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A Bit About Bits - The Basic Mechanics of Bits and How They Work

By Dan Gilmore

November 4, 2011

Snaffle Bits     Understanding who bits work isn’t that difficult, once you know how each type of bit works and how each bit mechanically operates. That said, a given bit is not meant to be a correction for how the horse obtains the proper frame for any given discipline. Using a ‘stronger’ bit as a solution is not a solution to ‘holes’ in a horse’s training. In fact, sometimes using ‘less’ bit is the solution in that instance.

     The reality is, and this is a conclusion I often get much criticism for, that most horses go just fine in a simple snaffle, curb bit, a bitless bridle or, if your discipline requires, a double bridle provided that the horse has been brought along in a rational and progressive program of training.

     Nevertheless, sometimes a certain bitting scheme is required to bring a horse along in its training. Understanding how these bits work, how the forces each bit exerts and to what degree they exert those forces, along with an understanding of a particular horse and how that horse responds is required.

     There are literally thousands of bits available out there on the market. They range from the simple, traditional varieties to complex patented designs that are essentially fancy gadgets that may or may not accomplish much. In simple terms, there are six types of ‘bitting’ schemes upon which everything else is just a minor variation. One of the six types is actually not technically a bit, that type being the hackamore and other bitless types. The Bitless bridle which I have included as a ‘group’ as it functions as part of a bridle as do true bits.

     All bits fall into one of the following six groups:

     The Snaffle
     The Curb
     They Weymouth or Double Bridle
     The Pelham
     The Gag
     The Bitless Bridles

     Bits (as part of the bridle as a whole) function by exerting pressure upon the various parts of the horse’s mouth and head. These locations upon which the bit and bridle in combination act are as follows:

     The corners of the mouth
     The bars of the mouth
     The roof of the mouth
     The tongue
     The poll
     The curb groove
     The nose

     The snaffle (jointed or not), in simple terms, will cause the horse to raise its head by acting upon the corners of the mouth. In jointed snaffles, the effect is made more pronounced than in the Mullen mouth varieties due to the ‘nutcracker’ effect. A Mullen mouth snaffle exerts a bearing pressure upon the horse’s tongue; if excessive pressure is applied to the horse’s mouth using a jointed snaffle, a gag effect can also be produced. This is especially true if using a Kimberwick or Spanish snaffle (the Kimberwick and Spanish snaffles technically fall under the category of a “Pelham,” because of their action upon the curb groove when used with curb chains).

     The Curb Bit will be described in the section on the Weymouth or Double Bridle for the sake of  eliminating redundancy.

US Cavalry Double Bridle     They Weymouth or Double Bridle contains two bits: the curb and the Bridoon (snaffle). This bit combination, in the hands of a well-trained rider and mouth of a well-trained horse, enables the rider to control more elements of contact with the horse’s mouth and head than any other combination or type of bridle.

     In this “full” configuration, the snaffle or Bridoon is always above and behind the curb in the horse’s mouth. The curb bit is fitted with a chain that acts upon the curb groove on the horse’s jaw. The Bridoon is normally jointed and the curb is generally of the straight bard variety. This combination is designed to give the rider the use of both bits simultaneously.

     The double bridle configuration allows for the positioning of the horse’s head by the snaffle acting upon the corners of the horse’s mouth and by lowering the horse’s head and bring the horse’s nose into a more vertical (and inward) position by the action of the curb, thus facilitating proper bending at the poll. The effect of the curb bit can be modified by varying the degree of the porting of the bit.

     The sequential order in which the parts of the Weymouth/Double Bridle work is as follows:

     The snaffle elevates the horse’s head. The curb acts upon the bars of the horse’s mouth (the port providing the necessary tongue relieve and/or pressure on the roof of the mouth) by bearing down on the bars.

     The curb bit, at the same time, acts upon the poll via the cheek piece of the bridle.

     When the curb chain engages, it produces a downward and backward force on the horse’s jaw.

     The holding of the double reins are generally one of these two methods: The curb rein is outside the little finger and outside the bridoon rein

     -or in other words-

     The bridoon rein is held between the ring finger and little finger; the curb rein under the little finger.

