A good bit of knowledge and knowledge of a good bit are both needed to become an excellent horseman.
We talk about a lot of bad bits, because, well because there is so MUCH material to work with. There is just a never ending line of bad bits being created all the time to solve every problem that doesn't exist until someone's butt hits the saddle.
Some of these bits are just touted as being down right miraculous and able to do things a horse can't physically. Most of us can see at a glance when a bit is horrible. But what makes a good bit? Where do we look first and what do we look for?
A) Look at the mouthpiece. Doesn't matter what you intend for the bit to do, where it comes in contact with the horse's soft membranes needs to be the absolute priority. The tongue and lips are very sensitive. You're talking about something that can pick up a single oat and can feel the slightest touch. Doubt me? Try to poke your finger into the lips and run it along the bar edge. Most horses will immediately raise their head, even if you aren't pressing down. Look at the anatomy of the horse's mouth. It's all soft curves (tongue and palate) and hard edges (bars and teeth) Anything you use is going to pull, vibrate, rub, drag or poke all of these things at some point. A horse will tolerate a lot if whatever is moving in his mouth is SMOOTH. Smooth and able to glide across the tongue and lips. Saliva can lubricate, but if there are ridges, twists or gaps in the bit guess where the saliva goes? Yep, so then the bit rides down on the tongue and lips. Start smooth, stay smooth. No green horse should ever be in anything but a smooth mouthpiece bits. You are starting his lifelong perception of being handled and compelling obedience with a sharp mouth is not a good way to build trust.
1) Thin closed twist, very sharp, can cut the tongue, lip and bars.
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.
3) Wide twist thin square stock. All those thin sharp edges move back and forth across the tongue and lips.
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.
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.
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.
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. (I own this one and know how it works)
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.
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.
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.
C) Mechanics. How does the bit work? Always look at the order of actions, because some of the bits marketed today do not work as advertised, especially combo bits. Anything with a shank is going to hit the mouth first. Always. Even those nasty lifter bits hit the mouth first. So your first cue is directly to the mouth, is it abrasive or communicative? Are you cuing or compelling? Pick up one rein and what happens? A lot of bits are advertised as having independent action, but is it really? Pick up one rein on a wonder bit and you move the opposite shank forward as the curbstrap tightens across the jaw. Use a high barrel joint port and you torque the bit as one side drops forward and the other remains up. So too much independent action can be bad, especially on a horse that doesn't have a good head and neck carriage. The trend is now for three piece mouthpieces and loose shanks but ask yourself what those busy mouthpieces create. To me they create temptation. It's like handing a child a stick, or a slinky. He may play with the stick, flip it around a bit, but in the end there isn't much entertainment value so he ignores it and gets bored with flipping it around. Hand him a slinky and suddenly you've got this swooshing, vibrating, entrancing thing to play with and twist around for HOURS! It's like a fidget enhancer. So start quiet, as quiet with as little movement as you can and only go up by increments. Do NOT make huge leaps in bitting. Don't go from a single joint snaffle to a correction port curb. Don't leap from mullen to waterford. It's better to go down a notch and address a problem then to leap up several levels in severity.
D) Physics. What does the bit do? When you pull what is the end result? For a direct rein 1:1 ratio bit the pressure you put on the reins becomes the pressure applied to the mouth. If your horse is running through it then you can choose to use draw reins, martingales etc to give you a momentary advantage. Or you can up the severity of the mouth, which usually only works a short time, or you can go back to ground level and re confirm your stopping cues. Your seat and leg MUST play a part in how your bit works. If you're just riding on the reins then you're numbing the horse's sensitivity to your rein cues and creating the run away. With a curb you need to assess total shank ratio. How long is the bit? Whether it has an equal purchase (1:1) or a shorter or longer one doesn't change the fact that your pressure ratio is still determine by the total shank length. What the purchase determines is how much pressure goes onto the chin and poll as well as the mouth. The sweep of the purchase also determines chin and poll pressure, as well as how hard the mouth gets hit, as the more sweep the more mouth pressure without a brake on it
E) Does your bit communicate or does it compel? If you put the bit on the horse and tug the rein does he pay attention and respond in a relaxed manner? Or does he immediately tense and either become evasive or hair trigger? If it's the second one then your bit is a problem, drop down a level and get some relaxation and communication going. Test the bit against your skin, is it smooth, balanced, has pre signal? Does it pinch, have abrupt movement, slow release? What are you saying to your horse when you pull the reins? Are you whispering or shouting?
Give you horse a chance so that even while working his bit is NOT always ON. Give him a break. He cannot stay on edge and waiting for the next painful cue and perform at his peak. Your bit has to have an off switch. This means when you loosen the reins the mouthpiece does not still cause him worry. It means his headstalls loosens a little, his curbstrap hangs loose and his tongue and lips can reseat the bit without feeling like they are being scored by sandpaper or pinched by pliers.
Look at each component and the closer they are to smooth, close joints, fluid action, good pre signal and vibration and immediate off switch the better your horse will be.
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Do not repost or publish without written permission