By Brad Harter
No matter what that horse may be used for, every horse deserves to have a bit that they can respond to without pain. Finding that right bit, making sure that the bit fits the horse well and is adjusted properly, is not always an easy task. Without a few basic guidelines to follow, it is possible to spend hundreds of dollars buying bits and still not have a horse that is happy in the mouth and responding the way we want them to.
Biting a horse properly today is much more complicated than 40 or 50 years ago. The major reason for this is that so many more choices are available. There is a plus side to having all these choices: we have a much better opportunity of “getting it right,” so to speak. The negative side is that sometimes we just don’t know how or where to begin. In this article, I will attempt to cover a few of the more important basics of proper biting. It is no secret that some bits may get better results than others. Hopefully, this article may help you understand why some horses respond better to certain types of bits than others.
First and foremost, you need to understand that all horses are not really that different, no matter their breed or what they are used for. The only thing that makes some of them a little different is that they may be asked to work longer hours. Relate this to the fact that they then must carry the bit over a longer period of time than the average horse. Now you can start to understand why it is extremely important that any horse being used for an extended period of time, like a trail horse possibly being ridden all day, needs to have a bit that they are comfortable with and that they can respond to without pain.
Some people may feel that certain types of bits will work better for specific breeds. There is not much evidence to support this theory. What we do know is that it is very important that any bit fits the horse’s mouth properly. We must also make sure we have the bit placed in the mouth so that there is no discomfort or interference with any of the teeth.
No matter what others may have told you, there is no one “magic bit.”
Those telling you that may often be someone trying to sell a particular line or make of bit. The bit has not yet been invented that will work on all horses and also be the cure for every biting problem that might evolve.
Some horses are just plain “unhappy” with their bits. What is really happening is that these horses are unhappy in the mouth. The bit may be the cause of that unhappiness, or it may be something else totally unrelated. That is why your very first step with any horse that may indicate they have a biting problem should be to examine the inside of the mouth. Open the mouth as wide as possible and examine every place the bit may exert pressure. Check all the places where the bit may come in contact with the tongue or the bars of the mouth. If there are no obvious sore or irritated areas, you may be eliminating the bit as the cause of your problems. As a side note: I had a wonderful horse more than 50 years ago who responded to the bit I was using without any issues. Over about a month, this horse’s response to the bit deteriorated significantly. Everyone riding with me said to just put a tie down on him to keep him from throwing his head. That wasn’t working because he just fought the tie down, throwing his head side to side. An older, very experienced horseman opened my horse’s mouth wide open one day and located my problem. On the upper bars of my horse's mouth, right in front of his grinders and right where the bit was positioned, my horse had a tumor the size of a quail or robin egg. I was too young and dumb to have even checked this out. I had a vet remove the tumor, allowed it to heal for a few weeks, and my horse went right back to responding to his old bit without the need of a tie-down.
If your horse starts experiencing problems with the bit you have been using, this is often a good time to consider having an equine dentist check your horse. There are a number of veterinarians that are skilled in the practice of equine dentistry. Your local veterinarian can probably recommend a good dentist if they don’t do this type of equine dental work themselves. Don’t be surprised if finding a capable equine dentist is difficult. Some areas of the country have a shortage of these specialized practitioners. Although their services may not come cheaply, they can often make a valuable horse out of an $800 outlaw simply by taking care of dental issues. Dental care often makes a lot of sense when you look at the expense from that perspective. Professional quality dental care usually involves much more than floating the teeth or just knocking off some of the sharp points. Please share with your equine dentist the problems that you are having with the bit and make sure your practitioner can explain everything he or she is doing. I know of many people who have spent hundreds of dollars on a tack room full of bits only to find later that one visit with a capable equine dentist solved their horse’s mouth problems.
With any discussion about bits and what constitutes proper biting, it is important that you start with some basic concepts.
Common Facts, Myths & Misunderstandings……
Number one: As I have already shared, there is no one “perfect bit.” Not every bit will work or fit well on every horse. If there really were such a thing as a “magic” bit, the secret would be out, and all other bits would have found their way into the trash can. It is true that some bits are better designed than others. They may be more effective because of their design, which may really mean that they work on different pressure points in the mouth. Some of these bits may just work better because they allow the horse to have freedom of the tongue. Horses’ tongues will vary in size and thickness. Very much like us, horses must move their tongues in order to swallow, and preventing any tongue movement for long periods of time, like on an extended trail ride, becomes very uncomfortable to any horse. Other bits may work on specific pressure points that have not been injured or traumatized on your horse. One thing that all of the best bits do have in common is that they are usually very well constructed. Good materials have been used in their manufacture, and they swivel and pivot smoothly exactly like they have been designed to do.
