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Bit by Bit: A Helpful Illustrated Horse Bit Guide

horse bit
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Written by Cathy H.

What is the best horse bit to use? Short answer: it depends.

Type the word “bits” into the search bar at State Line Tack, and you’ll see over 1,000 results. With so many options, how will you choose the best one for you and your horse?

We’ll try to simplify things by reviewing how bits work and discussing the factors that should influence your choice. Then, we’ll run through some common bits ranked by severity.

By the time you’re done reading, you should have a short-list of bits to try!

How Do Horse Bits Work?

Horse bits rest inside the horse’s mouth between a natural gap in the horse’s teeth, called the “bar.” A rider moves the bit by moving the reins. Depending on the bit’s design, rein movement will apply pressure to the horse’s lower jaw, sides of the mouth, tongue, or roof of the mouth. Some bits also pull on the bridle so that pressure is applied to the top of the head (called the poll). Others are paired with chin straps, which tighten under the horse’s chin.

The purpose of a bit is not to inflict pain or “muscle a horse around” to force it to do what we want.

Through a proper training program, horses can learn how to respond to distinct movements of the bit, and riders with soft hands don’t need to do much more than close their fingers around the reins to elicit the correct response from a horse.

Photo Credit: Erin Brown

Such a training program usually begins by teaching a horse to “yield to pressure,” which is another way of saying “move into the pressure to release it.” We don’t want horses to lean into pressure to resist it; we’re not strong enough to win such a tug-of-war.

With that said, some bits do help horses behave in a particular way, which can make it easier to teach them what we want them to do. For example, some bits encourage horses to lick and chew, which naturally softens their jaw and helps them relax. Others discourage horses from sticking their noses into the air like giraffes.

How Do I Choose the Right Bit for My Horse?

There is no “right” bit for every horse in existence. Choosing the right bit for your horse might require some trial and error. Think about:

  • Which discipline you ride: While there are certainly some all-purpose bits, what’s appropriate for a reiner probably won’t work for a Saddlebred because they have different movements (low versus high head carriage, for example).
  • Whether or not you attend shows: You can ride your horse in any bit at home, but you may not be able to use it at a show depending on the association’s guidelines.
  • What problems you’re having with your horse: Certain bits can help you tune-up your horse when it’s having a problem.
  • Whether you sometimes rely on the reins for balance: You’ll want to stick with mild bits, for now, so you don’t poke your horse in the mouth on accident.
  • What your horse is already used to: A horse that expects you to communicate by applying pressure to his tongue and jaw might feel confused when the pressure is suddenly applied to other parts of his mouth or head.

Horse Bits in Order of Harshness

Gentle Horse Bits

Mullen Mouth With O-Rings

A Mullen mouth bit features a smooth, flat mouthpiece with no joints, twists, or rollers. It may be slightly curved. It can be combined with any cheekpiece, but O-rings provide the mildest action.

mullen mouth bit

Click to see this bit at Amazon

What you should know:

  • Applies mild, evenly-distributed pressure to the jaw and tongue
  • Take care to ensure the mouthpiece is not too thick for your horse’s mouth

Best suited for:

  • Green horses
  • Beginner riders
  • Trail rides

Try this bit at Amazon

Colt Bit

A colt bit looks a lot like a Mullen mouth, but always has short shanks, giving it a mild curb action. A grazing bit’s mouthpiece often has a slight curve in it to lift pressure off the tongue when at rest.

colt bit

Click to see this bit at State Line Tack

What you should know:

  • Applies mild, evenly-distributed pressure across tongue and jaw
  • Also called a colt-starting bit
  • The more curved the shanks, the milder the bit
  • Can still be severe, if used roughly

Best suited for:

  • Green horses
  • Beginner riders
  • Western disciplines
  • Trail rides

Try this bit at State Line Tack

online horse courses

Loose Ring French Link Snaffle

A French link snaffle has two joints connected via a “lozenge” in the center of the mouthpiece. Considered one of the mildest snaffle bits. Pair it with the most forgiving cheekpiece (O-ring or loose ring) for the gentlest action.

myler loose ring bit

Click to see this bit at State Line Tack

What you should know:

