A quick glance through the rulebooks of the major showing societies reveal a rather mealy-mouthed (if you’ll pardon the pun) attitude to bitting. Although some state that bitless bridles are not permitted, most say that the use of harsh bits such as the Swales or Sam Marsh are “actively discouraged”. The pony societies recommend snaffles, but this is open to interpretation. So how can you choose the right bit?
The most important thing when choosing a bit is to consider what is going to be most comfortable for your horse. The bit sits across the bars in the horse’s mouth — the bars are at the back of his jaw, behind his upper and lower teeth on each side. This is where you have “contact” with him, through the reins and the bit.
The bit lies across — and therefore puts pressure on to — the horse’s tongue. If the bit is straight, the tongue absorbs some of the pressure so the horse will feel less pressure on the bars. Horses with big tongues may prefer a thinner bit — although thinner bits are thought to be more severe — as it will leave more room for the tongue. They may also be happier in a jointed bit because it relieves pressure on the tongue, but some dislike the “nut-cracker” action.
It is best to start off with a snaffle (unless you have been advised otherwise) as these are the mildest bits. They have options of D-ring, O-ring or loose-ring, which is where the reins attach to the bit. A four-inch D-ring or full-ring is the most gentle as it has more contact with the side of the horse’s face; the smaller the ring, the sharper the bit.
With snaffles in general, the more surface area of the bit that is touching the horse, the softer the bit. The same applies to the mouthpiece — the part that is actually in your horse’s mouth — the bigger its diameter, the softer it is. You also have the option of rubber or plastic mouthpieces, which can be kinder than plain metal.
Whichever bit you choose, though, it’s crucial that it fits properly and it isn’t worn — sharp edges can rub or pinch. It should rest comfortably in the corners of the horse’s mouth without pinching and the rings should rest against his face without pressing into it. If you can see half an inch or more of the mouthpiece between his lips and the bit-rings, it is too long. This means it can slip sideways in his mouth and make him sore.
It is always worth asking for help, from a knowledgeable friend or your trainer, and if you have access to a “bit bank” you can try several different bits to find which your horse is happiest with. You should make sure your horse has his teeth checked regularly too.
And remember, always: any bit is only as gentle as the rider’s hands.
Image: mouth close-up by Louis via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0