Bitting basics

Have you ever thought of why you use a certain bit, or why someone thinks a certain bit will work for your horse? In many cases, these decisions are based on 1 of 3 things:

  • Habit – you really like the particular bit and use it on every horse.
  • Fashion – because a top rider uses it, now everyone else does.
  • Reference – your instructor or a friend recommended you use a certain bit.

Ideally your horse should help you choose the right bit because not all horses are the same.

Too severe?

Some bits are genuinely more severe than others. The general rule of thumb is that a bit is as hard as the pressure that your hands apply to the mouth, or the pressure your pony creates by pulling. It is often said that a more severe bit used lightly is better than a ‘lighter’ bit used with a constantly heavy hand. A pony’s mouth should always be treated with kindness, sensitivity and respect. Generally speaking the better schooled your pony is, the better he responds to the bit and the lighter your hand can be.

Points of pressure

Anything that goes into a pony’s mouth applies pressure on certain areas, which determines the effect bittingthat a bit has. These points of pressure are the:

  • bars
  • tongue
  • palate
  • lips

Taking action

Bits have different kinds of action in and on the mouth, depending on how they are designed.

  • Nutcracker action – this is the term used for a single jointed bit, like a snaffle which creates a V in the pony’s mouth. This applies direct pressure on the bars and pushes the point of the V towards the pony’s palate. A double-jointed bit like a French link still applies a nutcracker action, but is said to be kinder as it has a softer action towards the palate of the mouth.
  • Lever action – this is applied with a bit with long cheeks, where there is more than one rein (or connectors) used, such as a jointed pelham or Portuguese snaffle. When pressure is applied on the reins, the bottom of the bit shank or cheek rotates backwards, creating a lever action and applying pressure on the poll.
  • Direct pressure – a bit like a straight bar applies direct pressure across the mouth on the bars and the tongue. They can be very useful bits for teaching a young horse to ‘take the contact’.
  • Combination bits – these bits use a combination of actions. They are usually more severe and should be used with kindness. A perfect example is a Portuguese snaffle or gag bit – this bit combines a nutcracker action with a lever action.

Other items create pressure in different areas – aside from the gag which works on the poll, devices such as curb chains will work on the chin, while hackamores put pressure on the bridge of the nose.

Common bits

Snaffles – French link, straight bar, single link and Portuguese
Gags
Pelhams
Kimblewicks
Hackamores

Ports and barrels

The ‘texture’ or ‘shape’ of the mouthpiece also has a huge role to play. The sharpness of the twisted snaffle or the bobbles on a Waterford is far more severe than a normal snaffle, as they provide edges which are sharper on the bars. Bits can also contain a ‘port’ in the mouthpiece, which can relieve tongue pressure or apply palate pressure, depending on the design.

Text: Mandy Schröder