Number two: The best bits don’t produce pain. While they may exert some pressure, it is not so severe as to cause pain. Pain is always a distraction to learning. The main purpose of any bit is to teach the horse to respond to a cue that we give with our hands. If all the bit does is create pain, then it becomes difficult for the horse to focus on the cue we are giving them and what we are hoping for them to learn. Horses that throw their heads or fight the bit in any way are almost always trying to tell us something. In the majority of these cases, this behavior indicates that the horse is experiencing pain. Solving this problem by selecting a bit that may be more severe and produces even more pain is often not the best solution. Often the answer is to move in the opposite direction. Selecting a milder bit that will take the pain out of the picture is often the best answer. Once you have chosen to go to a milder bit, it is time to teach the horse to respond to lighter and maybe even different cues. This takes time, plenty of patience, and some degree of understanding. Many people feel these mouth or biting problems just can’t be cured. Most often, they just won’t take the time required to make the changes and improvements. Then the horse, with all his problems, usually gets pawned off on someone else. Along with this, his value drops. This is where the real deals in horseflesh often come into play. Horses with these bit problems can often be purchased for a fraction of what they're worth. All that remains is to come up with ways to fix the problems. With your basic understanding of bits and taking a little time to evaluate the problem and come up with a fix, a great horse is made productive and useful once again.
Number three: Good bits fit the horse’s mouth well, and their design makes them easy for the horse to carry in their mouth. If we ride half a day on a trail ride, our horse may be carrying the bit for nearly four hours. The horse needs to be able to perform that task with as much comfort as possible. That means making certain the bit fits. It needs to be wide enough so as not to put any pressure on the outside of the mouth area. It must also be adjusted with the bridle so that it is placed in the right location. It is important that it isn’t too tight or hanging too low and interfering with any teeth. Sometimes the bit will pinch where the bridle attaches. In this case, all that may need to be done is for that part of the bit where the bridle attaches to be bent outwards. This can be accomplished by removing the bit from the bridle, placing it in a vice, and using leverage to bend out the bridle ring portion of the bit. Check to ensure the bit does not interfere with any part of the head, even when the reins are pulled back, and the bit rotates forward. The mouthpiece, that part of the bit that goes across the horse’s tongue, must also be the right width. The standard width for most bits is 5 inches. That may not fit the horse with a large or broad head. A good tack shop can help you locate bits having wider mouthpieces.
Number four: The most common biting error I have seen with horses, in general, is that the bit hangs too low in the mouth. So low that, in many cases, the port of the bit may even interfere with the canine or bridle teeth. Geldings and stallions have bridle teeth, as do about 30% of our mares. These teeth erupt and appear on most horses between four and five years of age. They are positioned behind the front nippers and forward of the grinders. There are usually two upper and two lower bridle teeth.
I think the reason that so many horses are asked to carry the bit too low in their mouth is that people don’t want to take the time to adjust a bridle once they get the bit in and the bridle on. Having the bit hang a little low, makes putting the bridle on much easier. The fact that the bridle goes on easy is all that seems important. The time it takes to adjust the bit up to the proper position after bridling is often skipped. If the bit is adjusted correctly on the bridle, it is usually not easy to get it on the horse’s head. The simple solution to this problem just requires a little time. Adjust the bridle out for ease when putting it on the head, and then adjust the bit upwards once the bridle is on so it does not contact any teeth and rests comfortably in the middle portion of the mouth bars.
Number five: Make sure that the bit does not interfere with the wolf teeth. These are small teeth, and they erupt just in front of the grinders or molars. When you pick up on the reins, and the bit moves up in the mouth, it may come in contact with these teeth. Not all horses will get wolf teeth; some horses only have them come in with the upper set of grinders. They generally erupt and first appear when the horse is between 18 and 24 months of age. They serve no known purpose and what their function once was is unknown. Their root systems are shallow but extremely sensitive, so removal is important. Your veterinarian or equine dentist can easily extract these teeth. If not removed, they will almost always cause some discomfort and interference with the bit. Locating these wolf teeth and removing them prior to introducing a horse to the bit is a common practice in most training barns.
Number six: A bit isn’t made to work on a certain breed or type of horse. Many people think that because they are riding walking horses, they must use a “Walking Horse” bit. This type, referred to as a “Walking Horse” bit, does work well in many horses, but the reason is not related to the breed. The “walking horse” bits that have a gentle rise in the port or mouthpiece are not really severe in their action. One big reason some of them may work so well. They are also often well-constructed, and they usually give some degree of tongue relief.
