Practical bitting advice
There are lots of things I like about working at a tack store, but one of my favorite things about working here is my boss. She’s been in the business for decades and is an excellent mentor. She’s also incredibly knowledgeable about tack and apparel. (The best party trick she has is eyeing a stranger for about ten seconds and finding a pair of boots or breeches that fit perfectly on the first try.) In the last couple of years, my boss has become very interested in bits and bit fitting, particularly as they pertain to dressage horses. She has some practical advice that applies to any rider in any discipline, though.
1. Correctly size your bit.
Most riders, in an effort to make their horses comfortable, are using a bit that’s too big. We’ve all been taught about the horrors of lip-pinching, right? It’s certainly something to avoid, but having a too-large bit that’s sliding across the bars of your horse’s mouth is also a problem. Think about where the bit rests. It’s on the bars of the mouth. Where are the bars of the mouth? They (like a horse’s teeth) are part of the jaw. Feel the underside of your horse’s head- your horse’s jaws aren’t very far apart! It’s important to assess the bit both at rest and with contact- taking up contact moves the bit. In a fixed cheek, most horses wear a 4.75″-5.00″ bit. In a loose ring, most horses wear a 5.00″-5.25″ bit. This was a revelation to me (and to lots of dressage riders we work with), but the feedback from riders and trainers is that their horses often respond positively to a smaller bit.
2. Buy a bit made from a reputable company with quality materials.
High-quality bits are expensive, and it’s easy to convince yourself you don’t need to spend $150+ on one. But a reputable bit manufacturer spends money on research, design, and engineering. They listen to feedback and make changes. Neue Schule is one such company- they’ve introduced several innovative bit designs to the market and recently withdrew one bit in order to retool the design. Materials also add to the cost of a bit. Bits should be at least 70% copper; it warms to body temperature quickly and can encourage salivation. Sprenger has a line of copper blend bits that retail around $50, which is a great price for a quality bit.
3. Use the right type of bit for the type of rider you are and the type of horse you ride.
Dressage riders often leap right to loose ring snaffles- they’re ultra-popular in dressage circles on both snaffle and double bridles. A loose ring snaffle is a double-edged sword. It allows a lot of information to be transmitted down the reins to the horse; that can be good or bad, depending on the horse and rider. A green horse is often overwhelmed by the amount of input it receives from a loose ring snaffle. A green rider who lacks steady hands can irritate even a steady schoolmaster. Fixed cheek bits can help soften the signals by staying quieter in the horse’s mouth and blunting the rider’s input. And eggbutt bradoons exist- just because your horse is moving to the double doesn’t mean it has to switch to a loose ring bradoon.
4. Throw out (some) pieces of conventional wisdom and (possibly) your old bits.
Two persistent bitting myths are that thick bits are gentler than thin ones and that hollow-mouth bits are are gentler than heavy bits. The thickness of your horse’s bit should be determined by the thickness of your horse’s tongue and shape of its palate. Horses with shallow palates or thick tongues might be more comfortable in a thinner bit; horses need to be able to keep their mouths closed to keep the bit comfortably wet. Hollow-mouth bits are problematic for the reason they’re touted as preferable: they’re lightweight. When you take up contact, the bit moves up and back in the horse’s mouth in a “on” position. When you release the contact, the bit moves into the “off” position. Hollow-mouth bits lack enough weight to do this properly.
If you haven’t paid much attention to the bit you’re using, starting checking it every time you rinse it off. Last year at US Dressage Finals, a woman stopped by our booth to ask about bits. She brought the bit she’d been using, a stainless steel loose ring snaffle. The hole where the ring slides through the bit was so worn that it had become sharp enough to cut a horse’s lips. This sort of thing can happen in the joints on the bit’s mouthpiece, too.
No two horses are the same, so it’s important to listen to the feedback your horse gives you. Moe, for example, prefers single-joint fixed cheek bits. Over the years, I tried him in loose rings and in double-jointed bits, thinking that they’d be gentler or better than the trusty single-joint D-ring he’d gone in for years. He never did anything truly naughty, but he shook his head and chewed on the bit restlessly. He’s quiet and attentive in the D-ring, so the D-ring it is!
What’s your best advice for bitting? Have you ever received some truly excellent (or extremely terrible) recommendations?