A question often asked in relation to advancing a horse is “what’s the best bit for a horse?” Some people may choose a bit to fix a certain problem or in anticipation of a problem. Others may choose an ornamental bit with little or no consideration for the horse. Then there are the bits that are promoted by the manufacturers that are “endorsed by professional competitors.”
It is a common assumption that if a person has problems controlling their horse, the solution is usually to focus on the bit. The bit is supposed to be the communication tool, so do we change tools or just use it more aggressively?
Neither. In most cases, it is only the presentation we need to change.
We should look at the bit as the point where our energy meets the horse’s energy. Is it like two quiet streams merging as one, free of waves from clashing currents? Or like a powerful waterfall pounding into an otherwise quiet pool, causing currents to churn in all directions? When energy from our hands and body are synchronized with our horse’s energy, it looks effortless. When our energy is not in sync with the horse it can be like the 4th of July, with hands, head and feet going in all different directions like fireworks. We may ignore the display because, to whatever extent, we may consider it “normal.” For the horse, it is not normal. The majority of his life he is placing his feet with the freedom to position his head to carry out a graceful movement.
The horse balances himself with his head and neck, and when we cause him to brace or alter his head position in any way, we compromise his balance and foot placement. This is generally done by a quick intimidating action or a long steady pull on the rein. Once direct pressure is applied, if the horse cannot get away from it within one step, the neck will generally brace, and head position will be compromised.
Different bits are designed to work differently but most will fall into two categories; one offers a signal or feel, the other force and intimidation.
The amount of contact a horse has with a bit is a big factor. The high Spade bits of the Vaqueros offered a lot of surface on the tongue and pallet. The Ring Bit they used offered contact on the tongue, pallet and around the lower jaw. The added weight of the knots on the rawhide reins, along with the rein chains, amplified the life from the hands to the bit to allow the horse to respond before a direct pull. Like the rawhide rein, a heavier hair mecate on a hackamore or snaffle offers more sensitivity than a light leather rein. Before the mecate is drawn, the weight and feel of it against the neck give the horse a signal or warning before any direct contact is made. The lightweight, slick leather rein does not offer much of either.
Any bit with a straight bar to lie across the horse’s tongue will not be as intimidating as one that they can’t hold off their bars. Tongue-relief may sound warm and fuzzy but it is an oxymoron. It relieves pressure on the tongue, but puts pressure on the much more sensitive bars of the horse’s mouth.
A Spade bit with a straight bar only puts pressure on the tongue if a horse is free to open his mouth. It could have a six-inch port and he can open his mouth to keep the port from touching the pallet. Although in a situation when a pull is required with a Spade bit, the curb strap should be adjusted so that it comes tight before the mouth can be pried open. With any shank bit, the curb strap increases the leverage that the shanks apply to the tongue or bars.
Tongue-relief bits may have their place with experienced horseman as a means to an end with a horse that has learned to be heavy, but when the bit is used on a regular basis it may be a problem with the hands and not the horse.
The lower port and a solid-jawed bit with lighter reins do not offer the same feel, and the horse and rider have more of a tendency to communicate with pressure between the horse’s jaw and rider’s hands. Once the horse begins to push, then the head position, balance, foot fall, etc. is altered, and a long list of problems can surface.
The feel for a signal bit is developed with light lively hands, sending a pulsing signal through the bit to the feet. The need to use leverage regularly comes from heavy hands pulling steady without being in time with the feet.
It may seem to take longer, but when the rider and horse learn to feel each other, the finished product can come quicker and be better in the end by not creating and then having to fix problems.
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.37