There are so many bits on the market because each one represents an attempt by one horseman, one engineer, or one school of equitation to solve the age-old question: is there a better way I can get inside my horse’s mouth to communicate with him when I am under saddle? And the answer to that question is a simple “yes, no, and maybe.”
To use John Lyons’ analogy, picking up the reins is like picking up the telephone and dialing up your horse. You pick up lightly on the rein and ask “Hello? Are you home?” In truth, a lot of horses are out. Out to lunch. Gone fishing. Or just plain retired forever. So you ring and ring and ring and there’s no answer.
That’s where the designers of bits come in. One says: “Hey, you know what your problem is? Not enough current when you ring your horse up! You need a better a cable, plenty of copper and insulation, so when you ring him up, that bell just rattles like crazy!”
Another horseman wakes up and says: “No, no, you’re dead wrong. You need a bigger bell. Something like the Liberty Bell or Big Ben. Then your horse will answer.”
And yet another says: “No, your problem is you need some firecrackers so you can set them off. That way you’ll wake him up every time so he’ll answer the phone, see?”
So bits come in all manner of designs. But each has the same objectives: (1) tell the horse where and when to turn his body, (2) guide his head, neck, and shoulders and coax his frame, his body, into the configuration you need, and (3), last but never least, stop, stop, stop when I tell you to stop!
Similarly, every bit, no matter how radically different in structure and form, is designed to do one thing: apply pressure (be it inside or around the horse’s mouth, tongue, and jaws) so that it can be released when the horse has exhibited the behavior that his rider is seeking. Some bits, like the snaffle, apply pressure in a linear fashion. In other words, you can theoretically apply one pound of pressure on your horse’s mouth when you apply one pound of tension on the reins. Others, like curb bits, magnify their rider’s authority by using a shank—essentially a lever arm that amplifies the pressure a rider can exert. You can apply one pound of pressure and get one pound of pressure. But if you yank back on the shank with a lot of pressure, the amount of force applied through the reins is multiplied two, three, five, and some times even ten times higher. The longer the shank attached to the bit, the greater your ability to multiply the force applied by the bit. Finally, as a rule of thumb a snaffle bit is meant for two-handed riding while a fixed shank bit is meant for one-handed handling. That leaves the loose (or swivel) shank bit as a little bit (no pun intended) intermediate.
Bits can range from minor discomfort or annoyance to outright excruciating pain. The problem with pain is that it stops the horse from thinking. The more pain, the more reaction. In other words, the more pain your bit inflicts on your horse, the more likely his training will get shorted out and he will respond instinctively. By analogy, imagine someone asking you to balance your checking account with one hand while the other is being slammed in a desk drawer! By contrast, the more your bit can exert a mildly annoying or uncomfortable sensation (as opposed to pain) in your horse’s mouth, the easier it is for your horse to think hard about solving the problem.
Finally, it does not really matter what kind of bit is in your horse’s mouth as much as it does whose hands are on the reins. Even if you have a huge spade bit with ten-inch long shanks, if your hands are feather light then so is that bit. That’s one reason the snaffle bit is as popular today as it is: since many riders are heavy-handed, the snaffle is the most forgiving. By design, it does not have any curb action or shanks to amplify or enhance the pressure being exerted on the horse so it’s less likely to inadvertently pressure the horse. On the other hand, it may also be the worst of bits as the bit can only exert as much pressure on the mouth as the human being can summon. If you’re a professional weight lifter that’s substantial. If you’re ten years old and weigh fifty pounds soaking wet, that can be a problem.
Two final principles. First, in order to get a horse to be light and responsive, you must first practice on the ground getting you horse as light as possible. Your goal should be to have your horse drop his head slightly and then bend his neck all the way around to one side until his nose touches the area where the cinch passes right behind your horse’s elbow whenever you pick up the rein on that same side. The lighter the horse, the less pressure you need to exert on the rein. Ultimately, when you got it right, you should be able to stop, turn, and back up your horse with your reins tied to the bit with only a short strand of thin yarn. You can’t start off teaching your horse with yarn but that is the place you want to end up. Whenever you’re tempted to get heavy-handed and pull too hard, it simply breaks the yarn. The lighter your hands become, the more your horse seems to know. The fact is, the less you pull on the reins, and the more your horse will listen. Going back to that phone analogy with which I started, the lighter the hands, the more the horse is straining to hear it ring. It’s the difference between knowing the President is about to call you up or you’re about to get a message from an automated telemarketing advertisement. In the former, you’re sitting on the edge of your chair waiting for the phone to ring. In the latter, you can’t wait for the ringing to stop. Same thing with your horse. You want your horse just dying to feel the slightest change on that rein. That’s when your horse is saying: “Did I just hear the phone ring? Just now. Did I? Man, I’d better hustle and get to the phone! That could be my rider trying to contact me!”
Second principle: each bit requires a different technique and a different understanding. Horses are smart but if a horse is trained to respond to a snaffle, you must re-train the horse to understand what the pressure from a curb bit means. How is he supposed to understand that what was pressure on the bars of his mouth yesterday now means pressure and pinching under his chin today? You have to train your horse to understand what the new pressure means.
So happy trails and, with a bit of thought, you can make your choice about your horse’s bit a thoughtful one.
For more about bits, see From Sack To Saddle, pages 250-255 and A Leg Up, page 265 in Zen Mind, Zen Horse—The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses.