The most frequently asked question in riding and horse training may be, ”What’s the best bit for my horse’”
It’s a question almost always followed by the vague hope, ”Maybe he’ll go better (jump higher, be softer, carry his head correctly) if I change bits.”
The constant search for the perfect bit is exactly why we riders and trainers have so many choices. The Dover Saddlery catalog offers seven pages of bits, and at some large horse shows you’ll even find entrepreneurs who’ll custom make a bit just for your horse.
Perhaps that’s why we often get asked, ”How do I know which bit to use on my horse’”
To help address this equestrian uncertainty, we published an interview with Dr. Hillary Clayton on the subject in our March issue (p. 13), although the prominent equine researcher may not have had the answer many wanted to hear. Her advice was, ”The size and the shape of the bit is individual to every horse, meaning you have to keep trying until you find a bit they’re comfortable with.”
As a follow-up, we decided to conduct our own real-life trial on our farm. We usually have about a dozen horses in training, primarily to compete in eventing or dressage. They range from three-year-olds who’ve come to be started under saddle to three two-star horses, Thoroughbreds and warmbloods, from 14.3 hands to 17.3 hands. In other words, we have a pretty good cross-section of ages and types of horses.
Bits To Horses
We tested five types of loose-ring bits on seven of these horses: a three-year-old Thoroughbred filly being started under tack; a six-year-old Thoroughbred gelding and a seven-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, each quite green but with rather different personalities; a 10-year-old Connemara/Quarter Horse-cross who’s an eager worker; a five-year-old Irish Draught/warmblood-cross; a five-year-old Hanoverian; and a 14-year-old Thoroughbred gelding who’s won intermediate horse trials. (See page 12 for descriptions of the bits in this trial.)
Probably the biggest reminder this experiment gave us was that the main difference among snaffle bits of all kinds is whether they’re single-jointed or double-jointed. Almost all horses prefer one to the other, a preference largely determined by the size and shape of the horse’s mouth. It’s a fitting issue roughly comparable to us humans and our shoes.
Clayton’s thorough research showed that, in addition to the varying widths of horse’s mouths, the distance between their tongues and their hard palates (the roof of the mouth) can vary considerably. And horses with smaller distances tend to prefer double-jointed snaffles because the shorter bars don’t press into their hard palates.
Clayton also noted that the size of the horse isn’t a good indicator of the size of his mouth, that a 17-hand horse can have a smaller mouth than a 15-hand horse.
Mouth Size Matters
Two horses in particular certainly emphasized Clayton’s point about mouth size — Sysco, the seven-year-old Thoroughbred, and Sheaman, the five-year-old Irish Draught/warmblood-cross. These two horses are at roughly the same level of training, but Sysco is four or five inches taller than Sheaman. Sysco was working in a white plastic double-jointed snaffle, and Sheaman was working in a single-jointed full-cheek snaffle, when we tried the Korsteel double-jointed snaffle on both.
Sysco, who was wary about contact with any bit, was, surprisingly, more willing to accept the Korsteel bit than the plastic bit. For the first two or three days he leaned rather heavily on it, but then he seemed to accept its presence to a greater degree than the other bit. He suggested this by no longer rearing if he was corrected by the right rein.
Sheaman tends to get heavy in the hands and ignore the bit, and the Korsteel double-jointed bit had no noticeable effect on him. He certainly seemed to like it, but its influence on him was limited.
So we tried the Myler single-jointed snaffle on both of them, each with rather noticeable effects. Sysco proved that he’s a double-jointed guy, giving this bit four hooves down. He chewed agitatedly, almost to the point of distraction, and tilted his head dramatically to the right throughout the ride. And he never softened into the bit — reactions that disappeared when we rode him in the Korsteel double-jointed again the next day.
But Sheaman accepted the Myler single-jointed snaffle. Although he too initially tilted his head (as he always has), he worked with a noticeably lighter feel and chewed happily.
On the second day we also removed his flash noseband, and he quickly began to work with more lightness and attentiveness than we’d seen before.
