Understanding different horse bits

As I am progressing through the stages of my horsemanship, I find myself wondering more and more about different bits and the how and why relating to them. Any tack catalog you pick up has tons of bits for sale. I have heard lots of opinions on the topic of what bit works best, but how do I know what is right for my horse at what point in his training?

Dear MHudson: This is an enormous subject. Yes, it is true that any tack catalog you pick up will have tons of different bits – and let me mention immediately, most of the descriptions of what those bits are “supposed” to be or do or bring about are absolutely and totally bogus. For example, “training bit” or “correction bit”. So as this thread (this discussion) proceeds, we will have to clear that up, but we can only do that with respect to particular bits. So when you reply to this, PLEASE DO NOT mention any particular bit manufacturer; what I want you to do is describe the particular bit that you have a question about. In other words: does it have shanks and a chain that goes under the horse’s chin? is the mouthpiece solid or in two or more jointed sections? And so forth.

Second, to narrow this down to something like do-able, you have to tell us more about who you are – how long have you been riding? Is this your first horse? Do you have an instructor that you see regularly (or that you saw regularly before COVID)? What sort of horse do you own/ride, i.e. breed, age, sex? And what riding style or competitive discipline are you interested in? All of these factors make some difference in the selection of the “right” bit.

The last part of your query asks what bit is right for your horse at any given point in his training – again, this can only be answered after we have more information. To begin with, I would ask you to think about the overall purpose of ANY bit. Why do we use a bit at all? I will tell you immediately that riding without a bit is, for most people at most times, a very bad idea; and riding without a bit is certainly not your ultimate goal. It is true that our teacher, Tom Dorrance, had some of his students – including me – try riding our horses with nothing on their head at all at a certain point in our studies with him, but he was explicit in telling us that “going bridleless” was for a particular purpose, to benefit us students in a particular way, but was not a goal in and of itself. Likewise in the old days, our teacher Ray Hunt had students start colts with nothing on their heads at all, not even a rope halter; but this too was for a particular reason having nothing whatsoever to do with “riding bridleless”. So again: why do you think we use a bridle and bit? What is a bit for?

I’ll look for the “bot” at this list to notify me when you or others reply, and promise to get back to you promptly when I hear that replies have been posted. – Dr. Deb

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I use a jointed snaffle bit with D-rings, and I’m pretty sure I understand how that bit works. However, I purchased a bit that was recommended for my gaited horse. It is something like a training bit, I believe. It has a small port, and there is a swivel on the cheekpiece where the mouthpiece connects. The top of the shank (purchase?) can swivel independently of the bottom. I think it is supposed to allow lateral direction with the rein, which you wouldn’t have with a regular curb bit. The bit works with a curb strap.

I was told the bit is encourages the horse to lift his head so he will gait better. I have used the bit once and noticed no difference so went back to my snaffle, which I know better and feel comfortable with. Besides, I don’t really want my horse to raise his head per se; I want him to move with his hindquarters and engage. I’ve been trying to study gaited horsemanship and I’ve concluded that head lifting is not a prerequisite to gaiting, and in fact can hollow the back. I am new to gaited horses. I’ve had my gaited horse (SSH) for just over 2 years and he only started to offer a gait last summer. I trotted him before that.

I’m a pleasure rider, riding trail 3-5 days a week. I sometimes ride a Limited Distance (25-30 mile) endurance event. In my opinion, my horse is not ready for a curb bit. I know I’m not. I’ve been riding six years. I have no instructor but attend clinics (vaquero style) regularly and try to work on my horsemanship every time I ride. Can you explain the theory behind the swivel pieces? I’d sure appreciate it as I can find nothing that explains the effect the bit has on the horse’s poll, mouth, nose.

Thanks, Kristina G.


Dear Kristina: We had an awful busy time in our office this past week so this is the first chance I’ve had to get back to you.

To answer your core query directly, i.e. what is the ‘theory’ behind the swivel cheekpieces, you’ve figured out yourself all there is to figure out: they swivel. This means that when you use an opening rein (i.e., pull the horse’s head to the right with your elbow lifted and your hand fairly far out to the right, away from your body and the horse’s neck), the shank will swivel which cuts down a little bit on the bit as a whole twisting in the horse’s mouth. Of course, there are other factors which also affect how well this works, especially how long the shanks actually are, and how hard you are pulling.

This is the least important part of your post, actually, because it seems that you might have somewhat blurry ideas on some other and more important things. When I say ‘blurry’, I mean that you appear to be repeating terms and phrases that are commonly bandied about without a full or crystal-clear idea of what they mean.

So let me list the ones that jumped out at me. First – what is a “training bit”? Kristina, there is no such thing. This is a term we find in tack catalogs, and nobody should ever believe even a single word of what it says in any tack catalog. Language used in catalogs is designed to do one thing, and that is, to get you to open your wallet and buy.

Not only is there no such thing as a “training bit”, there is also no such thing as a horse in training or at some kind of “training level”. I have never met any horse who had the slightest concept of levels. He just is what he is. You ride him and if you have experience, you find out from him where he is, because he will at every moment be trying to tell you what he understands or doesn’t, and what he needs from you in order to do your will. And this will be the case on the first day he is mounted, and on the last day you ride him before he dies.

Your ideas about “lifting the head” so the horse will gait “better” are all right on. Lifting the head DOES help the horse to gait – but this is a cheap, dirty way to get a horse to gait. Gaited horses are just the same as any other kind of horse, in terms of the process of educating them. They are unlike horses that do not readily gait in that they have a gene nicknamed the “gait keeper allele” that affects how their nerves grow and hook up when they are in utero, so as to give them not only the knack for gaiting but to allow them to achieve great speed – in some horses as fast as a racing gallop – at the rack. It also allows for greater speed at the trot, so this allele has been found to be very frequent or even universal in American Saddlebreds, American Standardbreds, and related breeds. This should show you that your horse is going to produce some type of “intermediate gait” or “ambling gait” no matter how you ride him, head up and hollow-backed, or round; and I guarantee you which of those two you’re going to prefer in terms of rideability, smoothness, beauty, and the preservation of the long-term soundness of the animal.

On this subject, you mention “engaging the hindquarters”. Are you up on the importance of the lumbo-sacral joint for this? I have many times discussed this subject in print; go to my Institute website at www.equinestudies.org, click on “Knowledge Base” and then download the three key papers to study (they are .pdf documents that will instantly download into your computer when you click the button):

Paper no. 1: Lessons from Woody (straightening the horse)
Paper no. 2: True Collection (physical techniques and aids)
Paper no. 3: The Ring of Muscles (deep work)

Beyond this, may I suggest a further resource – we sell a video/DVD mini-course called “The Anatomy of Bitting” which (I think) Eclectic Horseman mercantile does not carry. If you find out that EH doesn’t sell it – I’d rather have you buy it from there – then to obtain it go to www.equinestudies.org and click on “Bookstore” and then on “Learning on DVD”. The program run time is 8 hours and it covers everything you’re asking about, including showing explicitly how different types of bits work and how they interact with the skull and tongue. On that program I also give an excellent demonstration of “twirling the head”, first with the skull and neck bones and then with a live horse. You will never get the horse to raise its back, coil its loins, and thereby use itself properly unless you know how to twirl the head, because that is one of the two key ways we have to induce the horse to let go of any brace he may be holding in the muscles of his tongue, throat, jaws, neck, or back. The other key way is untracking, which is a whole 'nother subject. Cheers – Dr. Deb

thanks my issue has been fixed.

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