

Curb bits have either a curb chain or a curb strap which, if properly adjusted, prevents the bit from moving more than 45 degrees. Pressure is applied to the horse’s chin groove when the curb chain tightens and it also pulls the bit down onto the horse’s bars. The crown piece applies pressure to the poll.

Leverage

Pressure – also called leverage – is directly related to the length of the upper shank (which is called the purchase arm and is the part that attaches to the headstall and runs to the mouthpiece) in relation to the lower shank (lever arm).

As well, the longer the lever arm, the stronger the potential leverage is – the pressure may be increased by two times or even ten times the amount of pressure exerted by the rider’s hands on the reins. The longer the purchase arm, the more poll pressure occurs when the reins are engaged by the rider.

Ports

Curb bits can have a have a high, medium or low port, or no port at all. A port is basically an inverted “U” in the middle of the mouthpiece. Ports allow room for the horse’s tongue, however, it imparts more pressure directly to the bars and a high port also rotates up and places pressure on the roof of the horse’s mouth when the reins are tightened, so if used improperly, it can be very painful for a horse. Ports that are solid, rather than made of a U-shaped bar, are called spoons or spades and usually have a roller to keep the horse’s mouth softly working.

Bits with high ports are designed to keep a horse’s head on the vertical with no cues from the rider whatsoever. If properly balanced and provided the horse’s head is in the proper position, meaning slightly in front of the vertical, this bit will rest comfortably in a horse’s mouth, allowing him a lot of tongue relief and putting no pressure on any part of the horse’s mouth. If the horse raises his head, the bit tips forward, on its own, contacting the palate, and reminds the horse to lower his head back down to vertical. This is a bit for well trained horses that need very little rein contact from the rider and experienced riders who do not pull on the reins. In inexperienced hands, this can be a very severe bit.

Cheeks

Cheeks may be straight, slightly curved, almost half-circular or S-shaped. The shape of the cheek pieces affects the leverage action of the bit. Straight cheeks have more leverage than curved ones.

The cheek pieces may be solidly attached to the mouthpiece or they may be loose-jawed, meaning they swivel where the mouthpiece attaches to the shank, or have a loose, rotating ring at the bottom of the shank for rein attachment. If the cheek pieces swivel, make sure they are connected at the bottom with a slobber bar. Loose-cheek bits retain independent lateral movement on each side of the face so they are sometimes used as a way of introducing a horse to the curb bit. On the other hand, a fixed-shank curb bit is more forgiving of uneven reins, as its effects are felt on both sides of the face.

Signal

The time it takes between the rein cue and the shanks moving far enough to engage the curb strap is known as the “signal”. If the shanks are adjusted at a proper angle (usually about 45 degrees), the horse will have time to realize that the shank is moving and prepare for the action before the bit is engaged. A horse that is properly trained will anticipate the request the moment the rider picks up the reins so only leg and seat aids will be needed to direct the horse’s movement.

Loose-jawed bits allow slight rotation before the bit engages, providing a warning to the horse before the bit engages fully and allowing the horse to respond to the slightest pressure.

Longer-shanked bits must rotate back further before applying pressure on the horse’s mouth than shorter-shanked bits. Therefore, the horse has more warning in a long-shanked bit, allowing it to respond before any significant pressure is applied to its mouth than it would in a shorter-shanked bit. So a longer shank can actually allow better communication between horse and rider, without increasing severity.

Tom Thumb

One bit that I want to briefly mention as it is often misunderstood is the Tom Thumb bit. Many riders mistakenly call a “Tom Thumb” a snaffle bit due to its broken mouthpiece. However, a Tom Thumb is really a short-shanked leverage bit, and it is not a mild bit either. The combination of the broken mouthpiece and leverage can make the Tom Thumb a very severe bit as the broken bit and lever can squeeze the jaw like a nutcracker. A heavy-handed rider can break a horse’s jaw with a Tom Thumb. If you would like to feel the power of it hold the mouthpiece in your hand with the curb strap adjusted to fit you and pull the reins. Now imagine that in your mouth. An interesting piece of history is that the bit was named after a locomotive on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The Tom Thumb was a small locomotive that was for its time the most powerful engine of its size in existence.

