A snaffle bit that has been properly selected, fitted, and adjusted. Here it is used with a "McCarthy" or mecate outfit that has closed reins plus a long third "leading" rein that tucks into the rider's belt. The rope reins are attached to the bit with leather slobber straps. The most important thing to notice is that the cheekpieces of the bridle-hanger have been shortened just enough to hold the mouthpiece of the bit comfortably against the commissures of the horse's lips. The thickness of the lip shows in the drawing but there is no wrinkling of the skin above the lip. In short, the bit is hung high enough in the horse's mouth that it does not clank against the canine teeth, yet not so high that it stretches the mouth. The commonly-held idea that the bit should be adjusted so that it "puts one or two wrinkles above the corners of the lips" generally results in the bit sitting too high in the horse's mouth. The bridle hanger should not take the slack out of the horse's lips -- leave that flexibility for those moments when the rider needs to communicate with the horse !
How to measure a horse's mouth to select the right size bit. Black arrows indicate the outer surfaces of the commissures of the lips. Place soft dressmaker's tape into horse's mouth, making sure it lies flat and allowing it to conform to the contour of the tongue. Read measurement in inches at each side and subtract the smaller number from the larger one to find the width of the mouth. Alternatively you can "bit" the horse with a length of rope and then measure the rope. Bits come in 1/8" increments of width, from about 4 inches up to about 7 inches wide. Most horses of a size suitable for riding wear a bit between 4 7/8" and 6 1/4" wide. Drawing at right is a see-through image showing how a single-jointed snaffle mouthpiece with ball butts of the right size would lie in the mouth. The butts should seat snugly against the lips, neither hanging out to the side nor pinching the lips and cheeks in. Notice that the cannons are not dead straight but somewhat curving; they should be bent just enough to conform to the shape of the tongue. The tongue is a very large organ and in most horses amply fills the front of the mouth so that its edges overlap the bars somewhat.
This is what I mean by "stretching the lips" or "taking the slack out of the lips". Here I am initiating a right circle on Oliver.I have taken the slack out of the inside rein and am applying enough pressure to stretch Oliver's lips about an inch. Note that this also draws the cheekpiece of the bridle back about an inch. How much pressure did this entail? Go put your finger in the corner of your horse's mouth and stretch the lip back an inch -- that's how much; perhaps 8 ozs., applied smoothly and gradually.
How about foam? Foam forms in a horse's mouth when he salivates and is also moving his tongue. It becomes excessive, dripping out the front of his mouth, when he doesn't swallow his spit -- and that usually occurs when the horse is avoiding touching the bit by drawing his tongue back.
Salivation -- a "moist mouth" -- is good. As to the tongue, we want it soft and mobile, certainly not stiff, immobile, braced, or clamped. Everything about this picture, including the expression in Oliver's eyes, speaks of willingness and focus. Note that his jaws are so loose that the small amount of rein pressure that I am exerting parts his lips and slightly opens his teeth. He "chews" the bit and at the same time, swallows most of his spit.
A little foam "lipstick" is thus OK when you have many other signs that the horse is "turned loose", but dripping foam indicates tension -- or else that the rider is putting on quite an artificial show. Don't make a foaming mouth into an idol as the dressage world has, to the point that competitors will put sand or soap into a horse's mouth to make sure that the judge sees him foaming.
Are bitless devices better? There has recently been a fad whose motto is "the metal-free horse." Like all fads, this one will go about as fast as it came. Fads play to peoples' feelings of pity but they usually reflect a very incomplete or distorted horsemanship. Bitless headgear can be useful in starting young horses, in protecting a school horse from beginner riders who want to clutch onto the reins, in teaching beginners what proper contact feels like, and for re-training horses who have anxiety issues around bits. Are bitless devices "more natural"? Of course not -- nothing whatsoever concerning humankind's relationship to the domestic horse species is -- or can be -- natural. Everything we do in this school of horsemanship is by conscious choice, based upon knowledge.
