Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tracy Meisenbach: A Bit Over Rated

A Bit Over Rated

Bits are the most misunderstood and misused pieces of equipment within the horse industry. People are always looking for the “magic” bit that will make their horse behave, win, go slower, go faster, look happy etc. They ignore the fact that training has to take place before a bit can do any of these things, and the training needed is usually based on everything EXCEPT the bit.
I’ve studied bits all my life, from my first horse in the 1970s to the present it’s been a lifelong journey of horses and the bits that they use. At this stage I have a pretty consistent set of go to bits; a bosal, a full cheek or a loose ring smooth mouth snaffle, a sweetwater mouth medium shank curb, a mullen or low port Pelham, and a short S shanked hackamore. Any horse coming out of my barn can be ridden in these bits and do anything you want to do that involves a horse.
During my journey I have collected bits, some through outright purchase and others came with problem horses I was rehabbing. Most of these bits hang from my tackroom wall, covered in dust, a testament to what is useless, over rated or simply inhumane. A very few I might get out, dust off and use for one particular issue, and once the issue is solved the bit goes right back on the wall. I do have a show spade bit, and I can ride in one and pass a thread/horsehair test, but there really is no need to use it, it accomplishes nothing that I can’t do with another milder bit, and my horse certainly appreciates not having to carry the weight and metal in his mouth.
When people buy a bit for the purpose of CONTROLLING the horse, they are already set up to fail. A bit isn't about control, it’s about communication. Control should be established before you ever get on the horse. Whoa means WHOA. Stand means STAND. Every other cue should be in place before your butt hits the saddle. If you can’t walk, stop, trot, stop, canter, stop, back, reverse, sidepass, turn on the forehand, pivot your horse in hand from the ground, how on earth can you expect to do it from his back? If you let your horse drag you around by the halter, why are you surprised when he drags you around by the bridle? If your horse barges into you on the ground, why are you surprised when he barges over your cues from the saddle?  At the point where you CONTROL the horse in every aspect from the ground, then you are ready to COMMUNICATE from the saddle. Control does not translate as abuse; neither does communication, although both can be used during discipline or reward.
Are you a bit junky? If you've switched bits more than a few times and nothing is working then yes, you’re a junky, because you’re looking for a solution in hand that needs to begin on your feet. If you always go up in severity instead of down, then you’re not only a junky, you’re asking for bigger problems to come along. If you routinely scour the bit sales groups, ebay and craigslist for the magical bit that is going to solve your horse’s problems then you’re a junky and in sore need of some lessons to boot. A bit does NOT train the horse. The horse is trained by communication through the seat, legs, hands and finally the bit. You train the horse's mind, not his mouth. 
So how do we know which bit is the best to use? Simpler is almost always better. We all need to learn to examine a bit forensically and actually look at each component, because in the end each component will affect the overall performance. We ALL need to understand that mild, medium and severe are factors, regardless of how the bit is used. So I'll break down a basic forensic examination:

1) Thin closed twist, very sharp, can cut the tongue, lip and bars. Severe.

2) Open twist, square stock. Square stock is different from regular round twisted wire as it retains the edges of the square. These sharp edges can cut and dig into the tongue. See saw action can literally saw into the tissue. Severe.

3) Wide twist thin square stock. All those thin sharp edges move back and forth across the tongue and lips. Severe.

4) Open twist round wire, abrasive, grooves are wide enough to grab the pebbled surface of the tongue, also the edges of the lip. Any action on the tissue of the bars will be abrasive. Severe.

5) Wide twist thick square stock. This is a slow twist bit that people seem to think is kinder than a regular twisted wire. It's not. This big sharp edges create pressure points as they move across the tongue. Severe.
6) Waterford. Pretty much goes standing link, flat link, ball, flat link, standing link, ball, standing link, flat link, ball, flat link etc. Every one of those balls is a pressure point on the tongue. Yes the bit does form to the horse's mouth, yes the edges are rounded, however this mouth also creates pinch points between each standing and flat link. When it moves side to side it will grab the edges of the tongue and the lips. Severe.
7) Big link flat chain, Mikmar. This bit has GRAB. The flat joint in the middle allows the tongue to get caught and the wide spaces in the links also let in tongue tissue. The side joints at the lips are narrow and when the bit moves side to side they grab the lips and pull them out with the bit. Severe.

