A Training Guide on Bits (chapter 5)
At MacGregor Stables we are often asked how we use our bits and how we start our horses. To help answer these questions I have put together a small bitting guide to help answer this interest.
First it is important to understand how bits work. A snaffle bit is a direct pull bit while a curb bit is a leverage bit. When you add pressure to the reins of a snaffle bit the horse feels this same pressure in his mouth and uses this pressure to obey commands from the rider.
A curb bit uses leverage to create downward rotation in the horse’s headset or collection. There are still pressure cues in the horse’s mouth but there is added pressure to rotate downward with the lever action of the curb. By adjusting hand height you can place the height of the horse’s headset lifting and lowering as needed. The need for this type of riding is that collection enhances gait and balance. It can create more stride and hip rotation in the back leg motion as well as lift and reach in the travel of the front leg. This requires competence in hand, leg and seat cues and should be taught to horses by a professional.
The parts of a snaffle are the mouthpiece that goes into the horse’s mouth and the cheeks or rings which attach to the bridle and reins.
The parts of the curb are much more complicated but provide a much deeper language between horse and rider. The mouthpiece is the same but it is attached to a lever which has a top and a bottom. The top is called the purchase and the bottom is called the shank. This lever is created by adding a curbchain to the rings at the top of the purchase by use of curbhooks. The mouthpiece can be of any variety and the shank can be loose (free moving) or solid as can be the rings at the bottom of the shank. The curbchain should be wide and flat while attached and the tightness will be determined by the design of the shank. If the shank is straight the curbchain will be loose but the more backward sloping the angle of the shank becomes the tighter the curbchain must be adjusted. This is because the curb (leverage) bit is designed to cause leverage.
A lever uses a fulcrum which is the mouthpiece on a bit and would be placed where the blue triangle is. The purchase or top of the bit is seen represented by the red square and the shank is where the effort is placed. With the curbchain attached under the chin groove (which is adjusted by the length of the purchase) this bonds the head of the horse to the lever causing the whole head to rotate as the horse follows the downward and inward rotating pressure of the curb bit. The seven long vertebras in the horse’s neck allow the neck to arch into position without pain and the head height will follow the height of the rider’s hands. This should all be accomplished softly and over many months or years.
In curb bit design it is necessary to remember that the longer the shank becomes the purchase must also become longer. This balances the load on the horse’s mouth. If the purchase is too high the curbchain will interfere with the bottom of the horse’s first molars and if it is too low the curbchain will pinch the skin between the lip and chin groove by compressing the skin between the mouthpiece and curbchain. The more joints in the mouthpiece the less severe the bit becomes but it also reduces the communication of aids to the horse to the point where the horse no longer understands what is wanted of him. A solid shank is very good at communicating information but is also very severe in the wrong hands. This can be reduced by having the shank rotate through the mouthpiece adding joints on each end of the mouthpiece. Loose rings at the bottom of the shanks will also take out severity without loosing much communication.
A well designed curb bit will have one or two joints in the mouthpiece and loose shanks with loose rings at the bottom, but a good professional rider’s bit will often be a solid one piece bit offering the highest level of communication. To use these solid bits it is best to have many years of riding experience because these bits will cut the horse’s mouth and tongue in the wrong hands.
The mouthpiece can come in many different styles: a bar, single jointed, double jointed, chain, rope and uncomfortable!
A bar mouthpiece can have many shapes but I prefer a crescent shape as the tongue lies between the bars of the mouth and doesn’t need further room as is seen in port mouthpieces. A port mouthpiece may irritate the horse because the bars of the mouth are only 2” apart or as wide as your two middle knuckles pressed together. There is a deep channel between these two ridges of bone in which the tongue has plenty of room but the port has an open square bottom and this shape if it isn’t crescent has corners that will bruise the bars of the mouth as it bumps across them during left and right directional cueing. When using a bar mouthpiece most of the pressure will be on the top of the mouth bars and much less on the lower lip of the horse.
