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.

This bit looks okay at rest, but it was obviously too big when I picked up the contact.

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.

I tried a loose ring on Candy for a while, but it made her even more anxious. We switched to a fixed cheek, which she seems to like a lot better!

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.

Moe and I are reasonably competent, but he’s made his preference for the single-joint D-ring known!

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?

Author: Stephanie

Equestrian, amateur cook, people person.

19 thoughts on “Practical bitting advice”

  1. I think my copper-blend Sprenger has worked great. I’m so glad I discovered that line, so glad that I was able to order it through The Horse of Course, and so glad that you were able to help me determine if it was the right size.

  2. as someone who has personally been sized up by your boss, and now owns 3 pairs of the pants she suggested, i have complete faith in her judgments haha!!

    and yea, agreed on the importance of pressing pause on our predispositions when it comes to bits so that we can actually see what the horse really wants. for charlie, i’ve tried a variety of cheek and mouth styles, and have learned that he will lean on a fixed cheek, but is otherwise kinda indifferent to the mouth pieces. he has a myler comfort snaffle on his dressage bridle that he seems to go nicely in, and i finally got around to making a schooling jump bridle (since i don’t like to school in the leverage cheek pieces on the sprenger i use for xc) and put a normal KK on it. it’s kinda interesting to see if there are differences now between the myler and the sprenger, but mostly he just kinda goes lol, tho we do have a fair amount of mouth gaping while jumping.

    1. I am so glad to hear you like the breeches she suggested!

      I’ve heard good things about the Mylers from local customers; they’re especially popular with the western dressage crowd out here. Many of them are legal for USEF and FEI sanctioned dressage competitions, too! (I think it’s mostly the ported snaffles that are not.)

  3. Interesting on the sizing? I’ve always picked a size based on the straw trick (where you measure a straw after putting it through the horse’s mouth where the bit goes) and my horses all go in 5″ to 5.5″ bits. My horses aren’t particularly big either so I wonder if they’re sized wrong. I really prefer eggbutt bits, but the huge popularity of loose rings has made it difficult for me to find the bit my horses like in anything other than loose-ring.

    1. You might try a smaller bit, but if your horses seem happy, then that’s all that matters! Candy goes in a 5″, but I think she could go as small as a 4.5″ in an eggbutt.

      I don’t know what’s caused loose rings to be so popular, but it can be a real pain to find something other than a loose ring or a giant hunter D in anything smaller than a 5″.

  4. You’re right about the popularity of loose ring bits. My mare has told me that she prefers eggbutt snaffles but it took me longer to find the mouth pieces and materials I wanted because so many only came in a loose ring. We’ve settled on a thick copper single jointed eggbutt that seems to work well for us.

    1. I love a good eggbutt! I feel like you can always find those in a reasonable ring size, too; D-rings always seem to have enormous rings and they just overwhelm Moe’s face.

  5. All good info, and I was happy as I read along that most of it I already knew! The copper was new to me though, so that’s very interesting!
    It’s funny how a lot of bitting is just personal preference, and by that, I mean of the horse! Eros HATES anything metal in his mouth. So I’ve been experimenting with every type of happy mouth bit out there. Still in process, his injury interrupted our experimentation.
    Rio always liked a big fat rubber loose ring until epm messed with his facial nerves. Now he’s happiest in a nice thin leather bit.

      1. There’s a shop on Etsy that makes them: Sweet Billy’s Bits
        I don’t have a ton of experience either. I wanted something thinner than the rubber, but super soft (he doesn’t need much in his mouth, I often ride him in a hackamore or side pull if he’s been in work). Someone had either blogged about one or posted it on instagram so I went and got him one to try. He really likes it!

  6. I have been struggling to find a smooth plastic or rubber mullen mouth bit with fixed cheeks to start my young horse in! Everything that I can find is either a loose ring or has joints! Really like the Nathe but I can’t find it in anything other than loose ring. Any suggestions?

    1. Yes! Here are some options:

      -Sprenger Duo Eggbutt:
      -Sprenger Duo D-ring:
      -Happy Mouth Round Ring Eggbutt Shaped Mullen Mouth:
      -Happy Mouth King Dee Shaped Mullen Mouth:
      -NATHE Full Cheek Bit w/ Flexible Mouthpiece:

      Any tack shop that is a Sprenger, Happy Mouth, or Waldhausen dealer should be able to order one of these bits for you, even if they don’t have it in stock.

      1. Thanks for the link to the full check Nathe, hadn’t been able to find one of those! I wasn’t sure about getting a shaped mullen either, not really sure what the purpose of those is vs just a smooth mullen.

  7. I have a copper snaffle that I love but copper is so soft that I constantly check it pre and post ride to make sure there are no sharp edges and if there are to wear them down. I always prefer full cheek bits on green horses since they can help with steering lol

  8. It’s too bad you’re not local. I’m currently scratching my head over bits. I’ve been told my 6 inch bit is too small for Sydney, but to me it looks fine and she’s never complained. I tried a 6.5 on her last night and there were a couple of times where I looked down and it seemed like there was a lot of bit protruding from the side of her mouth. Ugh. Interesting to know about the o-ring too. I recently tried an eggbutt on her and she seemed to really hate it so we went back to the o-ring. I have a boucher I’m going to try on her too while I mess around with bit sizes.

    1. I think that sometimes people forget that the bit moves when you take up contact- if she’s telling you the 6″ is fine and you’re not seeing rubs on her lips, I bet it’s totally fine.

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