     The double reins can be held in a number of ways to emphasize either the bridoon or curb bit.

double%20reins.JPG     The first scheme is call the “English” method: the bridoon rein is on the outside (under the little finger and over the index finger) and the curb rein on the inside (under the ring finger and over the middle finger). This accentuates the bridoon as the primary bit. “English” handling of the double reins was the method largely adopted by the US Cavalry in using the double bridle. In this method, the snaffle is ‘used’ by the rider and the curb is ‘set’ and the horse ‘uses it’, as an old adage goes.

     The “French” way is: the bridoon rein is on the inside (under the ring finger and over the middle finger) and the curb rein is on the outside (under the little finger and over the ring finger on the trailing end). This accentuates the curb bit. “French” handling of the double reins was largely adopted by European cavalries when a double bridle was used.

     The Pelham is and attempt to combine the snaffle and curb into one bit and is designed to operate with two sets of reins like the Weymouth or Double Bridle. In reality, the Pelham doesn’t do exactly the same thing as a Weymouth or Double Bridle, but is generally used in the same manner by the rider. It cannot be used to achieve the same level of refinement or control as a Double Bridle.

     The Pelham works through pressure on the corners of the horse’s mouth with the action of the snaffle reins. The curb rein causes the mouth piece of the bit to act on the poll and the curb groove when the curb chain engages. If the Pelham is a Mullen mouth type, the pressure is applied to the horse’s tongue and not the bars of the mouth.

     The overall pressure is somewhat nebulous in the way it is imparted which makes the Pelham particularly suitable bit for those riders who have yet to develop good hands. The use of a “bridge strap” or a “German Cheater Strap” which converts the two reins into a single set of reins is a configuration designed for riders who have exceptionally bad hands. The bridge straps reduce the overall action of the Pelham in a way that reduces the chance of the horse getting a shot in the mouth from a sudden action of the rider’s hands or from the inability of the rider to accurately follow the motion of the horse’s mouth.

     The Gag bit is a variation of the snaffle in which certain aspects of the snaffle become amplified  by use of extensions of the cheek pieces that pass through holes in the cheek rings of the bit. The Gag bit will cause the lowering of the horse’s head through and increase in poll pressure. The Gag is best used with two sets of reins, one set of reins being attached to the extensions of the cheek pieces that pass through the cheek rings, and the other set attached directly to the cheek rings. This way, the bit can be used purely as a snaffle when the horse’s head carriage is correct and the gag effect can be applied to correct head position as needed.

     Unfortunately, the Gag bit is all to often used as a means to force a result in correcting a hole in training rather than being purely applied as a training tool and not used as a bit for general riding.

     The Bitless Bridle acts upon the horse’s nose and curb groove through the action of a curb chain in the case of ‘mechanical’ Hackamores. This group also included Bosals and other types of ‘bitless’ bridles that do not have curb chains but in which the principles of operation are the same. The Bitless Bridle can be as simple as a set of rings attached to the side of a nose band or a halter with reins attached. Some consider refinement a near impossibility with a bitless bridle, this belief is quite far from the truth.

     The Hackamore and other Bitless systems are highly misunderstood by most riders. The common belief is that a hackamore is used primarily only for horses that have had their mouths damaged from bad handling and for it’s very effective stopping power in the case of bolters. While this is true to a certain extent, the Hackamore is also capable of accomplishing virtually anything that can be accomplished by the other bit and bridle combination. In the proper hands, a Hackamore, mechanical or otherwise, can impart the five basic rein actions.

     The general application of the Hackamore at it’s most basic level is in essence the same as a curb bit. To obtain optimum performance, the horse must be properly schooled to carry itself and a rider to be sufficiently schooled to let a horse carry itself. That is to say, to properly use a bitless bridle system one must be able to understand all of the other bit and bridle types (the curb in particular), have a thorough understanding of the actions of the reins, legs, seat and balance and how those aides interact the context of a complete system of schooling and control.

     To get the most out of any bitless bridle system one must be capable of getting collection largely through seat and balance alone. The rider must also be willing to school the horse with the intent that the horse can carry itself and respond to the rider’s seat and balance to obtain collection.

     In purely practical terms, the bitless bridle in any form is particularly suitable to jumping and forward riding in the field and with the proper training of the horse and rider in its proper use affords a level of subtle control that is accommodating to the horse.

Copyright 2011, Dan Gilmore, all rights reserved

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