How does a person muddle through all the choices? How do you pick a bit that is gentle and comfortable for your horse and how do you tell if he likes or dislikes it? Is it even necessary to have your horse trained to ride with a bit? What do you do if your horse leans on the bit or runs through it and you feel like you need stronger brakes? How much should I expect to pay for a quality snaffle? Are brand names better than generic or used?
These are all common questions I get about equipment, and in particular snaffles. While each of these inquiries could merit an essay on its own, in this blog post I'll be discussing some of the differences between snaffle bits and how to tell which one your horse likes.
7- plastic, supposedly apple flavored, but it doesn't taste like anything to me. (yes, I do sniff and occasionally taste bits so I know what is going in my horse's mouth. Tack shopping with me is a fairly humorous and entertaining endeavor)
8- sweet iron, which oxidizes more easily than steel and supposedly tastes sweet to the horse the longer they use it. I haven't sucked on this one long enough myself to know if it really does taste sweet.
9- copper, which has a different flavor than regular steel
10- a combination of copper and stainless steel
Horses like different things about bits, and the way a bit tastes is just one factor. Bits are also often made with rubber around the metal.
11- eggbutt, because the part where the ring starts is really fat.
12- this is also an eggbutt, however it is a much thinner one
13-loose ring, because the ring is not solidly attached to the mouthpiece, resulting in the ring sliding through the mouthpiece. When sizing any bit you want to make sure it's the right length for the horse's mouth, but it's especially important with loose rings because as the ring slides it can pinch the corner of the horse's lips. You can get bit guards for this, but that only makes the length shorter and squishes the lips further. Better to just have a bit that is the right length.
14- this is a D ring, because there is a straight side to the ring, shaping it more like a "D" than an "O"
15- Full cheek, because there is a metal bar that prevents the bit from sliding through the mouth if you pull on one rein or the other. This bit requires additional attachments to the bridle to make sure the metal prongs don't twist oddly when the horse is wearing it. I like this style of bit for the very beginnings of training a horse, when I'm teaching steering and contact with the rider's hands when ground driving after the horse is used to steering with only a noseband.
This group of snaffles I call double-jointed because they all have two joints above the horse's tongue. They are also known as french linked snaffles, but the only true french link in the group is 3 because the center mouthpiece is flat.
1- double jointed, bean center, loose ring O, thick diameter steel mouthpiece
2- double jointed, bean center, loose ring O, thick diameter copper mouthpiece
3- French link eggbutt, average diameter steel mouthpiece
4- double jointed steel bit with copper bean, eggbutt sides
5- double jointed, rotated Aurigan metal mouthpiece, loose ring, center bean
6- double jointed, not rotated aurigan metal mouthpiece, loose ring
|These two show up close the difference between a true french link (top) with the flat center piece, and a "bean" as the middle piece (bottom)|
The physics behind how each bit works in the horse's mouth is super interesting (to me, anyway!). You have to take into account the width of the horse's mouth, the space available for a bit to sit inside, the thickness of the tongue, training level, any old scarring in the mouth from previous bit experiences, and taste preferences. Generally I start bit work with a new horse in the snaffle they are most accustomed to. As their training progresses, their preferences for a bit changes, or if they are unhappy with their current bit I'll try them in different ones until I find something the horse likes. As a special note, horses who have had particularly rough training sometimes have scarring in their mouths, like bone spurs or extra bony proliferation on the bars of their mouth where the bit sits that may make it difficult or impossible to find a bit that horse likes. I have also seen a variety of scarred tongues, with pieces taken out in chunks or shredded, and some of those horses are able to overcome their past negative associations with bits, others are not and do better to work in a nose band with reins.
As far as individual horse preferences, Cole the lesson horse usually teaches in a noseband with reins on it, but when he's competing the rules require a snaffle bit. His choice is to have a regular single-jointed eggbutt snaffle, like #12, but with a steel mouth. He tolerates the copper, but would rather have steel.
Another example is Cecil, my thoroughbred who passed away last year. He had some jaw problems and to keep him comfortable he always schooled in a hackamore, even cross-country, but competed in dressage in the angled aurigan loose ring, #5.
I had a large foundation quarter horse mare in for training several years ago, she was an adult broodmare that I re-started under saddle so we could find her a new home since her owner was no longer breeding quarter horses. Though she was tall and stout, her mouth was actually quite shallow with a fairly thick tongue. I initially put the fat eggbutt snaffle on her (#11), thinking that it was thickest and therefore the most comfortable and gentle. She was a good sport about it, but her mouth never really quieted down during her training sessions. During the third session using this bit she allowed me to put it in her mouth, then she took a couple steps towards me, gaped her mouth open, and raised her tongue to my eye-level. Wagging her tongue to the sides, she very clearly said, "Kim, thith ith too big fo ma mouf". I stared at her, wondering about this odd expression on her face, and she repeated herself. She could not have been more clear had she pointed to her face and shouted at me that she needed something different. I changed it and put her in a similar snaffle but with a thinner diameter, and she worked just fine and with a quiet, closed mouth.
Major is an interesting horse, since he is subtle about his preferences. Before he came to me he had dental work done with power tools which took so much tooth off of his canines that there is now nerve and pulp exposure. There was also too much tooth taken from his premolar in what is called a "bit seat". Bit seats were quite popular for a while under the theory that the bit wouldn't bang on teeth that had been smoothed over with the corners taken off. However, in Major's case they took too much, and he has dramatic sensitivity when anything touches those teeth. Major prefers to work in a double jointed snaffle like #6 with loose rings. I've tried many many bits with him, and he will silently comply with whatever I place in his mouth, he doesn't like to complain. I know which ones he dislikes because if it's uncomfortable for him he will do an occasional abrupt swinging of his head to the right, even if there is a loopy loose rein.
Highboy came from the track, where most often they use a racing D-ring, and Highboy still prefers to work in a single jointed snaffle like #14. I've tried him in a double jointed with different flavors, and it was entirely too much going on in his mouth and he couldn't concentrate. So, simple it is. As he progresses in his training I'll experiment further to see what he likes when his experience level and his preferences change.
This is just a small amount of data to brush the very surface of snaffle bit information, and remember that the horse always has the final say on which bit is best for him. Determining which bit your horse is likely to prefer is as much an art of communication as it is science and measurements, and I'm happy to do consultations at your facility or mine to help your horse find the equipment in which he's happiest working.