Jointed mouthpieces come in two good designs; single which puts pressure on the outside of the bars of the mouth as well as the gums and lips and double which puts pressure flat on the bars as well as on the gums and lips. By rotating between these two designs the horse’s mouth will always be fresh and sensitive.
A chain or rope lack the communication that is necessary to have while teaching the finely tuned horse and other deviant uncomfortable mouthpieces just hurt and annoy. The horse will tell you if he is happy by being calm and working hard; head tossing, gaping at the mouth, drooling, nosing out and over collecting are all signs of unhappiness or pain and it is best to go back to the basics – bar, jointed and double jointed.
The above pictured skull is from a 16 hand horse. A mouthpiece on most American breeds will be 4 ¾” to 5” wide and the lips should go clear to the edge of the mouthpiece when fit properly. Note that the skin of the horse’s mouth uses most of the width in the five inch mouthpiece shown above. The only bones coming into contact with the mouthpiece are the bars.
The height adjustment of the mouthpiece should be lifted in the mouth until it creates a small wrinkle at the back corner of the lip. This puts the mouthpiece on the least sensitive tissue on the bars and allows the lip tissue to stabilize the mouthpiece so it doesn’t flop around bruising the bars.
When adjusting a curb bit it is necessary to tighten or loosen the curbchain until the bit has a maximum 30 degree rotation. Measure this by finding the line created by the horse’s lips and then finding a line made using the top and bottom rings on the curb bit. These two lines come together at the back of the horse’s lips where we find the mouthpiece. In between the triangle made is an angle and this should be at 30 degrees when the curbchain is adjusted correctly. This angle will resemble a forward tipping 7.
The work you do to make a horse’s mouth happy will set the stage for a shorter training time and a willing horse.
Bit 1 is a full cheek snaffle and is our preferred bit to start all horses. The advantage of this bit is that it is noninvasive and it won’t pull through the mouth as the horse is learning to turn. Its bad side is that it will rotate and drop in the middle of the mouthpiece forming a “V” and allow the horse to place its tongue over the top which may in time cause a tongue flipper.
Bit 2 is a hanging snaffle also called a
Fillis snaffle after the trainer James Fillis who brought this bit to the
forefront using it in
Bit 3 is a Kimberwick and is the first curb bit that I introduce to the young mouth. After four months of basic training many horses will then need to have a more collected headset. It is important to collect the head and neck without hurting or scaring the young horse. I find that this bit allows the horse to learn with the least discomfort. Many horses will stay in this bit throughout their young lives as they learn to show or trail ride. It offers control yet rides softly in the mouth. This bit uses a medium tight curbchain to create soft leverage.
Bit 4 is a 6” jointed mouth Walking Horse curb bit. The term, jointed mouth, refers to the single joint in the mouthpiece and “Walking Horse” refers to the traditional Walking Horse shank design and it is a curb bit because it uses leverage through the curbchain. This is all important because this is the most misnamed bit sold on the market. A curb bit can not be a snaffle because a snaffle bit doesn’t create any leverage which is why this mouthpiece must be called jointed or in some catalogs - broken. This is a great young horse bit and only has one disadvantage; this bit does require bit guards to prevent pinching at the lips. This bit uses a medium to tight curbchain because the shank is sloped backward creating rotation or angle. This is the bit I prefer on 3 year olds or new horses. If a horse using this bit becomes over collected go back and use the Kimberwick. Lessening the shank length should allow the horse to feel less collective pressure in the mouth and return to a proper headset.
Bit 5 is an 8” jointed mouth Walking Horse curb bit and only adds shank length to the 6” bit (pictured above). This will allow for a lower rein attachment which creates a more downward head position preventing a horse from nosing out. If the horse becomes over collected or distraught because the head set position is too difficult I just return to the previous bit.
