23 Aug Choosing a Bit for Your Horse: Complete Guide
In the horse world, you hear a lot of talk about what type of bit should be used on what types of horses. There seems to be a belief that a bit can alter the horse’s complete temperament and response when in reality there are a few factors that play into how a horse responds to the bit.
How do you choose the right bit for your horse? Here are some things to consider:
- What types of bits are there and what does each one do?
- What bit was the horse trained with?
- What is it that you’re trying to correct by changing the bit?
- Is the horse demonstrating bad behavior with the current bit?
- How does the horse respond to rein pressure in general?
- Are you using your other aids to communicate with your horse?
Into the article, you’ll hear talk about soft bits and hard bits. A soft bit refers to a bit that is more gentle on the horse’s mouth while a hard bit would apply more pressure. Ideally, you use the softest bit you can to communicate with your horse.
What types of bits are there and what does each one do?
There are many different types of bits out there. For the sake of this article, I’ll cover the different types of snaffle bits. A snaffle bit is a mouthpiece between to rings. It applies direct pressure to the horse’s mouth.
Straight Bar Bit
An unjointed bit that applies pressure directly to the bars of the horse’s mouth. A Straight Bar is considered a mild bit because there are no joints to apply pressure to the horse’s tongue.
Single Joint Bit
Single joint bits have a joint in the center of the mouthpiece. The bit will apply direct pressure to the bars of the horse’s mouth. The joint in the center will press into the horse’s tongue to signal pressure. This bit must be used by a rider with soft hands.
Double Jointed Bit
A double-jointed bit has two links in the center of the bit, meaning the mouth-piece is made up of three pieces. These bits would include a French-Link, Oval-Link, and a Dr. Bristol bit. These bits are considered mild bits since the double joint takes the pressure off of the tongue. The pressure is applied mostly to the bars of the horse’s mouth.
A twisted bit has edges that appear to have been twisted. This type of bit includes the Slow-Twist, Corkscrew, and the most severe, the Double Twisted Wire. These bits should only be used by experienced riders. The edges on the twist in these bits create pressure points to the horse’s bars.
This bit is made up entirely of links. This makes it easy on the horse’s tongue and hard for the horse to take hold of the bit in its mouth and pull against the rider’s hands.
Rollers are circular pieces of metal on the bit that can roll back and forth. The pieces of metal give the horse something to play within their mouth, making this a perfect distraction for nervous horses. Certain types of rollers can also discourage horses from leaning on the bit.
A port is when the bit’s center will be raised over the horse’s tongue. This discourages the horse from bracing its tongue against the bit. It also applies pressure to the top of the horse’s mouth. Only experienced riders should use this bit.
Happy Mouth Bit
A happy mouth bit has a soft plastic coating over the bit, usually apple-flavored. These bits are easy on the horse’s mouth and encourage the horse to accept the bit.
What bit was the horse trained with?
Horses are creatures of repetition and familiarity. The more familiar they are with a specific type of bit, and it’s used on them, the better they may respond. Changing a horse’s bit when that horse has only ever had one particular bit in its mouth may elicit a different response.
If you’re planning on changing your horse’s bit when its only use to a specific type of bit, it’s always best to make a gradual change rather than just throwing a new bit in your horse’s mouth. Many types of bits have different severity levels when it comes to the hardness of the bit. Always start with the softest bit you can and gradually work through the levels until you find the bit that works.
What is it that you’re trying to correct by changing the bit?
Another question you need to ask yourself before changing your horse’s bit is what are you trying to correct by doing so? I’ve heard many riders complain that the horse needs a different, harder bit when in reality the problem was never tied to the bit in the first place.
For example, one rider wanted to get a harder bit for their horse since the horse would tend to get heavy on the forehand when asked to go on the bit. While a certain type of bits like the Cherry Roller or the Waterford can discourage the horse from leaning against the rider’s hands, this problem could possibly be corrected if the rider would simply apply leg pressure to encourage the horse to engage from the hind-end and stretch through its neck and back.
Before you change your bit to try and correct something about your horse, I would seek the advice of your trainer or instructor. They may have more insight into the situation simply because they’ve spent years working with horses.
Understanding the different types of bits and how each individual bit works will help you in choosing the right bit for your horse. Different bits will concentrate pressure differently, and understanding how your horse needs the pressure concentrated or spread will help you pick the best bit for your horse.
Is the horse demonstrating bad behavior with the current bit?
If you want to change your horse’s bit because the horse demonstrates bad behavior, there are some things to consider before you do so. There can be other underlying issues that will make the horse react to the bit differently.
When Was the Last Time Your Horse’s Teeth Were Floated?
Horses chew their food in a way that creates jagged edges on the outside of their teeth. If left alone, these edges will cut into your horse’s cheeks, creating ulcers and abrasions. Horses need their teeth floated, or filed down, regularly in order to keep their mouth happy and healthy.
If your horse tosses its head every time you apply rein pressure or acts up when you’re riding, the first thing I would do is recount when the last time was that the horse’s teeth were floated. Horses should have their teeth checked at least once a year, so if it’s been longer then that, I would schedule the vet.
When Was the Last Time You Checked Your Horse’s Mouth?
If your horse’s teeth have been checked recently but they’re acting up, check their mouths for other sores, ulcers, or loose teeth. Mouth injuries in horses can go overlooked and the owner may never realize that there was an issue. One day, I just happened to randomly pull up my horse’s upper lip to discover that he had a huge ulcer right at the base of his gums. If it hadn’t been for that chance, I probably never would’ve realized.