This photo shows me riding Oliver in a sidepull with a flat leather noseband. When I received him at the age of nine, Oliver did have some bit-anxiety issues and so for a long time I primarily rode him in this sidepull. Gradually, however, we were able to increase the percentage of rides in the bit from 10% of the time to 100% of the time. The last decade of Oliver's life we used the sidepull only as an occasional change of pace. Properly fitted and adjusted as you see here, the sidepull offers a feel very similar to the snaffle bit.
Some so-called "trainers" talk about "progressing" a horse by "moving him up" from a bitless device (bosal or sidepull) into a bit. What this usually means in reality is that the "trainer" has made the horse dull in the bitless device and has reached a point that, for his own safety, he wants to put in a bit. People who think this way conceive of the bit as a means of stopping the horse and for them, more pain equates to more stop. In our school of horsemanship, the bit is a tool of communication and pain is not involved.
If this discussion confuses you, I invite you to attend a Horsemanship Improvement Clinic where you will be taught what roundness, softness, collection, straightness, and contact on draping reins means.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY
Bennett, Deb and Dave Elliott. "The Anatomy of Bitting", an 8-hour mini-course on DVD. Click on the red "Bookstore" button below and find this resource in the DVD section.
Bennett, Deb. "Conquerors: The Roots of New World Horsemanship." This is my tome on the history of riding, and the core theme is the history and usage of the cavesson and bosal. Click on the "Bookstore" button below and find this resource in the books-on-paper section.
Malm, Dr. Gerhard A. 1996. "Bits and Bridles: An Encyclopedia. Grasshopper Publishers, Valley Falls, Kansas 549 pages. The author is a veterinarian and authority on bits and this book shows just about every type of bit ever invented. New and used copies available at Amazon.com, $25 to about $100.
Martin, Ned and Jody. 1997. "Bit and Spur Makers in the Vaquero Tradition: A Historical Perspective." Hawkhill Press, Nicasio CA, 336 pp. A spectacularly beautiful and well-researched trip through the bosal-spade bit tradition. No more comprehensive work is available relating to this core style, an ancient and sophisticated way to ride.
Martin, Ned and Jody. 2001. "Bit and Spur Makers in the Texas Tradition: A Historical Perspective." Similar to the above in being a beautiful, comprehensive and well-researched book, covering the 1870's through the first two decades of the 20th century.
ANSWERS TO BITS AND BITTING QUIZ
( 1 ) 1 -- Incisor teeth. 2 -- Canine teeth. 3 -- "Wolf" tooth (small or vestigial premolar, premolar no. 1). 4 -- Cheek teeth (grinders, molars, molars and large premolars). 5 -- Bars of the mouth (diastema, toothless space). 6 -- Bars of upper jaw (bars of skull). 7 -- Mandible (jaw ramus, jawbone). 8 -- Temporo-mandibular joint (jaw joint, T-M joint). 9 -- Occipital condyles of skull. 10 -- Braincase. 11 -- Frontal sinus area.
12 -- Bony orbit. 13 -- Bony nares (external nares). 14 -- Hard palate (fleshy hard palate, at front end behind incisor teeth called the lampas).
15 -- Same as 14. 16 -- Soft palate (palatal drape). 17 -- Tongue.
18 -- Pink area represents the soft tissues (suspensorium and meniscus) which invest and pad the jaw joint. 19 -- Chin groove. 20 -- Bars of the jaws (the edges of the lower surface of the jaws; as differentiated from the bars of the mouth, which is anatomical part no. 5).
( 2 ) The pair of condyles articulate with the first neck bone (atlas vertebra).
( 3 ) Air
( 4 ) It shows the path of airflow from external nares to throat (and thence down through the larynx and trachea to the lungs).
( 5 ) The tongue.
(6 ) The bars.
( 7 ) 3/8" to 5/8"
( 8 ) No, because the palatal drape seals the mouth off from the pharynx and throat, so that the mouth acts as a separate chamber.
( 9 ) No; the "wolf tooth" is the first premolar tooth which has become reduced (vestigialized).
( 10 ) To the front edges of the most anterior cheek teeth (the 2nd premolar teeth which are the most forwardly-located large grinders).
