Custom Bits Require A Savvy Owner

There are two ways to look at bits: One is that a good bit is a good bit, and it should work well in most any horse’s mouth. The other is that there exists a right bit for each horse’s mouth, and the challenge is to find it. Either way, the more you know about bits and bitting the better you’ll be able to figure out what works best for your horse and the more interested you may become in custom-made bits.

Bear in mind that each discipline has its own written rules and unwritten standards. A bit maker may specialize in a discipline different from yours. Take the time to investigate your own discipline’s parameters before investing in your custom bit (see June 1999 “Riders Need To Check The Rules On Legal Bits”). The American Horse Shows Association has a new web site that includes the current Rule Book in its entirety:

Design Your Own Bit
The main advantage to a custom bit is that you can get exactly what you want. You can combine the components from thousands of possibilities. Many bit makers stock bit parts and assemble these to fill your order. Others say they create too many possibilities to catalog. To order a bit from Rod Teuscher, for example, you can call and describe what you want, draw it, photograph something similar and describe your desired modifications, or look at the nearly 100 bits on his wall and point out the options you desire.

We asked Teuscher what happened if we got our bit and it didn’t work exactly as we needed; he can make many small modifications by reworking the original bit. While many of the bit makers will create any bit you describe, they won’t attempt to duplicate a bit currently being made and sold by another company.

When designing your custom bit, you select the mouthpiece you want and choose the cheeks, shanks or rings you want to go with it. Myler uses this method of ordering custom bits.

You can choose from nine styles of snaffle mouthpieces at Seminole. Seminole’s catalog also shows a variety of traditional rings, plus gags and multiple-ring elevator cheeks to go with your snaffle mouthpiece choice. If you want a Seminole curb, first decide between a solid and a loose connection between mouthpiece and shank. You can then choose from 12 styles of bit mouthpieces available in solid cheek or six styles of mouthpiece available in loose-jaw form.

You have nearly infinite shank options. All possible lengths are available. Some bit makers measure the length from mouthpiece to rein ring (Darnall and Dutton, for example); others measure the whole length from cheekpiece ring to rein ring (Myler); still others like Teuscher measure the effective length — from just inside the headstall ring to where the rein attaches partway down the rein ring — so be sure to ask.

Shank shapes are varied and range from the traditional Spanish vaquero to modern. Leverage will differ. The actual shank length does not determine the leverage; the ratio of purchase to shank length and the angle of the shanks do. The longer the shanks in relation to the purchase (upper branch of shank), the greater the leverage. The straighter the shanks, the more immediate the signal; shanks that angle backward have a smaller angle of pull and therefore a softer signal. Straight shanks that are long — and also long when compared with the purchase length — are best suited for finished horses.

Bit width can be ordered as you desire. Measure your horse’s mouth from corner to corner (you can use a smooth stick the diameter of a bit, mark it where it emerges from your horse’s mouth on both sides, and compare it to a tape measure or ruler). Or, measure a bit you use that fits him (the bit is measured from the inside edge of one shank or ring to the other).

The correct width of mouthpiece leaves 1/8” to 1/4” clearance between the shank or ring and the lip on each side of the bit. Be certain that the purchases of any curb are wide enough to allow room for the cheeks and molars. The front molars are wider across than the corners of the horse’s mouth.

An average horse mouthpiece width is 5” to 5 ??”. Seminole sells mostly 5 1/4” wide mouthpieces “to comfortably accommodate today’s larger horses.” Teuscher considers a 5” mouthpiece standard; he will make any width. If miniature horses are your interest, you might well need to go to a custom bit to get a good fit in the style you want.

Bit Makers In Brief
Balding supplies a clearly printed, well-organized folder showing line drawings and prices of their bit options. They are known for their ballhinge joint between mouthpiece and shanks.

Cheaney has produced a number of video tapes including two on bit making; he handcrafts bits in addition to his saddlemaking business. A catalog of Cheaney’s video tapes is also available.

Darnall’s large number of bits pictured in his catalog have written descriptions; options are listed below each bit. The shanks are also described separately, and the snaffle mouthpieces are pictured separately. Darnall’s clear, well-illustrated and helpful booklet A Bit of Information is published by Western Horseman 719/633-5524. The booklet includes a good section on curb bit balance.

Dutton also offers a tremendous variety of mouthpieces and shanks, but his catalog made our choices difficult. We found the photographs of the bits a bit grainy and the numbering system confusing.

Although clear descriptions were included in the back of the catalog, it was time-consuming to find the bit photo that matched the description. He has produced a series of five video tapes on bitting, which are available from Smith Brothers, 800/433-5558.

Israel personally tries a number of the bits he produces. He is known for his colt bit and specializes in bits for cutting and roping. All his bits feature his standard 5/8” hollow mouthpiece. A catalog is not available.

Miller’s 1993 catalog is part catalog and part scrapbook, with cowboy poetry, essays and line drawings throughout. (The company is moving, so we were only able to get a 1993 catalog.)