His previous trainer had used a full-cheek snaffle with a figure-eight noseband, trying to prevent him from grabbing the bit and pulling. We surmise that he prefers a thinner, single-jointed bit and that he likes to be able to move his jaw to chew.
The six-year-old Thoroughbred had also been working in the double-jointed plastic bit, and he seemed to be a bit steadier in his head with the Korsteel double-jointed snaffle.
As a further experiment, we also rode Sheaman with the Sprenger single-jointed snaffle and the Korsteel single-jointed snaffle. Honestly, we couldn’t tell any difference between the bits, but he definitely preferred them to the full-cheek snaffle he’d been wearing.
And we tried Sysco in the Stubben double-jointed snaffle to see how it compared to the Korsteel double-jointed snaffle. He produced noticeably more saliva and seemed slightly more receptive to the bit, perhaps slightly more willing to soften. Is it worth $30′ Perhaps, but it’s hard to say at this stage of his training.
Wheaties, the Connemara/Quarter Horse-cross, had been working in a Korsteel double-jointed snaffle, so we put the Stubben snaffle on him. He seemed more eager to come into the Stubben than the Korsteel. He showed less tendency to avoid the bit by coming behind it, and, when that evasion didn’t work, he showed markedly less tendency to try to pull the reins out of his rider’s hands, allowing half-halts to be more effective.
We tried both the Sprenger single-jointed snaffle and the Korsteel single-jointed snaffle on Lottie, a three-year-old Thoroughbred filly who’s longeing in preparation for starting under saddle. She’d been wearing a bridle to longe for about 60 days before we started this experiment, and she chewed distractedly and fussily with both bits, especially during the first few minutes of each session (as she had with the loose-ring she’d previously been wearing). We didn’t notice any difference, whether or not sidereins were attached to the bit.
When we tried the Korsteel double-jointed snaffle on her, she acted noticeably less fussy longeing to the left without sidereins, but when we changed direction and loosely attached the sidereins, she resumed fussing and chewing distractedly.
Fit And Dentistry
Our observation and experience is that often it’s not the bit that’s the problem; it’s the fit of the bridle, lack of equine dental care, or the rider’s ability. A different bit isn’t going to solve any of those issues, even if the horse seems to ”go better.”
The most common fitting error, as Clayton pointed out, is that people adjust the bridle so that the bit sits too low, sometimes even banging into the incisors. And then they wonder why the horse fusses or flips his head. The bit should be relatively high in the horse’s mouth, adjusted so that there are two or three wrinkles on each side of his mouth.
Horses also accept any bit much more readily if you have a veterinarian or an equine dentist regularly float their teeth, at least once a year. (Some horses need to be floated twice a year, depending on the shape of their mouths and diet.) If your horse is fussing about the bit, tilting his head constantly, leaning heavily, unwilling to turn in one direction, or violent when you touch the bit, the first thing you should do is get his teeth checked. Just like you, horses are much happier when their teeth aren’t scraping the sides of their mouth or don’t need to be pulled.
If your horse isn’t training as well as you think he should, spend your money on dentistry before you just start buying bits.
These five bits are all useful and well-made bits, and they can each suit different horses. We didn’t rank them because their effectiveness depended on the horse, as you can see through the reactions we received from our test horses. The design feature that had the most noticeable effect was whether they were single- or double-jointed.
We found that a higher price doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better bit — for your horse. A pricier bit might be made of something your horse likes or curved the way he likes, but quality in bits isn’t as directly related to price as in it is, say, saddles or riding boots. And your horse has no idea what the bit costs.
Still, you really do have to experiment until you find the right one. And that means that, if you keep riding, you’ll begin to develop a bit collection. We have more than three dozen bits in our tack room (about 95% snaffles).
Remember, too, that no bit, no matter how expensive, can completely overcome poor riding (especially rough, inexperienced or unforgiving hands caused by an insecure seat) or training that’s emphasized what’s happening at the front of the horse and forgotten that the engine at the back is what really matters.
Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor. A graduate A Pony Clubber, John has decades of experience in eventing, steeplechasing and dressage. As editor of The Chronicle of the Horse for 20 years, he covered six Olympics. With his wife, he operates Phoenix Farm, a breeding/training facility in California.