  • Applies mild pressure to jaw, tongue, and roof of mouth
  • Slight variations exist in terms of the width of the mouthpiece and size of the lozenge
  • Lozenge may be copper to promote salivation and a softer jaw
  • For slightly clearer or more prompt communication, pair with a D-ring or eggbutt cheekpiece instead

Best suited for:

  • Horses of all levels
  • Riders of all levels
  • Any discipline

Try this bit at State Line Tack

Intermediate Horse Bits

Single Joint Snaffles

A single joint snaffle can apply significant pressure to the jaw thanks to its nutcracker action. Therefore, it’s not ideal for heavy-handed riders or horses who don’t stop well.

snaffle bit

Click to see this bit at Amazon

What you should know:

  • Available in many different widths; thin is considered more sever
  • Can be paired with any kind of cheekpiece, including shanks
  • Applies pressure to jaw and bars of the mouth, as well as tongue and roof of the mouth

Best suited for:

  • Riders with light hands
  • Horses with some foundational training
  • Any discipline

Try this bit at Amazon

Waterford Snaffles

Waterford mouthpieces

feature a “ball and chain” design with multiple joints. Pair with loose rings for the mildest action.

waterford horse bit

Click to see this bit at Amazon

What you should know:

  • Distributes pressure evenly across the tongue and jaw
  • Considered mild due to lack of nutcracker action
  • Can be severe if rider “saws” with their hands

Best suited for:

  • Horses who lean on the bit
  • Horses who cross their jaw to grab the bit
  • Riders with soft, independent hands

Try this bit at Amazon

Kimberwick

A Kimberwick is a type of curb bit. They feature two slots for reins and can have many different mouthpieces, but often have an unjointed bar with a hump (port) in the middle.

kimberwick bit

Click to see this bit at Amazon

What you should know:

  • A low port is considered milder than a high port
  • Use lower rein slot for more leverage
  • Use upper rein slot for more direct action
  • Horses may actually find this bit more comfortable because the port provides more space for the tongue
  • Must be used with a curb chain
  • Applies pressure to the jaw, tongue, roof of mouth, poll, and chin
  • May incur a penalty at a hunter show
  • May not be permissible in Western shows

Best suited for:

  • Horses that don’t stop well
  • Horses that like to lift their heads
  • Horses with some training
  • Riders with independent hands

Try this bit at Amazon

online horse courses

Ported Curb Bit

A ported curb bit looks just like a colt bit, but has a port in the mouthpiece.

all purpose horse bit

Click to see this bit at Amazon

What you should know:

  • A low port is considered milder than a high port
  • Some may include rollers on the port to help the horse soften its jaw
  • Longer shanks make this bit more severe
  • Shanks should be curved

Best suited for:

  • Western horses
  • Beginner riders who have learned not to hang onto the horse’s mouth
  • Green horses already used to a colt bit

Try this bit at Amazon

Advanced Horse Bits

Twisted and Double Twisted Wire Snaffles

These thin jointed mouthpieces work like a single-jointed or French link snaffle, but with a little extra “kick.” Some trainers prefer to use them to prevent horses from becoming dull in the mouth, since it doesn’t take much pressure to elicit a response.

twisted snaffle bit

Click to see this bit at Amazon

What you should know:

  • Can be paired with any cheekpiece
  • Double twisted wire snaffles are more severe than single twisted snaffles
  • Thinner mouthpieces are more severe

Best suited for:

  • Riders with independent hands
  • Horses that need a tune-up to become more responsive to a bit
  • Young horses in the hands of a professional only
  • Not permissible at dressage shows

Try this bit at Amazon

Cathedral, Spoon, Spade, and Correction Bits

These curb bits go by several different names, but feature a mouthpiece with a large, narrow port in the middle. The top of the port may flatten out to a small or significant degree.

Click to see this bit at State Line Tack

What you should know:

  • Mouthpieces may be solid or swiveled
  • Larger ports are considered more severe
  • Many feature a roller under the port to help the horse relax its jaw
  • The horse is expected to pick up and hold this bit in his mouth

Best suited for:

  • Advanced riders
  • Advanced horses
  • Western disciplines

Try this bit at State Line Tack

Elevator Bits and Gag Bits

These bits might look a little different, but they all rely on a significant amount of leverage. Some elevator bits have multiple rings that allow the rider to adapt it to different horses.

