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Horse Tack - A Bit of Advice - The Right Fit, the Right Bit
Lots of bits fill tack shops and equestrian catalogs. Which to choose? Straight mouth or port? Rubber, twisted or metal mouthpiece? Bits are "the most misunderstood piece of horse equipment ever invented. All too often, the human take on the situation is that a horse is a big animal, therefore the pressures needed to control it must be big and strong," Ron Meredith says.
"Not true," insists the president of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre in Waverly, W.Va. Actually, there are very few surfaces in a horse's mouth where a bit can apply pressure, "so it takes some pretty complex applications of pressure to those few points to create complex communication. The bit must be shaped in such a way to fit properly within the mouth so the horse is able to understand what the communication is," he says.
The area in the mouth where the bit communicates pressure to the horse is called the bars.
"These gaps between the front teeth and the back teeth on either side of the jaw consist of tissue-covered, pressure-sensitive cartilage. The bit lies across the bars and presses against the horse's tongue. Depending on its shape and adjustment, a bit can also put pressure on the horse's lips and on the roof of its mouth," Meredith says. He notes that pressure on the lips is least effective, "because the lips are an unstable surface and are easily injured."
The first thing to look for on any device you put in the horse's mouth is the contact area.
"The thinner the bit, the less contact area it has and the greater the pressure on the bars. The thicker the bit, the greater the contact area and the lower the pressure," Meredith explains. "The effective size of the mouthpiece is the first thing to look at because it will determine how noticeable the pressure you apply will be."
The second item to look for is whether the mouthpiece is straight or shaped to relieve pressure on the tongue.
"If the bit is straight, the horse's tongue absorbs some of the pressure and the horse will feel less pressure on the bars. If the mouthpiece is hinged or grooved so it relieves pressure on the tongue, the bit is more noticeable on the bars of the mouth and gives more directional guidance," Meredith says.
Leverage is the third bit aspect to examine. "To measure leverage, compare the distance from the mouthpiece to where the reins attach to the distance from the mouthpiece to the curb chain," Meredith says.
Most curb bits have a three to one ratio. That means if you put 10 pounds of pull on the reins, the horse will feel 30 pounds of pressure squeezing his mouth. There's more: Leverage decreases the amount of time it takes for the horse to feel bit pressure.
"If you have a bit with a three to one leverage ratio, the horse feels 10 pounds of pressure three times faster than if you applied 10 pounds of pressure with a non-leverage bit like a snaffle," he says.
A curb bit should only be used on a horse that is well-trained, and only if it is used as a signaling device rather than as an aid in getting a horse to shape itself correctly,
"Curbs are non-directional," Meredith points out. "Their pressure is felt as a clamping between the horse's chin and the bars of the mouth. Therefore, it can convey minimal direction to the horse. If you use a chain, the pressure is more noticeable underneath the chin. If you use a thick leather strap, the pressure is more noticeable on the bars of the mouth."
He is quick to say that the biggest mistake riders make is picturing the bit by itself. "The bit is only part of the overall corridor of aids, that is your seat, legs and reins, you use to create the shape you want your horse to take. You don't want the bit to be louder than your legs or seat, and you don't need a big bit to get the horse's attention. You just need to know how to use a bit to make it understandable to the horse."
Too many people rely solely on the bit. "They say to themselves, 'If this bit doesn't seem to work, I'll try one with a longer shank, or one with a thinner mouthpiece," Meredith notes.
If those don't work, they seem to think that other artificial aids will make the animal more controllable.
People tend to start a horse with a quiet bit, but "the farther along in training they go, they automatically put a bigger bit in the horse's mouth. What happens is that the horse gets used to bigger and bigger bits. Eventually, you need the bigger bit because the horse is used to the beating he gets with it every day," Meredith says.
Using legs and seat is what shapes the horse, he reiterates. "You need to use a full corridor of pressure that the horse feels and understands," he says. "When you choose a bit, choose one that can never speak louder than your seat or legs."
Bad fit snit. "If a bit doesn't fit properly, the horse will fuss with his mouth, toss his head or pull," says Susan Harris, author of the United States Pony Club Manual of Horsemanship.
"The bridle needs to be comfortable. Make sure it's not rubbing or pinching," she adds. "All bits should be about a half-inch wider than your horse's mouth. They must be smooth and comfortable, with no rough or rusty spots, and they shouldn't rub the animal's lips."
A true snaffle bit should "rest high in the horse's mouth so it won't irritate the horse's tongue," Harris says. "You also need it high enough so the horse can't get his tongue over it. A properly fitted snaffle should make one or two gentle wrinkles at the corner of the lips.
"If you're using a curb bit (a pelham, kimberwicke or western curb), it should rest against the corners of your horse's mouth without making a wrinkle. You need to make sure that the curb chain isn't pinching, either."
The instructor cautions against having any bit too low. "As you get lower in the horse's mouth, the bars get thinner and sharper, thus the mouth is more sensitive. You can really irritate the horse if the bit is too low, and you can really hurt his mouth if he gets his tongue over the bit."
Fitting a curb chain is important, too. "Curbs are designed to work correctly when the bit swivels 45 degrees back. Putting two fingers sideways under the curb chain is a rough estimate of whether the chain is adjusted properly. But make sure the bit can swivel 45 degrees, and that the curb chain or strap lies flat against the pony's chin," Harris urges.
Not only is bit fitting important, but so is fitting the entire bridle essential to comfort and resultant good behavior.
"The height of the bit is adjusted by the cheek pieces, so you want to make sure those are adjusted properly," the Cortland, N.Y., horse owner notes. "You want to make sure the browband and crownpiece don't rub the horse's ears."
The throatlatch should be loose enough to allow the horse to flex his neck. "If you are able to fit your fist under the throatlatch, it's properly adjusted," Harris says.
A regular caveson, or noseband, should rest two fingers below the point of the cheekbone and be moderately snug.
"It's cruel to really tighten down the noseband," Harris says. "Young horses may still be cutting their cheek teeth, and a tight caveson can hurt. Even on an older horse, a very tight caveson can cut into the sharp edge of the top teeth, really hurting."
The upper caveson needs to be snug on a flash noseband, and the jaw strap smooth. "The noseband should not irritate the nostrils. Furthermore, if you're using a dropped or figure-eight noseband, the buckle should not be under the chin, but rather on the front of the horse's nose. Riders who opt for a bosal should place it at the end of the horse's nose bone," Harris says.
"Run your fingers down where the bone ends and the cartilage is spongy. The belief that a bosal placed too low can suffocate a horse is an old wives' tale. But a bosal placed too low will irritate. A mechanical hackamore, which many barrel racers and western riders use, should be placed a couple of fingers higher than the bosal."