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Bits By Jeff Spencer
Jeff Spencer
A few guidelines for making decisions concerning people, horses and bits:

Have you ever been confused about bits?  Most of us have been from time to time.  At our training facility we get people who have been trying to jam their horses around in curb bits, trying to force them, by leverage into submission.  Most of the time this is a result of frustration from poor training practices.  These horses have almost always missed a few crucial lessons here or there.  A good friend of mine put it this way, "If you have a child in the first grade and he is not doing well, you don't stick him in the second grade."  Moving to a curb bit should be a graduation, sometimes a compromise, but never a punishment. 

We also have clients who have been letting their horses pull them around in snaffle bits for years.  There are plenty of videos and books out there that will tell you if you use anything but a snaffle or hackamore on your horse, you are either being cruel or have failed horribly.  If everyone had the time, talent and education, and their horse was the perfect match for their expertise, it all would be easy.  But, what about the rider who has a career, family, limited financial resources and a horse that is far less than perfect?  And, they like the horse.  Sometimes a compromise is in order so they can be safe while they continue their education. 

In all the militant "snaffle bit only" talk, I hear very little about pain related behavior and how important it is for your horse to have a good dental.  If you are trying to communicate with your horse and the very means by which you use to communicate causes pain, you are not going to be very clear in your instruction. 

 A few guidelines for making decisions concerning people, horses and bits:
* The horse must have a full-mouth dental by a competent equine dentist. 
* Any bit that is used must fit well and not be worn out to the point of pinching. 
* Any new maneuver that is taught should be done with a snaffle, hackamore, or sidepull.  * Depending on the experience of the horse and rider, less is more; to get light, go light.
* In snaffle bits, the more surface area touching the horse, the softer the bit. 

Full cheek snaffles or snaffles with 4 inch rings contact more surface area of the side of the face making the bit gentler.  The smaller the ring or the smaller diameter of the metal in the ring, the more it bites for a quicker, sharper feel.  The same applies to the mouthpiece: the bigger diameter it is, the softer it is.  The smaller diameter it is, the more it bites.  Sometimes it is a big job to take a horse that has been ridden ineffectively in a snaffle for years and teach him to give and respect the same bit in the amount of time the rider can afford.  In our business it is dollars and cents.  Each horse owner has a certain amount of money, which buys a certain amount of time. 

* If you make a decision to go to a curb bit, do it thoughtfully and gradually. 
* Loose shank bits are more forgiving than solid shanked bits. 
*  Short shanks have less leverage and are easier for a horse to understand right out of a snaffle. 
* Any bit that uses a curb strap for leverage is a curb bit, regardless of whether the mouthpiece is solid or broken. 
* If you decide to advance your horse to a curb bit and you lose handiness, you probably weren't ready to change.  Your horse needs to do everything as well as you think he can before you change to a curb.  If you are just changing because you are frustrated about something, it may backfire. 
* Curb straps should only facilitate the action of the bit, at least in the beginning. 

This means that if curb pressure is new to your horse, and he is having a hard time understanding a chain curb strap will exert too much pressure.  It is hard to expect a horse to realize he needs to give to pressure if the feel under his chin is harsher than the one in his mouth.  In the beginning it is better to use a leather curb strap to help the horse understand the action of the bit.  A chain curb strap takes a nice soft feel and makes it quicker.  If the horse hasn't achieved softness, a chain simply makes him throw his head. 

* Changing from a snaffle or hackamore can be a double-edged sword.  Any little thing that you've been having problems with may get much worse because you have applied more leverage and are forcing the horse to make a decision one way or the other.  It works the same way for the rider: if you don't have good snaffle bit hands, you surely won't have good curb bit hands.

Sweet Iron - Sweet iron is an old term used to describe mild steel.  It is called sweet iron because most horses acquire a taste for it.  One of the most important properties of sweet iron or mild steel is that it rusts a little.  This promotes salivation which serves as a lubricant.

Stainless Steel - Stainless steel is used because of its superior strength and the fact that it retains a shiny appearance.  However, stainless steel does not promote a wet mouth.  Many bits that are made with stainless cheeks or rings have sweet iron mouthpieces to promote a wet mouth.  When a bit is hanging in the store it is difficult to tell which bits are stainless and which are mild steel.  An easy way to find out is to take a small magnet with you.  The magnet will stick to the sweet iron but not to the stainless.  If a bit has a stainless mouthpiece, I prefer it to be inlaid with strips of copper.

Aluminum - Aluminum has been used off and on through the years, primarily to reduce overall weight in the bit.  It should not be used in the mouth.  Aluminum actually causes a dry mouth and a dry mouth can be a sore mouth.

Copper - Copper is primarily used because it makes the horse salivate.  Some bits have mouthpieces made entirely of copper while others have just copper inlay.  Rollers are often made of copper.  Also, a copper mouthpiece that is made without any alloys to harden it usually is too soft and the horse can chew it up and make the bit too rough to use.

Rubber - Rubber is used once in awhile when a horse's mouth has been damaged.  The feel of a rubber mouthpiece as opposed to a steel mouthpiece is "mushy" to a horse.  The rubber also has a bitter taste.

Snaffle bits - Snaffles consist of any bit where they pull from the reins comes directly off the side of the mouth, regardless of the shape or design of the mouthpiece.  Snaffle mouthpieces may be broken in one or more places, with the thickness of the metal varying greatly.  The smaller the diameter of the mouthpiece, the more bite.  The thicker the mouthpiece, the softer the feel.  The cheek pieces of a snaffle can vary greatly not only in size but also design.  Each difference means a great deal to the horse.  The smaller the cheek, the more it bites.  The bigger the cheek the more surface area covered and the softer it is on the horse.

Because of the simple design of the snaffle bit, it is used to teach all of the basic maneuvers a horse needs to know.  Snaffles have been used for thousands of year and many horses never need to progress to anything different.  However, under certain circumstances, it is necessary to have more leverage or to simply do less as a rider.  Then is the time to move into a curb bit.

Curb bits - Curb bits are characterized by the fact that a curb or chin strap comes into a leverage role.  The leverage is the difference between the shank and the mouthpiece stablized by the curb strap.  The longer the shanks, the greater the leverage.  Any bit regardless of how the mouthpiece is built, is a curb bit if it has shanks and uses a curb strap.  We see many curb bits with snaffle-type mouthpieces but they also have shanks and use curb pressure and are falsely called snaffles.  A curb strap can be used on a true snaffle bit but only to keep the bit from being pulled through the horse's mouth.

Generally speaking, curb bits with a certain amount of tongue relief or a port are easier for the horse to adjust to than a straight bar mouthpiece.  Shanks can be of various lengths and shapes for different leverages.  Shanks that swivel are easier on a horse that fixed shanks.  Any port that is tall enough to touch the palate or the roof of the mouth is also a signal bit. It "signals" that something is going to happen before the leverage gets great enough to make it happen.

When choosing a bit to use, remember the goal is to communicate what you want from your horse in the clearest way possible.  We expect our horse to translate our cues and we expect that to happen as quickly as possible. 
The bottom line in choosing a bit is that how we use a bit is as important as the kind we use.

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