( 1 ) 1 -- Ring for reins and/or the bridle hanger. 2 -- Butt 3 -- Cannon
4 -- Joint (join or knurl)
( 2 ) A cannon is the outermost part, section, or "branch" of a snaffle mouthpiece.
( 3 ) A, B, E
( 4 ) Use a small, sharp file to smooth and enlarge the edges of the hole in the butt. Better, change to a better butt design, i.e. egg butted, swivel shank, curved tube.
( 5 ) F
( 6 ) To prevent the knurl from gouging the palate.
( 7 ) To prevent the bit from being pulled through the horse's mouth when one rein is pulled firmly. Also to encourage the horse to flex its neck sideways and/or turn its head in response to pressure against the outside of its lips (on the side opposite from the direction of the turn). Cheeks do not create or contribute to leverage because they are not designed to be connected to a curb strap or chain.
( 8 ) C. The cannons are of odd length, so that the knurl is not centered. It is impossible to ride a horse straight or to teach it to carry itself and its rider straight when it is wearing a bit so badly made. Let the buyer beware ! This kind of mis-manufactured bit is FREQUENTLY offered for sale. Consumers should only purchase bits with symmetrical snaffle mouthpieces.
( 9 ) Smooth
( 10 ) Thin (down to 3/8" diameter).
( 1 ) Bit 2 has a port; bits 1 and 3 have a tongue relief.
( 2 ) If the tongue relief is shallow, the bit will "float" on (be wholly supported by) the tongue. If the tongue relief is deep enough, the cannons will rest on the bars. Most horses find the latter very uncomfortable.
( 3 ) On the tongue. Most ports provide little or no tongue relief as the opening below the port is too narrow for the tongue to squish up into.
( 4 ) Yes. The port rotates forward to the same degree that the shanks are pulled back. If the curb strap or chain is adjusted too loosely, this can allow the port to scrape against the roof of the mouth or even gouge into it. Most horses find this quite uncomfortable, and many will open or "gap" their mouths in an effort to take the port out of contact with the roof of their mouth.
( 5 ) The curb chain goes through the upper ring along with the bridle hanger.
( 6 ) Through the rear of the two upper rings. The curb chain or strap is the only thing accommodated by this ring.
( 7 ) Pelham, Bit no. 3. If the reins are attached to the rings at the butts, the leverage effect of the bit is greatly diminished. If no curb reins are used (i.e. only one pair of reins is used and they are attached at the butts), the bit has no leverage effect at all and works like a bar bit. If the bit is used this way the curb strap or chain must be removed or else it will ride up and down against the bars of the jaw.
( 8 ) To permit the horse to graze while still bitted.
( 9 ) To allow room for the thickness of the lips.
( 10 ) To hobble a curb chain and keep it centered, as well as to prevent it from riding up from the chin groove.
( 1 ) To allow for the thickness of the lips, to prevent pinching, and to center the curb strap in the chin groove.
( 2 ) The hooks on Bit no. 4 are longer
( 3 ) Curb chain hooks of appropriate length make it possible for the curb chain to seat precisely in the chin groove.
( 4 ) In the chin groove.
( 5 ) No. No. You should be able to easily slip 2 fingers between the curb chain and the bars of the jaw; there should be 2 to 6 inches of play in the shanks before the curb chain begins to tighten against the chin groove; the curb should not swing free.
( 6 ) Yes, very much, by causing the port or tongue relief to stand still even when the reins are being pulled. Bits of this design are called "Segundos".
( 1 ) All of them; all of them. Contact should occur first with the chin groove. Properly adjusted and used, a curb bit "communicates" primarily with the horse's chin groove and the lower jaw.
( 2 ) All of them.
( 3 ) All of them, no. 3 the most.
( 4 ) All of them, because shanks don't swivel independent of the port/tongue relief.
( 5 ) All of them.
( 6 ) 3
( 7 ) 3
( 8 ) To provide a means of two-way communication between rider and horse.