Bit 6 is the Stick Bit and has two defining characteristics. The mouthpiece is mounted on the sides of the shanks preventing pinching between the joint and it is made to be very light. By being light it allows the Tennessee Walking Horse to shake his head without a heavy bit banging around bruising mouth tissue. This bit, due to its design, requires a tight curbchain and will pinch the mouth with a loose curbchain. It may also cross in the shanks if the curbchain is too tight but when adjusted correctly it rides with a smooth light feel and most horses at this stage of training prefer it because of its lightness.
Bit 7 is a Dr. Bristol the first bit in a new line of thinking. If your horse doesn’t like the “V” action of the single jointed or broken mouthpiece this is an alternate way to bit your horse. The flat plate in the center of the mouthpiece lies across the bars, so it should be at least 2” wide. This bit should not be used to break horses as it will be far too severe. While the mouthpiece is very comfortable the two joints cause a compression on the outside edges of the mouth and will annoy a young horse but an older horse usually finds this mouthpiece preferable and cues collection off the bit action.
Bit 8 is a T-bone curb which refers to the center latex wrapped bar. The same action is found in this mouthpiece as is found in the Dr. Bristol snaffle but it is seen in the curb format. This is the best designed curb bit I use and most adult horses like it. It is soft in the mouth but uses a tight curbchain which offers plenty of control. This is always the bit I turn to for the adult horse suffering mouth problems. This bit has no faults and molds around the horse’s mouth applying equal pressure on all surfaces dissipating severity.
Bit 9 is a bar snaffle and provides yet another line of thinking. A bar mouthpiece puts most of the pressure on the bars of the mouth. This is the only other bit I use to start a horse and it is usually used while on the lunge when the horse is getting used to a bit. Because it doesn’t have any joints it won’t allow the horse to flop its tongue over the bit preventing an early fault. Only 10% of young horses will stay in this bit for their riding training, most will go to the full cheek snaffle, hanging snaffle or Kimberwick curb bit.
Bit 10 is the
Bit 11 is a 7” bar curb with swivel shanks. If
a horse doesn’t like a solid bit like the
Bit 12 is a Pleasure Bit and is a solid bit.
It uses a medium tight curbchain because the shank is swept back in the Walking
Horse fashion. This bit is preferred by horses that like the bit to remain
still in their mouths. Because there are no joints in this bit and its shanks
are sloped backward using a tighter curbchain there is almost no motion in the
horse’s mouth while using this bit. This bit is too rigid and severe for the
young horse’s mouth but older horses often prefer it because it doesn’t annoy
them with needless movement. If this bit over collects a horse go back to the
Bit 13 is an 8” Saddlebred low port curb. This bit is only for horses 5 years of age and older. It is best to have at least 2 to 3 years of training before using this bit. There are no joints anywhere on this bit and it is very severe. To ride in this bit you have to have light and well trained hands that always think of the horse’s mouth first but the finesse that can be achieved with this bit is unmatched. This bit uses a loose curbchain and this is the only thing that allows the horse to respond to cues before the bit punishes his mouth. The horse literally feels the cue coming and responds allowing the rider to maintain the look of perfection with almost no effort. The horse and rider must feel each other and be long term partners to use this bit. In the right hands this bit helps to produce magical championship rides and in the wrong unskilled hands it will ruin a horse forever. This bit can and will cut the tongue and destroy the bars of the mouth by breaking the ridge of bone that runs along the top. When you think this bit looks good wait a year.
Bit 14 is a double twisted full cheek snaffle. This is the last line of thinking on bitting the horse. These bits are not bad or evil but they do require a knowledgeable hand. You must not saw left to right with this bit, it will tear and rip the horse’s mouth to shreds. However, with direct pressure this bit is very comfortable to the horse as it will disperse pressure equally throughout the tissues of the mouth. After purchasing this bit it is necessary to bend the mouthpiece in a backward arch to prevent the mouthpiece from forming a “W” in the horse’s mouth which would be very uncomfortable. This is not a bit to start the training process with and should not be used before the horse is 3 years old.