Korsteel elevator bit

Click to see this bit at Amazon

What you should know:

  • Reins attached to the largest ring of an elevator bit allow it to work like a snaffle (no leverage)
  • Placing the reins further away from the mouthpiece will result in stronger leverage

Best suited for:

  • Advanced riders
  • Advanced horses
  • Horses who do not stop well

Try this bit at Amazon

online horse courses

Pelhams or Double Bridles

Some disciplines, like dressage or saddleseat, favor the use of double bridles. A snaffle bit and a curb bit sit in the horse’s mouth at the same time, and the rider holds two sets of reins in order to control each bit independently. A pelham bit mimics the function of a double bridle, but with just one mouthpiece.

double jointed copper bit

Click to see this bit at Amazon

What you should know:

  • Pelham can be used with two sets of reins, as only a snaffle, or as only a curb bit.
  • Needs a curb chain if used as a curb bit.
  • The longer the shanks, the more severe the curb action
  • Can feature any type of snaffle mouthpiece
  • Pelhams are allowed in hunter competitions but may not be allowed in dressage

Best suited for:

  • Advanced riders
  • Advanced horses
  • Horses who lean on the forehand

Try this bit at Amazon

Tom Thumb

Tom Thumbs

are leverage bits with straight shanks. In other words, the shanks do not curve backward. This design makes them very severe, as any rein movement immediately transfers to the bit. (Curved shanks provide some “advanced warning” and allow the horse to respond quickly before any further pressure is required.)

tom thumb bit

Click to see this bit at Amazon

What you should know:

  • Can have any type of mouthpiece, but most often seen with a single joint
  • The longer the shanks, the more severe the bit

Best suited for:

  • Advanced riders who can communicate with their seat and voice before using the reins
  • Strong horses

Try this bit at Amazon

Horse Bit Severity Chart

While the perfect horse/bit match is unique to each pair, the chart below shows how common bits rank from more mild to more control. Remember that all riders should learn to ride with quiet, kind hands. Bits with more control or leverage should only be used by experienced riders capable of using them properly.

horse bit severity chart

Horse Bit Severity Chart (Source: Horse Rookie)

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best horse bit for trail riding?

Typically, you can use the same bit that a horse likes in the arena. Consider using a gentler bit for a more relaxing ride or a stronger bit if your horse needs a little reminder that you exist while out in open country.

Read more about the best horse bits for trail riding.

online horse courses

What is the best horse bit for control?

The best horse bit for control will depend on the problem. A horse that doesn’t like to stop, for example, may benefit from switching to a snaffle (direct action) or to a curb (leverage action). Sometimes, it’s best to try a different training method rather than a different bit. For example, a horse that lifts its head could do just fine with a mild French link snaffle and lots of circles to promote bending and relaxation.

What is the best horse bit for beginner riders?

The best horse bit for beginner riders is the gentlest bit that still allows that rider to be taken seriously by the horse. For some, this might be a Mullen mouth snaffle. For others, it might be a low port kimberwick.

What is the best bit for a horse that pulls?

Try a Waterford paired with a loose ring. Also, make sure the bit isn’t too high or too low in the horse’s mouth.

What is the best bit for a green horse?

A green horse should wear a bit that doesn’t send too many complicated signals. For that reason, trainers often choose a Mullen mouth snaffle. The horse can focus on learning what it means to feel pressure on the tongue and corners of the mouth. Later, other types of pressure can be introduced with slightly more complicated bits.

Parting Thoughts

At the end of the day, you don’t know which bit works best for you and your horse unless you try a couple. If possible, ask your trainer for help – he or she probably has a collection of bits and will be happy to help you try a few and fit them properly. Good luck!

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Sources/References:

https://www.extension.iastate.edu/equine/selecting-proper-bithttps://www.ridingwarehouse.com/lc/training/tack/show-legal-english-horse-bits.html

 
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About the author

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Cathy H.

The only thing I love more than blogging about horses is hanging out with my Appoloosa gelding Chacos. (I also have a soft spot in my heart for OTTBs, thanks to my first childhood horse!) Chacos and I enjoy training across multiple English and Western disciplines. #varietyisthespiceoflife