For most riders, the bit is the main means of communication with their horse. To the rider, the bit is like the steering wheel of a car. Bits come in all different shapes and styles; however, most of the bits you would use on a western style horse will fall into two different categories: snaffle bits and curb bits. Finding the right bit for you and your horse can be nerve wracking. Typically I try several different bits on my horse to see which one works best. Just because you like the way one bit works with one horse doesn’t mean you will like how that same bit works with another horse. Likewise, you may have a bit that works great for you and your horse, but with a different rider the same bit will work differently with the same horse.
Snaffle bits are the most common type of bit used in the horse world. Basically they are some sort of ring with a mouth piece in the middle. They work by applying direct pressure on the bars of your horses mouth (space between incisors and molars). In the western world, the snaffle bit is considered a two handed bit, and when using a snaffle you should ride your horse with two hands on the reins. Also in most western show rings it is acceptable to use a snaffle bit on a horse five years old or younger. After that the horse should be switched to a curb bit. Pictured are several different snaffle bits I have in my tack room. You will notice the bit crossed out. Many people will refer to this as a Tom Thumb Snaffle bit; however, since it has shanks on the side it actually is not a snaffle bit, but a curb bit. On the left of the picture from top to bottom are an eggbutt snaffles, D-ring snaffle, and an O-ring snaffle. They are named for the shape of the rings on the side. Most commonly a snaffle bit will have a jointed mouth piece; however, any bit with a ringed side is considered a snaffle bit. The two bits pictured below are both O-ring snaffle bits. They just have different mouth pieces.
Curb bits are bits with a shank on the side and a mouth piece in the middle. The shank on the curb bit creates a lever action and applies pressure to places other than just the bars of the horses mouth. When using a curb bit, a pull on the reins does a number of things. First there is pressure on the bars of the mouth. The curb strap is lifted and puts pressure under the horses chin. Then the bridle itself will put pressure on the poll. Also depending on the mouth piece, pressure can be put on the horse’s tongue or the roof of his mouth or the bars of his mouth. The bits pictured here are type of curb bits. All have shanks, and all work with leverage. Curb bits are normally used when riding with one hand, or neck reining.
Choosing a Bit
When I first start a colt I like to use a broken mouth snaffle bit. They allow me to guide my horses better, and let me show them what I want them to do. Typically I don’t transition to a curb bit until my horse is starting to neck rein and moves off of leg pressure. Personally when I first move into a curb bit, I start with one that has shorter shanks. The shorter shanks mean that there will be less pressure on my horse’s poll and chin. As he progresses I move to a longer shanked bit.
Choosing a mouth piece is the trickiest part of bit selection for me. Once I move out of a snaffle bit, I try to avoid mouth pieces with a single joint in them. When you pull back on the reins with both hands, they have a nutcracker effect on your horse’s mouth. I know if I was a horse I wouldn’t like this. So I tend to select mouth pieces with at least two joints or a solid mouth piece. The best way to select a bit is to try different bits out on your horse and use the one that works the best with you and your horse. If you don’t have a tack room full of bits, ask some of your horse people friends if you could barrow one of their bits for a few rides before you decide to purchase one like it. I know I have bits that have cost me over a hundred dollars, and I’ve seen bit that cost as much as $500+. That’s a pretty big investment for something that might not work for you or your horse.
With my horses, even after I advance them up to a curb bit, I will have days that I work them in a snaffle bit to try to get them to soften up. Really the most important thing to remember is that a bit is only as severe as the hands holding the reins. Whether you choose to use a snaffle bit or a curb bit, if you don’t have soft hands you can hurt your horse’s mouth. If you want to develop a horse with a soft mouth don’t pull on your horse or use more force than necessary.