Bit 15 is a 7” double twisted wire curb bit and it is necessary to follow all the advice given under the double twisted wire snaffle description. This bit uses a tight curbchain because the shanks are already sloped backward to 30 degrees and it is important to have as little movement while using this bit as possible. With a soft hand many horses love this bit and used properly you will never see a horse hurt by it. It is very good for the horse that misbehaves or goofs off as the bit will follow his mouth and not loose contact. The mouthpiece is abrasive enough that most horses won’t lug downward on it leaving the rider with a lighter feel and easy control.
Bit 16 is a 9” double twisted wire curb bit
and shares all physical design with the 7” version. The advantage of the longer
shank length is more downward rotation of the head set. The more animated
horses tend to like this bit because it helps to balance their motion as they
use a much higher head set. The high stepping and long striding gait of the
Tennessee Walking Horse sometimes can get out of
timing because the horse can’t control his exaggerated leg motion without help
from his rider. This bit is very helpful toward providing that needed support.
This bit also helps a horse to relax and get into his proper timing allowing
for a larger head shake which is part of the
The next group of bits is very specialized and designed for specific training purposes.
Bit 17 is the Springsteen Bit and it uses a spoon shaped jaw brace to steady the bit in the horse’s mouth. If a horse is fussy in the mouth or overreacts to the bit during mild cueing this bit will tend to steady the horse and the wide mouthpiece displaces the harshness of the cues. It is safe to use with draw reins and while being used with direct reins it has a slight drawing out effect of the nose and can help with an over collected horse.
Bit 18 is a Saddlebury designed after the Banbury bit. This bit rides the same as the Saddlebred low port curb but has the added advantage that the shanks rotate on the mouthpiece. This prevents friction in the mouth caused when the bit rotates to the optimum 30 degrees. The mouthpiece also moves freely up and down allowing the horse to work his tongue further lubricating his mouth to prevent dry gum skin from grabbing and tearing on the steel of the mouthpiece. This bit will get crooked in the horse’s mouth if the rider’s hands are not balanced. If this occurs just return to the Saddlebred low port curb.
Bit 19 is a training bit only and is called the Macgregor Bit. This bit has a 2” shank and uses a nose strap to take most of the pressure off the mouth. This bit can be used with draw reins as it is designed to ride off the bridge of the nose bone and not the mouth. This bit uses a medium tight curbchain and helps to teach violent or severely hurt horses how to use a bit. This is a teaching tool and helps to persuade a horse into proper alignment and rotation. Care must be given not to train too fast and cause the horse to have sore muscles in the neck and back. Because this bit works so well all the responsibility falls on the rider to use it correctly and this bit should only be used by the advanced horseman.
Bit 20 is a double mouth bit and is only used on a horse with bar damage. If mouth abuse has caused a dead mouth or one sided mouth this bit will place the top mouthpiece in the proper position and drop the active lower mouthpiece down onto fresh tissue. The horse will respond by becoming lighter and more responsive to all rein cues. Treat this bit as a second chance and take care to stay light in hand while teaching the new more relaxed head set. This bit uses a tight curb chain and can be wrapped with latex on the lower mouthpiece to lessen the severity.
These four pathways through the training of the Tennessee Walking Horse are used by MacGregor Stables and have been every day for over 20 years and through our consistency and results I finally feel comfortable presenting this bit training summery to the public. It is my hope that this aide will help young trainers and amateurs to confidently make choices in bitting that will help them on their path toward success.
There are thousands of other bits on the market but most will fail due to being too severe. The rest will fail because they don’t communicate the needed cues clearly or they lack balance in the mouth. Just because a bit is a snaffle doesn’t mean that it isn’t severe as can be seen by looking at many of the driving bits of the late 1800’s. Also, not all curb bits are severe as can be seen by reading through this article. It is up to the rider to provide comfort to the mouth of his horse and it is also up to the rider to allow his horse to develop to his highest potential. Even on the trail a horse should be balanced, collected and relaxed and a properly designed and correctly used bit will bring out the best in your horse.
Thank you for going on the journey and ride for the fun of it!