Professional Trainer and Vlogger Shelby Dennis on English Horse Bits 101
With the number of different types of bits on the market, choosing the right bit for your horse may seem like quite the task. Especially given the number of varying opinions about what the “best” bit really is. (When in doubt, go with a quality simple snaffle bit like this.)
As a rider, it’s important to understand how the bits you use affect the mouth of your horse, as different types of bits serve different purposes and perform different actions on the mouth. It’s your responsibility to select the equipment that is best suited to horse and rider.
Bits can be a great tool for communication when used correctly. Like any piece of equipment, however, a bit can be misused and abused. We must be especially mindful of how we use our hands while riding and select the correct bit for our riding level and our horse’s individual needs.
Understanding the Snaffle Bit
The snaffle bit is a broad category that applies to a large variety of bits. A lot of people erroneously assume “snaffle” equates to being soft and gentle. This is not necessarily the case.
While many snaffle bit options are soft, there are also harsh snaffle bits on the market. The term “snaffle” serves only to describe the fact that these bits have no curb or leverage action.
A snaffle creates direct pressure on the bars of the mouth without the use of leverage. Because of this, many bits fall under the umbrella category “snaffle.”
There are many different snaffle mouthpieces, along with a variety of cheek pieces. Both the mouthpiece and the cheekpiece will impact the action of the bit, thus making one type of snaffle slightly different — or very different — from other types of snaffles.
Jointed vs. Straight Snaffle Bits
Snaffles will either have a jointed or a straight mouthpiece. If jointed, they can be single jointed, double jointed, or with mouthpieces such as the Waterford, feature many joints.
Straight mouthpieces, on the other hand, have no joints in the middle. They may be made up entirely of metal or can made from rubber, plastic, or leather.
Because of the lack of leverage on snaffle bits, when the reins are pulled back, the pressure is distributed over the bars of the horse’s mouth and the tongue. There is no leveraged pressure added to the poll and other areas of the face, such as the chin.
Single Jointed Snaffle Bits
The most common snaffle mouth pieces are smooth, single jointed. Available in a variety of thicknesses, they feature a single joint in the center of the bit. This is the generic snaffle that would likely come to mind for many riders.
A single jointed snaffle can be made harsher by adding more abrasive mouthpieces such as the slow twist, twisted wire, or corkscrew. Once again, these vary in thickness. The thinner they are, the more pressure they put on a localized area, thus making them harsher. Single jointed bits may also be made of metal coated in rubber.
Double Jointed Snaffle Bits
You can also use something called a double jointed snaffle. These snaffles have two joints, often with a flat piece in the middle of the bit. The most common of double jointed bit is called a French Link.
Double broken bits are a popular choice for horses who prefer a more flexible mouthpiece. They also eliminate any potential for a “nutcracker effect” that a single jointed bit can have. Like single jointed snaffles, double jointed models can vary in thickness and may be covered in rubber.
Mullen Mouth Snaffle Bits
The third most common snaffle mouthpiece is the Mullen Mouth. This bit has a straight bar made of metal, rubber, or metal coated with leather or rubber.
For horses who prefer a more stable, flat mouthpiece, the Mullen may become a favourite. Because of its lack of joints, however, this bit may be easier for horses to lean on.
Personally, my favourite type of Mullen Mouth is rubber because it has some flex.
Adding Bit Cheek Pieces
There are many different types of cheek pieces (i.e. shanks) when it comes to snaffle bits. While the overall action of the bit remains similar among snaffles, cheek pieces do serve different purposes. The most popular options are D-Ring, Eggbutt, Full Cheek (or Fullmar), Loose Ring, and Baucher.
Cheek pieces like the D-Ring or Full Cheek are often favoured for green horses who are just learning to travel in a bit. The reason behind this is that the action of the cheek piece applies minimal pressure to the face when pulled, bridging a cue that would be similar to the ones they may feel when being worked in a halter or ridden bitless.
These cheekpieces will help more with steering than a cheekpiece like the loose ring, making them a popular bit choice for starting young or green horses.
Loose rings, on the other hand, have a smaller circular cheekpiece that is not fixed to the mouth piece. As a result, the rings can slide freely. This makes the loose ring a popular snaffle cheek piece for horses who have a tendency to lean. The rotating cheek pieces of the loose ring make the bit less stable in the mouth, thus harder to lean on.
Because of the less stable nature, a Loose Ring snaffle should not be as favoured by newer riders who may not have the quiet hands of more experienced equestrians. (The smaller cheek piece also makes it easier for this bit to be pulled through the horse’s mouth.)
Understanding the Leverage and Curb Bit
The “level up” from snaffles would be some type of curb or leverage bit. These bits are generally supposed to be ridden in with two reins and utilize poll pressure and/or curb pressure from a chain under the chin that is enacted when the curb rein is pulled.
These bits require more experienced hands. They should be used with caution, as every pull on the reins will be much harsher than it would be with a regular snaffle. The leverage and curb amplify the overall action of the bit. Let’s discuss the most popular bits in this category.
The Pelham is a popular English curb bit available in many of the mouthpieces previously discussed. The cheek pieces of this bit vary in length. The longer they are, the more amplified the overall action of the bit will be.
The Pelham also has a curb chain that rests under the chin and tightens when the reins are pulled, thus increasing pressure under the chin. This bit is designed to be ridden in with two sets of reins (or with a rein converter attached to the snaffle part of the bit) as well as the curb shank.
Activating the curb rein will place pressure on the bars of the mouth, chin, and poll. The curb rein serves to lower the head while the snaffle rein serves to bring the head up. The Pelham provides a “somewhat muted” effect similar to the double bridle.
Dutch Gag Bits
The Dutch Gag bit, also known as the elevator bit, generally has four rings. A top ring is what the cheekpieces of the bridle attach to, and there are three more rings that the reins can be attached to in different settings.
Ideally, this bit should be ridden in with two reins to keep it more stable in the mouth.
One set of reins is attached on the first ring down from the cheekpieces and another set of reins is attached to the third or fourth ring. The lower down the rein is set, the harsher each pull will be due to the length of the shank on the gag bit.
The action of this bit is meant to “uplift” the mouth and the amount of leverage will be dependent on the rein setting. Due to the ability for this bit to raise the head, it is generally not favoured in high headed horses. It may, however, be used on strong horses who have a tendency to lean on the bit.
When in Doubt, Ask for Help
Choosing among all the different types of horse bits can be overwhelming. Finding the “right” bit for your horse also typically takes a bit of trial and error (pun intended). If you’re not sure what to use, never be afraid to ask your trainer, local tack store staff, or knowledgeable equestrian friends for assistance.
Once you do find a bit your horse (and you!) really like, you’ll be surprised what a difference it can make!
Shelby & Milo
P.S. If you’d like to follow more of my journey, you can find me:
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