8) Thin bike chain. Forms to the mouth, rolls over the tongue like a series of thin edged tissue grabbers. Extremely rough on the edges of the lips and over any tissue that sits over bone. Severe.
9) Open work flat chain. Most flat chain bits are fairly mild, but when they are like this with open links that don't "stack" over the next link they are abrasive and particularly nasty at the edges of the lips and over the bars. Severe.
10) Standing link wide chain. Every other link is a hard pressure point into the tongue, pulling through the lips they create spread and then allow the lip to close over the next link, until pulled back through, catching the edges as the bit moves back and forth. Severe.

None of these mouthpieces is soft, none is appropriate for a green horse. The right set of hands for any of these don't exist. The purpose of these mouthpieces is to create pressure points to make the horse back off the bit an intimidate him into obeying. You aren't training, you are compelling through fear. These mouthpieces are capable of causing nerve damage to the tongue, bars and lips with very little pressure. On direct pull bits the see saw action will cause a lot of abrasion, with curb action you are going to get intense pressure points with the lips being stretched and lifted by the thinner edges, the tongue being pulled back and up. Think it through carefully before you use any of these mouthpieces, because sometimes the results are physically long lasting.

Upper Left: Ported Full Cheek snaffle with copper rollers and flat hinge

Middle Left: French Link Full Cheek snaffle

Lower Left: Half Moon Full Cheek

Upper Right: Ported Ringmaster Snaffle

Middle Right: Regular Dee Ring Snaffle
Lower right: Regular Full Cheek Snaffle
All the bits on the left are medium, the bits on the right are mild. The Ringmaster has a floating port and will adjust to fit a horse's mouth and surprisingly most horses I've used it one really like it.

Examining a direct pull bit:
Is the mouth piece smooth or rough ( rough means wrapped, twisted, slow twist, triangular, corkscrew, chain or basically ANYTHING but round or oval). If the answer is smooth then the mouth piece is probably not severe, if the answer is rough the mouth piece is medium or severe.

Is the mouthpiece jointed, straight or ported?
Straight and smooth means no tongue relief, so it can be harsh, it also means no flexing at the corners of the mouth. Instant grab. So medium.
Mullen means curved to fit the contours of the mouth and the cannons are usually oval not round, so mild.

Straight and rough means no tongue relief, plus abrasion, instant grab. Severe.

Single jointed and smooth means the tongue can be pinched and depending on the thickness of the cannons it can be mild or quite severe. Big fat snaffles are not always better as they encourage lugging and rooting.

Double jointed bits have less pinch, but also more abrasion when the rein drags the bit across the tongue. This see-saw action occurs in EVERY direct pull bit, even a full cheek, and the lips give to the pull and the cannons move from side to side. If the mouthpiece is rough this abrasive action is going to cause pain and head tossing or over flexing.

Chain mouthpieces should never be used with a direct pull bit. Most chain is welded and the knots at the weld point are like little pressure points on the tongue as the bit drags across the mouth.

Twisted wire, slow twist, bike chain, corkscrew are all severe mouthpieces, not matter the thickness. They are abrasive and with see saw action they grab the tongue, dig back into the surface and scrape across the sensitive papillae and shred or damage them. Rough mouthpieces also damage the bars and lips of the mouth. I have rehabbed so many cut tongue horses it is disgraceful, all trained by people that thought a twisted wire mouthpiece was okay. It isn’t, ever. What these mouthpieces indicate is a lack of skill and a lack of anatomical knowledge on the part of the trainer. If a single hair on your tongue would drive you mad imagine what a mouthful of metal does to a horse.

