Bitting is one of those never ending subjects that can become quite confusing. Often people will say to me I have no idea about bitting and haven’t got a clue! Even experienced riders are often unsure of what to do next, and can feel embarrassed by the fact they need to ask. So ask its a confidential service!
There must be a reason why you are thinking of changing your horses bit, as no one wakes up one day as says “you know what, I am going to change my horses bit today”!
At this point it is good to stop right there and think about this. Was this decision something that has been building up over time or was yesterdays ride so bad you have decided you just have to do something?
Question the distinction in the circumstances , is it the bit or is this bad behaviour, high spirits, a feed change effect, saddle change, and consider hormones in mares throughout the year and if you need to consider some hormone therapy.
Often bad behaviour brings on a need to change the bit to obtain more control and there is nothing wrong with that, the last thing you want to feel is a lack of control when your sorting out some bad behaviour.
Before we proceed with the idea of a change we need to do a few checks in a what may seem like a boring process of elimination but is really very important to make sure we are making the adjustment in the right place (the mouth).
Competition horses are in the main well cared for with regular physio sessions, saddle fit checks, and dental care diarised on a regular basis. We are looking for soreness issues or dental issues and these can arise at any time so the fact your horse is in a routine maintenance plan does not mean they will not arise before the next appointment is due.
The question to ask your self is when were these checks last done, and are they coming due again. Or have they never been done, a new horse maybe. Check that any of these maintenance issues/routines are not contributing to a bitting problem.
When we put a bit in a horses mouth it actually does nothing, it doesn’t matter what bit we use it will do nothing in the horses mouth. Yes the horse may play with the bit to some extent but that is the horse doing something with the bit as the bit is still doing nothing it is normally a lump of metal and it does not move!
So I hope this is now leading you to understand that the action of the bit occurs when it is activated by human intervention on the reins, and this invokes a reaction by the horse as the bit acts on the various parts of the horses mouth. Liked, not liked, tolerated or detested.
If your horses work has changed it could be the bit has stopped working, that could be due to some soreness on the acting areas of the mouth, or simply the pace of the activity such as hunting where there is a lot more activity on the mouth. Horses can become strong and the rider needs a bit more control which when addressed with the right bit it can actually reduce the amount of work done by the rider which reduces the number of moments of pressure on the horse mouth.
An important thing to understand is the bit is used to control any movement by the horse whether that is a forward movement, a directional movement, or a reduction in movement to the ultimate degree of stopping moving altogether.
When considering bitting it is useful to understand at what level is your horse working at in his flat work. A young horse will be less balanced than an older horse that has been schooled correctly and having developed the right carrying muscles and so one would expect to assist the young horse with more corrective actions that aid the horse trying to figure out how to balance with your weight on its back. The older horse correctly schooled will be stronger and more capable of controlling his/her movement in spite of the riders influence and should feel like an easier ride.
A young 500kg horse with a 75kg rider added to its back that pivots like a pendulum is a lot for the horse to learn to handle and the more experienced rider will be able to sit more quietly in the saddle than a novice rider, and so balance is easier to maintain and that means less falling in or out on the circle, and a lighter contact on a straight line as balance is maintained and forward motion controlled through the contact.
So we do need to be sure we are not bitting the horse up for the wrong reasons as balance is something developed over time with the right sort of work and not corrected over night in the mouth.
Pressure creates pressure and the intention should be to avoid discomfort where possible as the rider never really picks up the issue of discomfort as they are not the one with a bit in their mouth.
So we need to work though the reasons we are changing the bit, and it is most likely that by changing the bit to a more comfortable bit we will reduce or eliminate the discomfort created by the action of the riders rein pressure on the bit in use ( acting on the horses mouth).
Horses will generally run away from discomfort which is a different situation to one where the correct bit is in use and the horses mouth is being put under an increased level of pressure to communicate effectively. Under these circumstances the horse understands and complies with the request, and the pressure is quickly alleviated by the riders softening leg and hand which provides the reward the horse is seeking, and so we now have effective communication without the argument created by any accompanying discomfort.
It cannot be stressed enough the importance of understanding the process of riding from leg to hand. This has a direct correlation to the effectiveness of the bit in use and ultimately its choice.
A common complaint is that the horse carries is head too high. This can be corrected by schooling and riding the horse forwards and riding the horse down onto the bit from behind. Effectively using the riders leg to hand rather than trying to fix the horses head through incorrect bitting choice with a bit that forces the horse into a false outline and plenty of discomfort.
Horse that move in a false outline through bad schooling are usually “bitted up” with more severe bits to pull the head down through poll pressure which restricts movement and has them going as we say “upside down” (head up and dropped back) and this is not a comfortable way for the horse under saddle and it also makes transitions up or down difficult to execute for the horse where undue increased pressure ends up acting on the mouth. These horses do not track up well and so the muscle development through the top line is usually poor.
My advise to anyone with a horse that has become this way is to look at reschooling assisted by working initially on the lunge line with the use of the chambon. This way you can encourage free movement and strengthen the top line and the carrying muscles of the hind quarters. This work should be built up slowly recording the time spent on each rein (a total session of 20 minutes maximum and no more that five minutes on either rein at a time to start with) and using a simple hollow mouth German snaffle as the bit choice.
Remember lunge work puts pressure on joints and muscles and should be done in moderation with frequent rest periods and built up over a period of days and weeks. A weight lifter never started with a lot of weight on the bar and certainly built up the number of repetitions over a period of time and your horse is no different.
After a few weeks (6-8wks) of building up to 30 minutes lunge work you should already be finding a difference in the ridden work. At this point you may well need to change the bit but possibly for a milder one that encourages more contact.
In terms of the bitting choices there are five main manufacturers of bitting that offer similar but different solutions and all are based on comfort.
Myler, Neue Schule, Bombers Bits, Nathe and Sprenger.
Each manufacturer has approached things slightly differently and the main theme involves tongue relief, pallet relief, and bar pressure.
The one thing I do know is that whatever the technical attributes of any such bitting solutions you can only take things so far in terms of bitting expertise as the horse will tell you if you have got it right or not.
In conclusion I hope the above makes you consider the horses current situation and capabilities, the riders contribution, existing prevailing circumstances, and other related factors that may have led to the decision to change the bit.
In my following series of blogs we will discuss some of these bitting solutions in more detail.
Saddlemasters Equestrian Ltd