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Finding the Right Bit

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Selecting a Good Bit for you and your Horse
Carla Huston BES

For many people, selecting a bit is a matter of guesswork, trial
and error or habit. Catalogues and magazines offer a huge array
of bits, often with conflicting descriptions of their purpose.
Everyone seems to have their own theory about what mouthpiece to
use when, and their reasons behind the use of each piece are as
variable as the weather. But until the rider understands the
action of the bit and where the horse feels pressure it will not
be a matter of finding the right bit, but knowing how to use it.

There are two basic classifications of bits, the snaffle and the
curb, determined by the type of pressure they apply. The snaffle
acts on direct pressure. This is the simplest and usually the
gentlest bit, good for green horses and green riders, although it
is also appropriate for the more advanced. Pressure is exerted on
the corners of the mouth, lips, bars and tongue. The mouthpiece
may be broken (jointed) or straight (mullen); the joint relieves
pressure on the tongue and bars, while the mullen mouth can have
a port for tongue release. Severity of the snaffle bit is
determined by the circumference of the mouthpiece, the smaller it
is, the harsher. Adding a twist, slow or otherwise, also
increases the damaging effects.

The curb bit works by the principle of leverage. Any bit with
shanks, regardless of the mouthpiece, is a curb. Usually the
mouthpiece is a solid bar, straight or with a port, and applies
pressure to the bars and lips. The port supplies tongue relief
and also puts light pressure on the roof of the mouth. Because of
the fulcrum action of the mouthpiece, most curbs exert some
pressure on the poll right behind the ears when the reins are
pulled. The curb chain, placed in the chin groove, puts pressure
there and limits the rise of the port. The length of the shanks
contributes to the severity of the bit, with harshness increasing
as the length does.

The mechanical hackamore may also be considered a bit, although
it does not have a mouthpiece. Used on horses that have injured
mouths or that will not accept one, they have very long shanks
that exert a great deal of pressure to the nose and chin groove
with very little pull on the reins. Improperly used, the
mechanical hackamore can be very damaging. The true hackamore is
often used to start young horses in training and is gentler than
the mechanical. The bosal fits closely around the horse's nose
and low near the soft cartilage, applying pressure to the nose
and chin. It is held in place with a headstall and fiador, a
small double rope that attaches to the heel knot (at the chin)
and serves as a throatlatch. The mecate wraps around the bosal in
front of the heel knot, long enough to form a continuous rein and
attached lead rope. This is a good training tool as it is mild,
and also introduces the horse to both lateral and bearing rein
pressure, without risking injury to the young animal's mouth.

It is essential that the bit fit properly. The mouthpiece must be
wide enough for the horse's mouth. The snaffle should rest on the
bars at the corners of the mouth. All rings should be large
enough so that they do not pull through the mouth. Often the lips
are pinched by rings that are poorly made with exposed joints.

Again, the curb mouthpiece rests on the bars at the corners. The
curb chain needs to be adjusted correctly, with room for two
fingers between it and the horse's jaw. Too loose, it will pinch
the corners of the mouth when the reins are pulled, too tight and
the jaw is trapped between the chain and bit. The mouthpiece
needs to be of a comfortable thickness for the horse's mouth so
that he can comfortably carry it.

The effectiveness of the bit only goes as far as the rider; it is
only as good as the hands on the reins. It is essential to
realize that the bit is intended for communication, not control.

Many riders move their horse too quickly out of the gentler
snaffle bit because they want "brakes," rather than improve their
understanding of the bit's use. When horses develop behavior or
training problems, the common step is to increase the severity of
the bit, hoping for improved response. Instead, improvement can
more often be found by using a milder bit; the horse can relax
without fear of being hurt and listen to the rider's aids.
Backing the horse up in his training for a period may help him
move forward.

Choosing the proper bit is determined by the horse's level of
training, the type of riding being done, and the ability of the
rider. Bits should not be considered cure-all problem solving
devices; they are one means of communication with your horse, and
their effectiveness is literally in the rider's hands.

Understanding the horse's nature and behavior is necessary, and a
bagful of bits will not take you there. But combine that
knowledge with a carefully selected bit the horse is comfortable
with and the rider uses properly, and the learning curve for both
is expanded.

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