Finally, a simple horse bit guide for Quarter Horses.
To start, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to horse bits. Many variables should factor in to the appropriate bit choice for your horse. This article is meant as a starting point. Your horse trainer, veterinarian, and local tack shop are all great resources for finding the perfect fit for you and your horse.
When choosing a bit, make it sure it aligns with:
- The discipline/activity being performed
- The training level and temperament of the horse
- The training level and temperament of the rider
This article covers “bit basics,” including the two main types of bits (i.e. snaffle, curb), as well as common bits seen in the Quarter Horse world. The next section focuses on “bit criteria” for selection, along with a few specific examples of these ideas in practice.*Note: All of these bits can be used for other breeds of horses, too!
A bit is a piece of tack used to help the rider communicate with the horse.
Usually made of metal, bits put pressure on the horses’ mouth—generally the tongue, bars of the mouth, palate, and sometimes the chin and the poll.
The bit is held in place by the bridle. Reins attach to the bit and are used by the rider to direct the horse.
One difference between the two bits pictured above is where the rein attaches.
On the snaffle bit (top), the rein attaches directly to the ring that the mouthpiece is connected to. The curb bit (bottom) has a shank; the rein attaches to the bottom ring.
The shank is measured in inches from the mouthpiece to the bottom ring.
A 5” mouthpiece generally fits most Quarter Horses, however always check to be sure of a good fit.
Anatomy of a Bit
This is an English bit called a Kimberwick. Similar to a curb bit, it uses leverage action and requires a chain. (Curb chains are discussed more below.)
This bit also has a mild port. A port is a curve to the mouthpiece that changes where the bit applies pressure.
The port can take quite a few different shapes: wide or narrow, low or high. This example shows a wide, low port.
Direct vs. Indirect Pressure
Depending on the style of riding, the rider will use direct or indirect pressure to communicate with the horse.
Direct Pressure Bits
Direct pressure is typically used with a snaffle bit and is common in hunt seat riding. Both hands are used on the reins.
If you want to turn right, you would pull on the right rein and the horse will move to the right.
The horse above is being ridden in a snaffle bit with contact (no slack in the reins). The rider is using both hands on the reins.
The amount of pressure the rider exerts on the rein is the same amount of pressure the horse will feel from the bit. If the rider pulls back with 1 lb. of pressure on the reins, the horse will feel 1 lb. of pressure.
Typically, riders should maintain light contact with the bit.
Indirect Pressure Bits
Indirect pressure is associated with curb bits and is more common in Western disciplines. This type of riding uses neck reining.
This horse is being ridden Western, with no contact—you can see the drape in the horse’s reins. The rider is using one hand, which leaves the other hand free for things like roping cattle.
To turn right, the rider would move the hand to the right, touching the left rein to the left side of the horses’ neck. The horse moves away from the pressure, to the right.
Curb bits can have similar mouthpieces to snaffle bits, but these bits have a shank that the rein attaches to.
The amount of pressure the rider exerts on the reins is multiplied by the length of the shank.
If the rider pulls back with 1 lb of pressure on a 5” shank, the horse will feel 5 lbs of pressure.
When neck reining, riders tend to use a looser rein and only make contact with the mouth when they are cueing the horse.
Curb bits also use a curb strap or chain. This is essential for the bit to function properly and ensures a comfortable fit for the horse.
The chain keeps the bit from rotating too far in the horses’ mouth.
It also limits the amount of pressure on the palate as the bit rotates. If the chain is too loose, it won’t be effective; too tight and it will be uncomfortable.
General practice says you should be able to fit the width of two fingers between the horses’ chin and the curb strap.
The bit pictured on the right is a Western-style curb bit, commonly known as a Tom Thumb, with a curb chain.
How to Choose the Right Bit for Your Horse
Three main criteria should be considered when selecting a bit for your horse—the riding discipline, the horse, and the rider.
First, think about the discipline you want to participate in with your horse.
Generally, a snaffle bit is used for hunt seat riding (both on the flat and over fences) and a curb bit is used for Western-style riding—everything from Western Horsemanship to reining, contesting, and working cattle.
Second, take the horse’s training and temperament into consideration.
If your horse has “more whoa than go” you probably don’t need a severe bit to control him. A stronger-willed horse might need a bit with a little more “bite” to it. It is always a good idea to involve a horse trainer in bit evaluation and selection.
If you’re experiencing behavioral issues with your current bit, it helps to have a veterinarian rule out any medical issues that could be affecting your horse’s mouth.
Case in Point: Scotty
The horse pictured below is a great example of how not every bit works on every horse.
I was used to showing in a Kimberwick bit—they are very common in the Quarter Horse world, and it had worked well on my last several horses. However, my horse Scotty didn’t seem to like it.
Despite having virtually no contact with the bit, you can see in Picture A that Scotty’s head is tucked in, or behind the vertical. This is undesirable for hunter under saddle classes, and as a result we hadn’t been placing well.
Chief Rookie Aside: Changing my bit also transformed my horse. Read about it in my Herm Sprenger Bit Review.
Since we were at a two-day show, I switched to a milder, D-ring snaffle on day two.
You can see a huge difference in Scotty’s frame in Picture B—he’s relaxing down into the bridle and allowing me to ride him with light contact.
Third, consider the skill level and preferences of the rider.
Beginner riders should start out using a milder bit—it takes time to develop a good feel for how much pressure is necessary to cue your horse. In general, snaffle bits are more forgiving than a curb bit.
However, not all snaffle bits are “gentle.”
Horse Bit Severity Chart (Snaffles)
The picture below shows a range of snaffle bits, in order of severity. The gentlest bit is on the bottom, and the most severe bit is on the top.
TOP: The top bit is a Kimberwick. It is the English-version of a curb bit; these bits must be used with the curb chain, which is generally fixed on the left side of the bit.
The rein can attach in either the top or bottom slot; the bottom spot for the rein would provide more leverage for the rider.
SECOND FROM TOP: The second bit from the top is a Myler bit. It is a multi-jointed snaffle bit with a roller in the middle. This bit has copper on the mouthpiece, which has a sweeter taste and encourages salivation.
It also has some leverage to it, as the rider has the option to attach the rein to a fixed point on the D ring instead of allowing the rein to slide freely.
MIDDLE: The middle bit, a D-ring snaffle with a French Link, is also a multi-jointed snaffle bit. The French Link is a small, flat link in the middle of the mouthpiece.
Some horses really like this style, as it doesn’t have the nutcracker action of the single-jointed snaffle bit. Other horses might dislike it if they have a sensitive tongue, as it allows for more contact.
SECOND FROM BOTTOM: The D ring snaffle, second from the bottom, is pretty mild, but would be just slightly harsher than the bit below it—the mouthpiece is thinner (think, less surface area so more pressure per square inch).
Also, the straight sides of the D ring provide more contact with the sides of the horse’s face. This is called a single-jointed snaffle bit.
BOTTOM: The bit on the bottom, an Eggbutt snaffle, has the thickest mouthpiece and would be the mildest of this set.
It’s very common to see Western-style horses showing in correction bits. These bits work great in skilled hands; they can be extremely severe, however, and should not be used by beginners.
Selecting the perfect bit for you and your horse may take some time and some trial and error—but the good news is there’s no shortage of options!
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
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- Plain English Please: Types of English Horse Bits Explained
- (Bit)Less is More: Bitless Horseback Riding for Beginners
- 16 Common Types of Horse Bits (A Helpful Illustrated Guide)
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