Curb bits are considered advanced bits or finishing bits and are meant for one-handed neck-reining. They should only be used on well trained horses by riders with soft hands. Curb bits are not a good choice for training young or uneducated horses since curb bits cannot be effectively direct reined, and one of the first things we need to establish in the horse is lateral flexion, meaning being able to bend the horse throughout its body. Horses must be taught to neck-rein before wearing a curb bit as pulling on the reins to direct the horse will cause the lever to actuate and squeeze the jaw, causing pain. Pain, in turn, will cause the horse to brace which then interferes with the horse’s ability to feel the rider’s cues.

Often riders will resort to a curb bit because they have trouble stopping their horse with a milder bit. In this case, the rider would be better off going back to the basics and do some more training. As well, no horse is born hard-mouthed, so if a horse is hard mouthed it is because the rider has been riding with heavy hands.

So in short, snaffles are for teaching, and shank bits are for the finishing touch on a trained horse who understands what you want and neck reins.

Bitless bridles

There are many types of bitless bridles out there, and they all work somewhat different in terms of pressure points. Don’t be fooled by the term “bitless”, as even a rope halter is designed to put pressure on certain nerves and can cause pain if used inappropriately. I personally prefer sidepulls and classical hackamores for bitless bridles.

Sidepulls

A sidepull puts pressure on the horse’s nose, but otherwise works very much like a snaffle in terms of lateral block. A sidepull is not meant to be ridden with constant contact as that could make a horse dull to the aids and could even cause sores on the horse’s nose.

I prefer sidepulls with a leather noseband as I find the ones with a rope noseband too harsh on a horse’s sensitive nose (if you can’t find one with a leather noseband, wrap sheepskin, Vetrap or soft leather around the rope noseband). Rope nosebands do have the advantage that they are flexible and therefore change their shape when the reins are tightened and return to its original shape when the reins are slack again.

Sidepulls are a good tool for teaching a horse to neck rein, even better than a snaffle bit, because you usually ride it NOT on contact so when you apply the rein to the neck it does not immediately give a contradictory signal to the horse’s mouth or nose.

Bosals/classical hackamore

Technically, the term bosal refers only to the noseband portion of the equipment. The entire bridle is called a classical hackamore.

Bosals (the noseband) come in various sizes (diameters) for the various stages of training. The thinner the diameter of the bosal, the sharper it is. Thinner bosals are designed for more finished horses that know what you want so you are riding from your seat and legs and are very light with your hand.

You’ll want to find a bosal that fits loosely on your horse’s head without touching the chin or chin groove when the reins are hanging loosely. The bosal needs to be fitted to your horse’s head which is done by adjusting the number of wraps of the mecate (reins).

Cheaper bosals often have a metal core inside, covered with rawhide. These are not advisable to use as they are harsh and rigid. You want to find one that has a rawhide core, covered with braided rawhide. Some bosals have a rope core, but those are too flexible and not a good choice.

You also want to make sure that the bosal is symmetrical and has small, tight, smooth and uniform braiding. Bosals with wide braiding are generally less expensive, but will have a rougher feel against the horse’s face and can sore up your horse. The bosal must also be correctly weighted to allow the heel knot to swing or drop under the horses chin when rein pressure is released.

The bosal is generally ridden with two hands and uses direct pressure and release. Lifting the rein will lift up the heel knot and put pressure on the lower jaw, whereas the top of the bosal ring moves down and puts pressure on the nose. There is also some pressure on the horse’s poll. Bosals have some leverage, but no lateral block so are less useful than a snaffle bit for teaching lateral flexion. It is, however, a useful piece of equipment for encouraging vertical flexion and softness in the young horse.