Number seven: I have already mentioned that many of the best bits offer excellent tongue relief. Horses are very much like us humans; they need to move their tongues easily and often. The main reason they need to do this is that it helps them to swallow. Their need to swallow is very similar to our own needs. While it is not the point of this article to advocate any particular make of bit, I will admit that the Myler brothers have developed a whole line of bits around the concept of tongue relief. Because of this feature, Myler bits are some of the most functional and widely used bits in the horse world.
Number eight: A moist mouth for the horse is also important. It aids in comfort and makes carrying a piece of metal in the mouth much more tolerable. Bits that are manufactured with copper or sweet iron mouthpieces are some of the best when it comes to stimulating salvation. As a rule of thumb, the more moist the mouth, the happier the horse is when carrying the bit.
Number nine: When a horse is not responding well to a certain type of bit, you might want to try a bit with a totally different type of action. Selecting a bit that will work on a whole different set of pressure points may be your best answer. A good example of this is going from a leverage type of bit that produces pressure on the curb chain, the bars, and the roof of the mouth to a bit like a gag type that produces no curb pressure at all and very little pressure on the bars or the roof of the mouth. I have seen a number of horses respond quickly to this type of change. Many people I know who have become excellent horsemen and women use this type of gag bit with great success on several different horses. My guess is that many of these horses would not be doing so well with a conventional bit producing curb chain pressure.
Number ten: On rare occasions, a horse may have become so seriously “mouth traumatized” that the only thing that may work is to go to a “bitless” system like the noseband hackamore. This type of hackamore works only on the pressure points outside of the mouth. An example of where this type of switch might work would be a situation where the horse has suffered an extreme injury to the tongue or bars of the mouth. Although the injury may have healed, the nerve endings at these points can be very sensitive. I have seen tongues cut nearly in half by the combination of twisted wire bits and heavy hands. Even though these injury points may heal and scar over, you may never again be able to place a piece of steel over that tongue and in that horse’s mouth. In this type of situation, your only choice may be the use of a restraint device like the noseband hackamore. A bit developed a few years ago is called the combination bit. It was constructed by Dale Myler and his brothers. It has both a noseband and a mouthpiece. When adjusted properly, the noseband produces pressure first, then a light pressure from the mouthpiece comes into play. This bit is also showing a lot of promise for mouth-injured horses.
Number eleven: Don’t be afraid to experiment. It is almost always best to introduce a horse to a new biting system at home or even on a trail ride where the horse is in a more comfortable environment. Any setting where a horse has suffered what I call “mouth trauma” is often not the best place to start trying out new bits. All horses need some time to be “schooled” to any new bit or biting system. This is especially true when new pressure points may be involved. The horse needs time to learn to respond to the new cues that he is receiving. In the best-case scenarios, this can take only a few hours. In severe problem situations, this may take a few weeks. For a good horse, whose only problem may be his unhappiness in the mouth, this investment in fixing the problem is almost always time well spent.
Sidebar: (An interesting story of an unusual bit from England that somehow found widespread acceptance with field trialers.)
A very common bit that is seen almost exclusively at bird dog field trials is technically called the “Pascal” bit. This bit seems to have originated in England. Back in the seventies and eighties, there were only a few sources for this strange bit. This particular bit is unusual in the way it functions and how it is constructed. The most unusual part is the mouthpiece that will swivel 360 degrees. In the early eighties, I sent this bit to a bit maker in Texas. He studied the bit for a few weeks, then called me to tell me that he thought he had figured it out. His theory was that it worked so well because it really didn’t work. Sounds confusing, but what he meant by that statement was that this bit wasn’t severe in the horse’s mouth at all, and it seemed to be really comfortable for most horses to carry. The horse could place the port and mouthpiece wherever it was comfortable in its mouth. The only thing that could be severe was the curb chain, especially on the longer shank model.
How and why field trialers came to learn about this bit is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. My first introduction to the Pascal bit was through Wes Buddemeyer from Kansas City, Missouri. Wes was importing them from England and buying 100 at a time. He would then sell them to all his field trial friends for what he had in them. Probably, for this reason, most people referred to these bits as the “Buddemeyer bit.” Others would simply call them swivel-port bits or, if they worked extremely well, “the miracle bit.” Whatever you decided to call this strange bit, the fact remained; it often had great results, and probably over the last 25 years, it has saved a few horses from the meat packing plant. Today this bit is being copied by at least three manufacturers in North America. It still continues to gain wide acceptance. For many people, this unusual bit has become the one of choice for a number of field trial horses.