In the good ol’ days we took our snaffle bit and put it in our horse’s mouth and went for a ride. If our horse complained but did not run off we often never noticed that anything was wrong. And if this horse was controllable without resorting to anything like a pelham, we would say proudly “he has a snaffle mouth.” And if we had some real serious control problems with the snaffle, we might wait to compete until we reached a level where the double bridle was legal, if we could get there. Or, we would give up and sell the horse to a sport where a pelham or other bit that worked was acceptable.
Now, as we understand more about bits and bitting life becomes more complicated, not less, however, the results are rewarding in having a happy horse and a pleasant ride. And now we have solutions to many of our bitting problems that could have been grounds to sell a horse in the past.
The key to finding the correct bit is to develop an understanding and acceptance of the “dance of the bits.” The dance of the bits describes the give and take, the ebb and flow, and the grace and movement involved in the art of bitting. No longer do we pull one bit out and assign it to a horse for life any more than we pull one dance step out and only do that step for the rest of our lives. Dancing with the bits allows us to adjust to our horse’s needs and to our riding needs as both of us change.
Think of dancing with the same partner over the years. For some the real joy comes with taking lessons, learning new steps and trying new styles of dancing. For others, perfecting one style of dancing and adding new steps slowly and carefully is more your style. What types of lessons do you take with your horse? Do you explore new trainers and techniques regularly, look to progress through the ranks to a more advanced level? Or do you stick with the tried and true novice or training levels and try to perfect those?
No matter which style of dance you prefer, or which style of riding lessons you focus on, you are always progressing, becoming better and different. Are you the same rider you were two years ago, five, ten years ago? Is your horse at the same level s/he was 2, 5 and 10 years ago? If you answer yes to those questions you will have much less need to do the dance of the bits. Your relationship with your horse is solid and you probably have figured out which saddle, bits and other equipment work for you. I presume you and your horse are happy where you are.
For the rest of you who answered that you and your horse are different from what you were in the past, you have to ask the question “how did you learn to get to where you are today?” You did not wake up one day and ride a second level test, when yesterday you rode at the first level, correct? So, most of us have been taking lessons that teach us new steps, new movements and new patterns. That means that when we learn something new, we are again a beginner at that new task. As we learn the new task, we become advanced at that task, then look to learn another task, and become a beginner again. Got the picture?
Part of the dance is that we and our horses go from beginner to accomplished on a regular basis, if we are learning and moving up in the levels. This is more true for dressage than any other sport, as each level challenges us with many new movements and requirements. Many other sports encourage perfection at a particular level, but unless we choose another division with higher jumps or a different sport, the movements remain similar over the years.
Bits and the dance
So, what does all this have to with bitting? Lots. When we are at the beginner level of a new movement, the horse is also at that beginner level and has different bitting needs than when s/he is accomplished in those movements. To help our horses the most, we need to realize that we need to dance with the bits as much as we are dancing with our horse. It may mean changing bits every two weeks or every six months, depending on what the horse needs. It does not generally mean a totally different bit every two weeks. Usually you will find a few bits that work for your horse at the different stages of training, then just change back and forth between those bits as you dance through the movements.
To understand how you might make a bit selection, lets review some basics of the different stages of training and the different bits that you may want to consider. The best explanation of the different stages of bitting has been described by Dale Myler of Myler Bits, Inc. Many different brands and types of bits fit into the stages of training once you understand what you are trying to accomplish with each stage.
As a general rule, in the beginner or first stage of bitting you want a snaffle-type bit with some pressure on the tongue and some nutcracker effect on the bars to get the horse’s attention. Snaffles made with curved mouth pieces are more comfortable for the horse than ones with a straight bar. Standard snaffles with a single joint can put a great deal of pressure on the tongue and restrict swallowing. A bit made with an extra joint in the center as in the “French link” or Dr. Bristol-style snaffle allows easier swallowing and more comfort. Some horses will be quite happy in this type of bit for many stages of training, especially if they are light in the mouth.
In the intermediate stage or second stage you want to release the nutcracker effect and keep some gentler tongue pressure. Bits that fit this category have a straight or curved “mullen” mouth with no joints. This could be a soft or hard rubber bit or any other stiff non-jointed or flexible solid mouth-piece. Bits that are designed with a curve in the mouth piece will give more tongue relief than a perfectly straight bar.
In the educated third stage, you need a softer bit with little tongue pressure and no nutcracker effect. The softest bits have a port and a non-jointed mouth piece, allowing complete freedom of the tongue with the main contact on the bars. Most English riders have been trained to consider the port a severe bit that gouges the roof of the mouth, however nothing could be farther from the truth. A very large incorrectly-designed port could hurt the roof of the mouth, but a correctly designed port will only clear the tongue. Most bits in this category are not legal in the dressage arena at the present time, however, many dressage horses are happiest in these bits and work very quietly with their mouth and back soft.
In all stages of learning you need to bit the horse according to the stage of training and the temperament. So a very quiet horse will require a softer bit than a strong, hot horse. Each stage of bitting has a variety of bits that will fit different temperaments, however, there will be horses that never go beyond a stage one or two bit due to their temperament and your need for brakes to control that horse.
So, how do you tell when to change dance steps and bits, now that you have all these choices to make? It is time to move up to the next, softer bit when you pick up the reins for a signal and the horse is soft, but resists when you hold contact. In the past, when you meet resistance, the tendency is to get a harsher bit. But, if you select a milder bit, the horse will be a more willing dance partner.
You need to go to a previous stage bit when you are not getting your message through or you feel that you do not have enough control or brakes. Then the horse is asking for more guidance, and is being less responsive.
If your horse goes well in a bit that is not legal in competition you keep the dance going by riding in the favorite bit three or four days out of the week, and for one or two days use the best legal bit. Alternating bits in this way will usually keep your horse comfortable and responsive to the bit even after a day of work in a bit that is less than perfect. Too many days in a row of incorrect bits usually will cause poorer performance.
Some poll pressure from a bit can be very helpful at some stages of training and with some horses. Gentle pressure applied to the poll helps keep the connection between the head and the neck loose. Gentle poll pressure also helps distribute the forces from the rider’s hands over more places, reducing the pressure needed in the mouth for control. Pressure on the poll also reminds the horse to release his head in a downward direction, helping release the muscles on the bottom of his neck as well as around the jaw joint. Stronger poll pressure can send a very powerful signal to the horse to release in the downward direction. Bits with a shank include kimberwicks, curbs and pelhams, most of which are not legal in the dressage arena, but may have a place in the training dance. Remember that you do not have to stay with any one bit just because you need it for a short time.
Think about your training rides, competition miles and how you can apply the dance of the bits to enhance your and your horse’s fun and enjoyment. Then dance to the next level of education for you and your horse.