( 9 ) To stop the horse in an emergency; to assist in overcoming "mouthiness" or other signs of anxiety around being bitted; to teach the horse to carry objects in its mouth as a means of increasing his ability to focus on a given task.
( 10 ) No. If the horse has not learned to stop or slow down from pressure exerted by the halter, sidepull, bosal, and/or snaffle, it is confused or ignorant, and use of a leverage bit, particularly if it is painful, will only add to the horse's distress and confusion.
( 11 ) Not if "stop" has been well learned in the snaffle, and if the rider knows and has thoroughly practiced untracking the hind legs as the fundamental physical means of control.
( 12 ) No horse has the slightest business going on a trailride, or anywhere else outside of a pen or fenced arena, until the two requirements mentioned in ( 11 ) have been met.
( 1 ) 1 -- Bit hobble. 2 -- Tongue tie. 3 -- Training fork (a.k.a. running martingale)
( 2 ) To keep the bit from being pulled through the mouth. Used especially when the bridle has no noseband, or where full cheeks or bit bumpers are not being used.
( 3 ) To keep the horse from throwing its head dangerously high. The equipment shown is correctly adjusted -- the forks of the martingale are barely snug when the reins are horizontal -- but safety stops (small rubber or leather bumpers which keep the rings of the fork from moving too close to the mouth) are missing.
( 4 ) The horse's mouth, especially the anterior cheek teeth and the commissures of the lips.
( 5 ) Yes. A racehorse "runs on air"
( 6 ) To hold the tongue forward in the mouth.
( 7 ) Not commonly. Thoroughbreds at the track perform very gradual down transitions, i.e. they are gradually slowed at the end of a breeze workout or race.
( 8 ) Yes.
( 9 ) Because dressage horses do most of their work at a trot, and this gait demands quite different functioning and conditioning of the muscles of the back and hindquarters than does the gallop or canter.
( 10 ) The poll area, specifically the muscles which overpass the poll, connecting the atlas and axis vertebrae forward to the back of the skull.
( 1 ) a -- True. b -- True. c -- True d -- True e -- False; thick mouthpieces are quite uncomfortable to most horses. See explanation at left of why larger-diameter mouthpieces do not contact the bars any more "softly" than those of smaller diameter. Remember also that there is only 3/8" to 5/8" of space in the average horse's mouth between the upper surface of the tongue and the fleshy hard palate, so this should be the diameter of the mouthpiece or cannons.
( 2 ) Yes -- it rides up the tongue and the bars of the mouth until it comes against the anterior cheek teeth.
( 3 ) The bar of the lower jaw, and the edge of the tongue, on the side where the rein is being pulled.
( 4 ) To prevent the knurl from gouging the palate, and to better conform to the shape of the tongue. Knurls which fall at or outside of the edges of the tongue are usually uncomfortable. The right length of center link is important to correct fit through better conforming to the shape of the tongue.
( 5 ) Very comfortable and can be helpful in re-educating a horse which evinces bitting anxieties or "noisy mouth".
( 6 ) A chain bit should never be used on a trailride or in any other wide open space. It can be used only when the horse is unlikely to try to run away (i.e. in a pen or smaller-sized arena), when the rider expects relatively soft responses to gentle pulls.
( 7 ) Bit bumpers. They prevent pinching of the corners of the lips. They also function like the "cheeks" of a full-cheek snaffle and can be helpful in getting a stiff-necked horse to turn. They come in various sizes and can be fitted onto the mouthpiece of most bits.
( 1 ) The noseband should be adjusted loosely enough that the horse can easily open its mouth (not just its lips, but drop its jaw open) far enough to receive a chunk of carrot as a treat.
( 2 ) Resentment; pain from points on the cheek teeth being pressed into the cheeks at the points where the noseband crosses over the cheek teeth.
( 3 ) Resentment; interference with blood flow to nostrils and lips (numbness); prevent the jaw from shifting forward in the normal manner when the nose is tucked.
( 4 ) No
( 5 ) No
( 6 ) No
( 7 ) To stop or block the jaw from sliding backwards.
( 8 ) No
( 9 ) All but the last choice !