Curb bit with horsehair loops, pull too hard and they break. If you can't ride a curb like this then you don't need to be using shanked bits. (Pixie modeling, photo by Samantha Peterson)
Please don't share to Horse Debate Central, they are too stupid to understand. 

               Now on to shanked bits. Any of the above mouthpieces can be found on a shanked bit, which means that all can increase in severity rapidly. When choosing a bit for your horse understand that bits are levers. They work based on the pressure you supply creating a larger force to the bit. The curb bit consists of a mouthpiece, curb chain or strap, and a shank, with one ring on each purchase arm of the shank, and one ring on the bottom of the lever arm of the shank. Pelham bits add a ring for a snaffle rein, next to the mouthpiece. A curb bit works on several parts of a horse's head and mouth. The cannons acts on the bars, tongue and roof of the mouth. The shanks add leverage and place pressure on the poll via the crownpiece, and to the jaw via the curb chain or strap. A "loose jaw" shank, may act on the sides of the mouth and jaw. A curb bit is a leverage bit, meaning that it multiplies the pressure applied by the rider. Unlike a snaffle bit, which applies direct rein pressure from the rider's hand to the horse's mouth, the curb can amplify rein pressure several times over, depending on the length of the curb's shank. Shank sizes vary from two inches to more than 5 inches. The longer the bit shank, the more powerful its potential effect on the horse. For this reason, overall shank length, from the top of the cheek ring to the bottom of the rein ring, usually cannot exceed 8½ inches for most horse show disciplines.

                      The relation of the upper shank (purchase)—the shank length from the mouthpiece to the cheekpiece rings—and the lower shank or lever arm—the shank length from the mouthpiece to the lowest rein ring, is important in the severity of the bit. The standard curb bit has a 1½" cheek and a 4½" lower shank, thus producing a 1:3 ratio of cheek to lower shank, a 1:4 ratio of cheek to full shank, thus producing 3 lbs of pressure on the chin groove and 4 lbs of pressure on the horse's mouth for every 1 lb placed on the reins. Add in five pounds of rein pressure, the average pull needed to break a cotton thread or three strands of horsehair, and you’ve got 15 pounds on the chin and 20 pounds on the mouth BEFORE you look at mouthpiece severity or adding any training aids. Regardless of the ratio, the longer the shank, the less force is needed on the reins to provide a given amount of pressure on the mouth. So, if one were to apply 1 lb of pressure on the horse's mouth, a 2" shank would need more rein pressure than an 8" shank to provide the same effect.

            ALL bits are levers, even snaffles. There are several different kinds of levers, but all are based on the fact that at some point there is a fulcrum, and in the case of bits and bridles the mouthpiece is the fulcrum except in very special cases. In a class-1 lever, the force you apply is on the opposite side of the fulcrum to the force you produce. A curb bit is an example of a class-1 lever.
A class-2 lever is arranged a slightly different way, with the fulcrum at one end. You apply force at the other end and the force you produce is in the middle (up or out). Snaffles are an example of a class-2 lever. 

Bits can also be pulleys, even something as mild as an o-ring snaffle has a lifting effect at the corners of the mouth. If you have a gag snaffle you have a basic pulley in that pressure applied to the reins lifts the bit up the cheekpieces, applying pressure to the bit, the poll, the lips, tongue and bars. A gag action bit increases the force produced by half. So if you apply 5 pounds of rein pressure to a gag bit you get an extra 10 pounds of force in the horse's mouth added to the existent force/pressure ratio already created by the purchase/shank ratio. The more "pulleys" added to a set up means less pressure needed to produce more force. When you add in draw reins to a gag snaffle you reduce the amount of pressure needed by half, and increase the amount of force produced by another half. 5 pounds of rein pressure with draw reins/gag bit means 15 pounds of force at the fulcrum. 

