History of the Bit
Although early riders could jump onto a pony and happily ride it without a saddle, not having any kind of steering or control very soon was seen as a huge disadvantage. The earliest method of controlling a horse was to put a rope around the jaw, like a sort of hackamore, but humans have always been inventive, and it wasn't long before the advantages of using something resembling the modern bit was discovered. At archaelogical sites showing signs of horse domestication antler cheekpieces have been found which served as toggles to soft mouth pieces, probably made of rope, rawhide or sinew.
Excavations from the Ukrainian steppes have unearthed horse teeth from 4,000 BC which show possible signs of wear from using a bit.
In 1,500 BC metal snaffle bits first appear - both a plain bar and jointed.
Bits have evolved from the original snaffle to a bewildering array of shapes, sizes and materials so bitting a horse is no easy task! Walk into any tack shop and you will be presented with a whole wall of options for your horse. Whole books are written on the subject, and this web page can only give very basic information! But a few of the major types of bit are described below.
Points of control
The bit and bitting influences the control you have over your horse - it provides you with steering and brakes. However, riders sometimes use bits to solve behavioural problems best tackled in more appropriate ways.
The bit influences seven points of control - the poll, nose, curb groove, corners of the mouth/lips, bars of the mouth, roof of the mouth and the tongues. Rein aids create pressure at these points - when the horse responds pressure should be released. For example, the poll pressure and curb groove will tilt the horse's nose in towards his chest.
Bits come in all shapes and sizes, and in a variety of materials. Bits are an incredibly large and confusing subject - if possible find an expert to discuss the individual needs of you and your horse with. It is always better to work with a less severe bit rather than risk damaging your horses mouth.
There are five main types of bits each of these types have variations and they all bring a pressure in a different place. There are seven "points of control" (not all within the mouth):poll (indicates to the horse to lower his head), nose, curb groove (when used in addition to poll pressure this tilts the horse's nose in towards his chest and more towards the conventional "on the bit" position), corners of the mouth/lips, bars of the mouth, roof of the mouth and the tongue. rein aids create pressure at these points; when the horse responds, pressure should be released.
Mouthpieces can be solid or hollow. A broad-mouthed, loose ringed jointed snaffle is considered to be one of the kindest bits. It brings pressure to bear on the tongue and bars and corners of the mouth (known as the nutcracker action) with the rings allowing play in the mouthpiece. The thinner the diameter of the mouthpiece the more severe the bit becomes. Adding a link, such as the French link, which lies in a curve against the tongue can soften the contact. The Dr Bristol, which lies flat but at an angle acts on the tongue in a more severe way. The mullen mouth snaffle has a gentler action than the jointed mouthpiece. It is even milder if it is made from a flexible, soft material. The mullen mouth spreads pressure across the whole tongue but it's rigidity may encourage horses to lean on the bit. Eggbut rings allow less play in the mouth but help prevent pinching to the lips. Loose rings encourage mouthing.
Loose ring snaffle
French link snaffle
Full cheek snaffle
As you can see - even snaffle bits are not a simple subject with 10 options for snaffle bit cheeks alone! (e.g. Loose ring, Eggbutt, Dee, Full Cheek, and Half Cheek!)
A broad mouthed loose ring snaffle is considered to be one of the kindest bits. The thinner the diameter of the mouthpiece, the more severe the bit becomes. The loose rings can allow play in the mouthpiece - eggbut rings allow less play in the mouth, but help prevent pinching to the lips. The French Link has an additional piece which lies in the groove against the tongue and softens the contact.
To fit a snaffle bit place the fingers on the corners of the bit where the mouthpiece joins the rings. Press down to straighten the bit in the mouth. The mouthpiece should just touch the corners of the mouth and, when released, cause one or two creases in the skin. if the bit is too large, it has a tendency to sit unevenly in the mouth, hanging out of one side - the leverage applied will be much greater on one side. If the bit is badly made and doesn't hang evenly when folded in half then again leverage is applied unevenly.
This looks similar to snaffles but gags are, with the exception of a chiffney bit, the most dangerous of bits and can cause terrible injuries. Gags have the same pressure points as a snaffle, but with the addition of the leather attachment can have up to 12 inches of additional leverage. This can impose an extreme force on the poll and the corners of the mouth. Like pelhams the gag is a two rein bit.
Technically the gag is a snaffle with the addition of leverage action on the poll. This is a strong bit, good for horses which pull. Two reins whould be added to allow for more subtle use.
The Dutch gag, pictured above, is very popular for competition, and allows for a snaffle, pelham or curb action depending on the rein positions.
Gag bits are very useful, but if used incorrectly can be extremely dangerous and painful for the horse.
To fit a gag fit as for the snaffle above but the tightness of the cheek pieces will have an impact on the severity. The higher the fitting, the more constant pressure there is on the poll. If the fitting is lower and looser then the pressure is quicker and the contact more violent.
A bitless bridle works on the poll and nose pressure. The noseband should fit two fingers' width below the prominent cheek bones at the side of the face. The under-part is padded and acts above the curb groove. The longer the shanks the more poll pressure there will be. A horse cannot breathe through its mouth so careful use of gentle giving hands is a necessity with a hackamore.
Pelham - the pelham attempts to achieve the same results on its own as a double. This bit is designed to be ridden on two reins, so that the top rein (snaffle rein) operates in much the same way as a snaffle. When necessary the bottom curb rein is used to introduce poll and curb action. the pelham has a wide range of mouthpieces such as mullen mouth and jointed mouth.
The pelham is the most commonly used type of bit after the standard snaffle. It should be used with two reins to allow for maximum control - the bottom rein is only applied when needed to introduce poll and curb action. The pelham has a wide range of mouthpieces such as mullen mouth and jointed mouth (shown above).
To check that a pelham or kimblewick is sitting correctly in the horse's mouth, press gently on the corners of the bit and then release it. There should be one or two creases in the corners of the mouth.
The snaffle bit of a double is known as a bradoon. In addition to the bradoon a curb bit is introduced. the bradoon operates in the same way as a snaffle on its own. The curb bit is intended to operate on those points of control not already being used by a snaffle bit i.e. the poll and the curb groove. In dressage you are permitted to use a double bridle from Elementary level onwards, but it is not compulsory until you reach Advanced level.
To fit a curb chain place one link over the offside hook, ensure that the links are lying flat and take up the link judged to be the right length. Place this link over the nearside hook. When the shanks are at a 45 degree angle, the curb chain should come into effect.
When selecting a curb chain make sure it has a smooth finish. Take care when adjusting it . If it is fitted too loosely it can rise above the curb groove and damage the lower jaw. If it is fitted too tightly the action will be too severe and excessive pressure can damage the curb groove and bars of the mouth. The lip strap attaches at each side of the bit's cheeks and passes through the loose link at the lower edge of the centre of the chain. It makes sure that the curb chain sits correctly and that curb bits such as the Banbury cannot rotate too far.
With a double bridle, the curb bit should be the correct size to fit the horse's mouth and the bradoon should be oversized by quarter of an inch.
Bits are made up of different materials.
Rubber, plastic and vulcanite.
Sweet Iron (better known as wrought iron), these bits rust easily. This type of material makes the horse mouth the bit well but the rust tends to show on the face of the horse. Also difficult to clean.
Stainless Steel , strong and easy to clean, can make the horse dry mouthed.
Copper Alloys, bits such as Kangaroo and Aurigan (manufactured by Sprenger). The horse salivates and accepts the bit. It quickly responds to temperature changes.