There are some exquisitely designed and beautifully decorated custom shanks and rings pictured, with prices and options (mouthpiece styles and widths available) conveniently listed below. The focus is on bits for finished Western horses and on silver work for show or the professional working cowboy. Their current catalog with adjusted prices is scheduled to be released soon.

Myler’s bits have been adopted and distributed by Toklat Originals. Their modern-style bits are described clearly and briefly in their full-color brochure.

Bitting information and further descriptions of their bits are found in their book A Whole Bit Better. The book includes helpful photographs and line drawings and is available through Toklat.

Seminole provides an extremely clear and well-organized black-and-white-slick catalog with excellent photographs of their bits and bit options. The ordering suggestions are clear, complete and helpful.

Sliester’s catalog is in production, but the color draft we obtained shows off their many bits beautifully. They specialize in modern-style Western show bits.

Teuscher, who has researched bits and bit-making history, lectures at a technical college. He has no catalog but encourages customers to see the wide array of bits in his shop. He also creates bits from drawings and descriptions.

Each manufacturer has one or more professionals available by phone to help you with bit and bitting questions. In some cases, you’ll get the craftsman himself. Bit makers combine knowledge of horses’ mouths, training techniques, and how bits work to determine their own philosophy of design.

Most of the bit makers are also riders and trainers, or they work closely with winning professionals. Bitting philosophies make interesting reading, watchi ng (in the videos) and discussing. In all cases, you will receive valuable information on the function and use of custom bits.

Curb Bit Balance
The master bit makers know that there is more to making a bit than choosing a mouthpiece and cheeks to combine, particularly with curbs. You can’t go too far wrong by choosing the components from a professional bit maker as long as you avoid extremes, but if you order, for example, a spade mouthpiece on ornate shanks, the bit maker must assemble the bit so that it is properly balanced.

Bit balance causes the bit to hang well or poorly in the horse’s mouth. While balance is important in light-weight bits, balance in heavy bits and those with high (2” or more) ports is crucial.

An off-the-shelf bit can be well balanced or poorly balanced, just as a custom bit can. Part of the evaluation lies in how the bit works, but sometimes it helps to eliminate factors like how the horse holds his head or to compare two bits at a time.

The balance point is the mouthpiece. Hold the mouthpiece across your hand, or balance it on a fence rail. Look from the side and draw an imaginary line from the headstall rings through the butt of the mouthpiece (where the mouthpiece meets the shank).

The line may or may not follow the shanks down below the mouthpiece. If the upper part of this line angles back toward the horse’s tongue, the bit is considered over balanced. Over balance is useful when bitting horses who move with their nose in front of the vertical (cutting horses, for example), and is not a problem as long as it is not too extreme.

If the upper part of this line angles toward the horse’s nostrils, the bit is considered under balanced. Under balance is a problem because any height in the mouthpiece will tend to point toward the palate, and the curb strap will tend not to release.

A bit that hangs near vertical is desirable for a horse who carries his head in a schooled position (nose at or slightly ahead of the vertical). The heavier the bit (and some old-style custom bits can be quite heavy) the more it will encourage the horse to carry his head in the position where the bit is balanced. This is why it is important to determine the bit’s balance as you decide whether the bit will suit your horse and style of riding.

Bottom Line
A custom bit can be a work of art, a collectible, a statement of your commitment, and the best combination of components to help your horse understand your signals. Regardless of your choice, you’ll enjoy better communication with your horse for understanding more about how bits work, what your bitting options are, and for being able to choose the “right bit for your horse.”

While you may be able to tell within 10 or 15 minutes if a new bit works, it may take a week or more for you and your horse to get settled in and working well in it.

When you talk with a custom-bit maker, be prepared. Know all your horse’s mouth measurements, what you desire in a bit and why (to promote discussion with a qualified professional bit maker), the disciplines you compete in and your personal budget.

Discuss openly and in detail what you have in mind. Ask about guarantees and what types of detailed information the bit maker needs to finish the bit. These professionals have the ability to design the bit you desire, but if your information is not perfect, you can’t expect a perfect finished product.

Contact Your Local Tack Store Or: Tom Balding Bits and Spurs, 800/672-8459,; Cheaney’s Custom Saddles, 940/668-8607; Greg Darnall Bits and Spurs, 800/357-9861; Greg Dutton Bits, 505/865-9132; John David Israel,918/846-2546; Miller Bit & Spur, 208/453-8748; Myler Bits, 800/354-3613; Toklat Originals, Inc., 888/286-5528,; Seminole Bit & Spur, Inc., 888/254-0746; Sliester – Bits, 888/855-2511; RT Bit & Spur (Rod Teuscher), 940/665-8874.

Also With This Article
Click here to view ”Custom Bit Manufacturers Bit Availability.”
Click here to view ”Bit And Bridle Pressure Points.”
Click here to view ”Decorative Touches.”
Click here to view ”Materials For Your Bit.”

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