Riders Need To Check The Rules On Legal Bits

A dressage rider goes to a tack shop and sees a bit on display that she feels will suit her horse. As the clerk rings up the sale, the rider asks if the bit is legal for showing. “Sure,” says the clerk. Two months later, at the in-gate of a dressage test, the rider learns the bit is not legal, but it’s too late to change her bridle and save that performance.

The guidelines in the AHSA Rule Book concerning bits are quite general except in the disciplines of dressage, combined-training dressage and Western. In those areas there are specific rules, and officials are present at the competitions to make sure they are followed.

Even though both have strict guidelines concerning legal bits, the dressage and Western rules approach the issue from opposite directions. The Western rules state what isn’t allowed, and thus anything else is OK. The dressage rules show examples of what is allowed, and thus anything else is illegal.

The Western rules, while specific, allow for “tremendous flexibility,” said Ron Rhodes of La Habra Heights, Calif., who’s a Western steward. He described how they follow a basic concept of what would be considered unfair or cruel, such as a shank that would be too long (over 8 ??” long) or a port that would be too high (over 3 ??”) or a bar that would be too thin or thick (outside 5/16 to 3/4”). If a bit meets the parameters, it’s allowed.

The dressage rules list restrictions and then state: “Type of bit should not vary from those pictures below except where specified.” A photograph and drawings of permitted bits is included. Any bit that does not conform to the outline of those illustrations is illegal. This arrangement means there’s an ongoing discussion of what’s legal and what isn’t as variations developed.

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss
The two main reasons why dressage riders may inadvertently end up with an illegal bit at a show are: 1. ignorance, and 2. the proliferation of new bit models each year that creates gray areas.

Lisa Goretta is a dressage technical delegate and owns The Paddock Saddlery in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, so she constantly deals with the subject of legal bits.

“I know there are people who try to get around the rules,” Goretta said, “but most people are operating out of ignorance. They spend a lot of money to do this, and they’re fussy about so many things that aren’t really important, but then they don’t bother to read the rules.”

Many people rely on their friends, instructors and tack shop clerks for advice on legal bits, but much of the time that advice is incorrect or not up-to-date. Goretta keeps a copy of the AHSA Rule Book in her shop for reference, but this isn’t the case with most places that sell tack. Some catalogs have even stated that the bits pictured were “legal,” but while they may be legal for other disciplines they may not be for dressage or all Western classes.

Elisabeth Hellman-Williams of Doylestown, Pa., an AHSA dressage technical delegate and FEI steward, said that new types of bits appear at shows every year: “Often I have to make up my mind on the spot.”

She advises riders to take the rule book with them to the tack shop: “Don’t go for the newfangled stuff. Don’t reinvent the wheel. The old stuff still works.”

Learning What’s Legal For Your Discipline Or Class
The first step a rider should take if concerned about the legality of a bit is so obvious it’s often ignored: Read the rule book.

If a rider isn’t sure that a bit is legal, he or she can check with the technical delegate at a dressage show before tacking up or with the steward or judge at a Western show before the class. Illegal bits are not allowed at any time at a dressage show, while the rules apply at a Western show only in the actual class.

Mary Smith is manager of the AHSA licensed officials office in Lexington, Ky., and also both a Western steward and dressage TD. She points out that if a rider is shopping for bits at a show, they can take a bit to the steward before they buy it or have the steward come to the tack truck and inspect it there.

The rider can also go a step further and send the actual bit or clear photographs to the AHSA. The staff there may be able to give an immediate answer. If not, they’ll refer the question to the appropriate committee.

An “illegal” dressage bit doesn’t mean that the bit is bad or harmful, it just means that the bit doesn’t conform to the rules. So, finally, if a dressage rider has a bit that isn’t legal but feels it should be, the bit can be sent to the AHSA for review by the Dressage Committee. In this way, new types of bits become allowed in competition and other rules concerning bits get changed.

“If you have an illegal bit you want to show in,” said Hellman-Williams, “continue schooling and send a picture of it to the AHSA for a ruling. It may be a long wait for the next committee meeting, but eventually you may be able to use it.”

For example, when Happy Mouth bits made of white plastic appeared on the scene a decade ago they were allowed by some TDs and not by others. The rule was eventually changed to allow bits that were covered with rubber, leather and “synthetic material” so long as they conformed to the outlines in the AHSA Rule Book pictures. Happy Mouth bits that don’t have smooth mouthpieces, however, aren’t allowed.

Goretta recalls that when some bit makers tried to copy the football-shaped center piece that became popular in double-jointed snaffles they came up with a shape that was more like a soccer ball. This went before the Dressage Committee and was determined to be legal. But a center piece with a dent in it like a port was not.

Both the Dr. Bristol snaffle, with a straight-edged plate in the middle, and the more common French snaffle with a concave, flat center section, are legal. However, the Dr. Bristol is no longer allowed in a double bridle as of January 1999.

New Rules and Gray Areas
It can be frustrating for dressage riders to keep up with the current rules on bitting since they may be adjusted in some way each year, often to conform with FEI rule changes.

For example, one long-standing rule forbade dressage bits made of more than one type of metal, such as steel and copper. This extended to double bridles, so that both bits had to be made of the same metal, even the same type of “German silver,” which was often difficult to determine after they had been slobbered by a horse. “Mixed metal was always a boondoggle,” said Goretta. The rule was changed in January so that a mixture of metals is now allowed.

Hellman-Williams said that the USDF is starting to designate “TD mentors” in some regions so that riders with questions about equipment and rules can get them answered before they get to the shows.

Discrepancies also occur with the way that bits are inspected. At dressage shows, a volunteer steward may do bit checks either before or after the ride by sticking a gloved finger in the horse’s mouth.

The AHSA doesn’t actually require dressage shows to do bit checks except at certain competitions, so many smaller shows don’t have them, although combined training events usually do.

If the ring steward does see a questionable bit, they’ll consult with the technical delegate. The judge can also eliminate a rider with an illegal bit, but that’s rare since judges can’t usually see the part of the bit that’s in the horse’s mouth.

In the reining division and in stock-seat medal classes, bridles are dropped at the end of each ride and inspected by the AHSA steward. In other Western classes, the judge may occasionally ask for bridles to be dropped during the lineup.

Smith said she’s never had an instance of an illegal bit when the b ridle was dropped after a reining or stock-seat ride because “they know the bit will be inspected, but people may get by in Western pleasure classes.” However, she’s eliminated riders with curb chains that weren’t wide enough or that were twisted. She encourages riders to become knowledgeable and to ask questions beforehand because the TDs and stewards don’t want to eliminate riders: “They’d rather the riders go in the ring legal than be penalized.”

Because of inconsistency in checking bits, a dressage rider who isn’t clear on the rules may compete in an illegal bit for some time before actually being “caught,” perhaps at a championship where they encounter someone checking bits for the first time that season.TDs hear riders say that “other judges allowed the bit,” or “the tack shop said it was OK,” but the responsibility remains clearly on the rider.

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