The bosal is a good choice for training young horses who are dealing with tooth eruption as well as transitioning a horse from a snaffle bit to a leverage bit. Bosals are intended for use by experienced riders and should not be used by beginners as they can be harsh in the wrong hands.

Mechanical hackamore

The mechanical hackamore applies pressure across the bridge of the horse’s nose, the poll, below the cheekbones and the lower jaw, essentially squeezing the horse’s nose and jaw. Due to its leverage, it can be a very harsh bridle and in the wrong hands can cause severe pain and even break a horse’s nose. For example, a 20 lb. pull on the reins on an 8”-shank will result in a 160 lb. force applied across the rather narrow cartilage which makes up the bridge of the horse’s nose.

Mechanical hackamores with short leverage arms are less severe, however, the thick metal piece to which the bridle attaches often puts painful pressure on the horse’s cheekbones.

A hackamore with long leverage arms belongs in my opinion never ever on a horse’s head. Its nosepiece is often made of a metal chain surrounded by rubber or leather, with long, straight shanks. This is a very severe bit.

If you decide to use a hackamore, make sure the nose piece is adjusted high enough so that it sits above the cartilage of the nose. Also make sure that the hackamore has a slobber bar that stabilizes the cheeks of the bit.

A mechanical hackamore is not recommended for training a horse. The action is too severe, inaccurate and the horse must understand how to neck rein and halt on a loose rein with a light touch. It is very difficult to teach a horse to bend or flex because it is not possible to direct rein with a mechanical hackamore as there is no lateral block.

Dr. Cook and Merotish bridles

I personally do not like the Dr. Cook bitless bridles and Merotish bridles as I find it puts pressure on the underside of the horse’s jaw and causes some to stick their nose out to avoid it. The horse also experiences pressure all around its head, which can be very confusing. These types of bridles also have their limitations when it comes to teaching a horse to flex laterally.

Some horses respond better to bitless bridles than bits and vice versa. I find that horses who have a natural frame, with a level to low headset, are better candidates for bitless bridles than high-headed horses. Bitless bridles may be a good choice for young horses whose teeth are still developing. The communication is clearest with a sidepull or classical hackamore.

Summing it up

So in the end, whether you ride with a bit or without, or which bit you use, largely depends on the level of training of your horse, your skill level as a rider, how soft your hands are and how following (moving with the horse’s head) your elbows are, and the type of riding you do. Another thing to consider is where your horse is at with regards to the development of its teeth as well as the conformation of his mouth.

Choosing the right bit for your horse is important, and using it correctly is imperative. Although a bit is only as sharp as the rider’s hands you might want to consider what would happen if your horse stepped on his reins and ride with the least amount of bit that you feel safe in.

Bits don’t train horses; only training trains horses. And a horse will move only a well as his rider uses his seat, legs, and hands. Compare it to dancing – if your partner knows the steps, has good timing and correctly places and shapes your body with a light touch, you will feel you can trust them and the dance is smooth and effortless. However, even if your partner knows the steps but is pulling and jerking you around because his timing is wrong, you are going to stiffen and that will make it even harder for your partner to stay in time and be soft. Riding is essentially dancing with your equine partner. Enjoy your horse!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. tammy samuels permalink
    March 29, 2014 1:26 pm

    thank you very helpful I,ve rode for years but have a hard time understanding bits ect. I have a walker bit I belive its a combination with the longer arm straqht slight curb. I have a walker quarter with the snaffle he raises head pulls riens out of my hands going home after many times turning around starting again 16 yrs old knows btter will try it only because he hurts my hands just trying to stop him. Of course I dont want tohurt him but he needs to getr over this bad habit well see

    • March 30, 2014 9:05 pm

      Hi Tammy,
      have you had his teeth checked recently? It’s difficult to know what’s going on without actually seeing it. Do you have a trainer in your area who can help you?

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