Adding draw reins to a curb bit means that it requires a 1/4 of the pressure needed to achieve the same force as without the draw reins. So 5 pounds of pressure would translate to 20 pounds of force on the mouthpiece. I'm not a big fan of gimmick items, but I know that draw reins, martingales and tie downs can be used with good results IF used carefully and not as an end all solution. That being said I don't think draw reins or martingales should EVER be used with curb bits as they decrease the amount of pressure needed to provide a lot of force on the mouth. I have seen a lot of train wrecks from horses flipping over when they finally get tired of having their heads yanked in and their mouths abused. And I rarely see long term results. The moment the draw reins or martingales are taken off the horse reverts right back to getting out of frame, because the rider has not corrected the problem with their seat and legs, or the horse simply does not have the conformation to maintain the frame. 

Order of actions 1-2-3-4-5. On combo gags the noseband always engages last.

There is so much discussion about gags and combo bits, especially by the barrel racing crowd, I want to explain how they work here. People get defensive when told that the bit they are using can be harsh. All bits can be used harshly. Some bits are harsh the second they get in a horse's mouth. Regardless of the nature of the bit, each bit should have a mechanical purpose. And the fundamental of ALL horse training is that the horse moves away from pressure, not into it. So be prepared for a "scary" dissertation.

A snaffle is a direct pull bit that is supposed to draw the horse's head back, or to bend it during a turn. It supplies little to no poll pressure.

A curb bit provides leverage on the mouth, which draws the horse's chin in, and on the poll which drops the head down.

A bosal is a direct pull bit that draws the head back or into a turn, much like a snaffle, except the focus point is off the nose instead of the mouth.

A mechanical hackamore works off the nose and chin, again requiring the horse to tuck in, and some have a smidge of poll pressure, some don't.

So these bits DON'T give conflicting cues. The first action of the bit, a jiggle on the reins, is the same as the last action on the bit, a solid pull.

However, gag bits are ALWAYS about conflicting cues. 

          A snaffle gag pulls back and up, which causes poll pressure which requests the horse to lower his head. However his lips are being stretched up, so you're telling him to raise his head. Not only are you asking him to raise his head, but you're telling him that his nose going OUT is also a good idea, because HIS mechanics do not allow for his head to raise without his nose going out. During turns the bit climbs higher on the inside of the horse's face, which is a request to tilt the head OUT, while the poll pressure is requesting the head to tilt down and in.
             A gag curb is even more of a mechanical nightmare for a horse. The curb action WANTS to go in and back, but the gag action wants to go UP first, then in, then back. But the curb chain and poll pressure are telling the horse go IN and DOWN. Being told head UP and head DOWN in the same cue cycle is horrible. Gag curbs also go IN and UP with pressure on the tongue, so the tongue gets wadded up behind the cannons of the bit as the bit climbs. It is unavoidable. The cannons are dug into the tongue and the leverage is pulling the cannons UP so the tongue goes with it. There is a brilliant x-ray of a horse with a curb gag and the tongue is clearly lumped behind it.

           Now throw in a noseband. We're back to the noseband, curbstrap and poll saying DOWN and IN and the gag saying UP and OUT. What we KNOW is that the MOUTHPIECE is ALWAYS going to have the most clout with the horse. So if the gag action says UP and OUT, that's going to be his first reaction. Then the other things same no no, go down and in and now you've got a horse caught in a bear trap with no relief in sight. In most cases he fights his head, raises his neck convexly, hollows his back and does the horrible lofting with his front legs around turns and during stops. This is why most speed event horses are just bat shit crazy in the arena. It's got NOTHING to do with high spirits and everything to do with being told conflicting cues on their head.

            So bit junkies, throw away the crap, gadgets, gizmos and searches for a magical cure all bit. Train your horse from the ground to respect your cues every time and then your efforts in the saddle will be less stressful and more communicative. A bit is not going to solve your long term problems, only clear communication can do that. And cleanse your vocabulary of the phrase “It isn’t the bit, it’s the rider”. No really, sometimes it’s the bit, and most of the time the “magic” bits belong in the trash. 

Copyright July 2014
Tracy Meisenbach
Article and photos/chart cannot be used, shared or published in any form, printed or electronic without author's written permission.