Have You Considered That the Bit You’re Using is too Harsh?
If your horse reacts negatively to the bit, another option to consider is whether or not the current bit you’re using is too harsh for the horse. Many people automatically assume that if the horse is having problems with the bit, then they need to use a harder bit; however, that’s usually not the case.
I learned this the hard way. I had a very forward energetic pony that I had purchased to be my first-ever training project. To be honest, in the beginning, I didn’t know how to handle her energy, so I thought using a harder bit on her would do the trick. I started using a slow twist bit, but it didn’t help much; instead, she started bracing against the rein pressure.
Not knowing what else to do, I asked my instructor. My instructor gave me a french-link bit to use on her, which is a much softer bit than a slow twist. It made the world of difference. The softer bit encouraged this crazy pony to soften and respond to the pressure.
If you think that the problem you’re having is with the bit, you may as well add a few softer bits into the mix before advancing to a harder bit.
What Are Your Hands Doing When You’re Riding?
If your horse is acting up under saddle or in direct relation to the bit, another thing to take into account is what your hands are doing when you’re riding. If you hang on your horse’s mouth and your hands are constantly bouncing and moving all over the place, a horse could easily get upset about that.
A horse rider’s goal should be soft and steady hands. This will release unnecessary contact and pressure from your horse’s mouth, which your horse will greatly enjoy!
How does the horse respond to rein pressure in general?
if you’re planning to change your bit because your horse doesn’t respond well to rein pressure, I would first go back to basics before automatically throwing the problem on the bit. There may be a few reasons your horse isn’t responding to the rein pressure, but one reason I notice a lot is that the horse was never taught to respect the pressure in the first place.
Horses that were never taught to respect rein pressure will brace against the pressure any time it’s applied. This can look like a horse sticking its head up in the air when you ask it to halt or refusing to bends its neck when you ask it to turn.
The best way to correct this isn’t by changing the bit, but by going back to the basics and training the horse from the ground up. The horse needs to learn how to properly respond to rein pressure. Two exercises I rely on to teach horses how to respond to rein pressure is flexing and softening.
How to Teach a Horse to Flex
Flexing is when a horse bends its neck side to side. In order to do this, the muscles in the horse’s neck need to flex. A quick and easy way to work on this under saddle is by taking one rein in your hand and bringing it back to your hip. This will signal to the horse to the horse to bring it’s head around to your leg.
If your horse is reluctant to bring its head all the way back to your leg by fighting the pressure you’re applying to the rein, simply keep hold of the rein pressure until you feel the horse respond with even the slightest give in your direction.
Ask the horse to flex to both the right and the left, holding rein pressure until the horse completely flexes it’s neck and gives to the pressure you’re applying. When they do this, their nose will be turned to be right at your toe in the stirrup.
How to Teach a Horse to Soften
Softening is when your horse responds to rein pressure by stretching into the pressure. This will help horses that brace against the bit.
Start on the ground. The way I begin teaching a horse to soften is by placing my hand at the base of the lead rope and applying pressure straight down from the horse’s head. Ideally, the horse will respond by dipping its nose towards the ground and following the direction the pressure is applied.
When you first try this with your horse, it may fight against the pressure by bracing its neck and trying to throw its head up. When this happens, keep steady pressure on the lead rope until there’s even the slightest give; then release.
To read more about these training techniques, check out our article, 5 Best Groundwork Exercises for Your Horse.
That being said, if your horse doesn’t respond well to rein pressure, it could also be because of the way the current bit applies pressure to the horse’s mouth. Try out a few different bits to see how the horse responds to the pressure from the different ones.
Are you using your other aids to communicate with your horse?
Before you decide to change out your horse’s bit, it’s important to access yourself as a rider. There are other ways to correct an issue you’re having with your horse, as most issues are caused by the rider.
Unfortunately, in the horse world, there’s an emphasis on rein pressure to control your horse. This should not be the case, as reins should be considered the lowest form of communication with your horse. Your more dominant aids should come from your seat and your leg.
If you’re having an issue stopping your horse, keeping them balanced, or your horse leaning on the reins, this may all be fixed by engaging your other aids. Your speed and tempo should be dictated by your seat (see our article 10 Tips to Improve Your Seat On a Horse), and your horse’s engagement throughout their body is encouraged through leg pressure.
A great way to learn how to use all of your aids in conjunction is by taking some dressage lessons. Dressage demands every aid from the rider and is considered the highest form of communication and control with your horse.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I measure my horse for a bit?
To measure your horse for a bit, take a piece of string. Put it in your horse’s mouth, keeping your hands on both sides. Make sure you get the string to where the bit would sit in the mouth, which is the behind the incisors in a space where there are no teeth.
To keep track of the measurement, take your thumbs and grab hold of the string exactly where the string comes out of the horse’s mouth on either side. Lower the string out of the horse’s mouth, keeping your thumbs in place. Next, mark with a pen where your thumbs touched the side of the horse’s mouth.
Measure between the two points on the string. The measurement will be the size bit you need. The bit on either side of the mouth should stick no further than 1/2 inch out of the horse’s mouth. That would mean that the bit is too big.
Now that you’ve learned to measure a bit, see how to size your horse for a saddle by reading our article, Measuring a Horse Saddle: Everything You Need to Know.