Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bits I Have Loved

Amanda at Keeping It Low Key wrote recently about her conundrum about bitting up for control, and I shared in the comments that Tristan used to go in a kimberwicke: bitting up is not a sign of failure. It's a tool of the moment. Bitting up out of fear and then never working through the root issue? If and when it happens, that's the failure.

So I thought I'd write a bit about what bits I've used on Tristan, since my riding life is super boring right now.

The first bit Tris ever went in was a plain eggbutt snaffle.
You've seen them. You've ridden in them. They're the milquetoast of the equestrian world. It was a decent starting place for us, but it didn't last. Tristan doesn't like single-jointed bits. So we moved on.

Not much further, though. Double-joined eggbutt snaffle: this would be our go-to for many, many years on the flat and inside.

Then we started to school Tristan XC. As part of that, I was doing hillwork, and Tristan, still being very much the green horse at this point, pulled a series of bolting and spinning antics that would put a reining horse to shame. He ran uphill. He ran downhill. He took dangerous flying leaps over anything in his path including drainage ditches, patches of dead grass, small fences, you name it - especially when he was headed back to the barn.

So we bitted up.
MY PRECIOUS. This is an Uxeter Kimberwicke, mullen mouth, medium port. I remember with perfect clarity the first day that Tristan tried to bolt for home and the curb chain on this bit engaged. It felt like he stopped in mid-air and came back to earth, shocked, utterly still. The wheels in his had spun in place. I was awed at the immediate, amazing change.

This is not a subtle bit, you guys. This combination of features has one goal, and one goal only: WHOA THE FUCK DOWN, HORSE. And oh, did he ever whoa. This was our go-to for XC and any outdoor riding for 2+ years. And over time, we slowly used it less and less often. First,  he could be ridden outside (in the outdoor arena) without trying to bolt. Then, he could be flatted in open fields without it. Finally, we could go XC without it - I could tell when engaging it a bit took him off the pace rather than made him sane.

So we moved on.
Full-check french link snaffle. This is the bit he still goes in today when he's going XC or jumping. It lives on his figure-8 bridle. It can also occasionally be a good choice for trail-riding when he's fresh, or any kind of galloping. I've been known to put it on for trot sets just as a change of pace. For the first year or so, I used keepers on it to get a bit more leverage action; now, it's just loose. We experimented briefly in using it on his dressage bridle, but that didn't pay off.

We did make a few more changes to his dressage bit, however. Over time, the eggbutt lost its charm: he spent a very long time not unhinging or moving his jaw at all while being ridden, and we wanted to encourage him to chew the bit.
Enter the double-jointed loose ring snaffle. This is still the bit he goes in today. His mouth is small enough that a 5.5" bit has never pinched his cheeks, and he still likes the loose ring action. Double-jointed is still the way to go.

That said: I am in the market for a new bit. When riding with my trainer last fall, she felt that he would go better in a thinner bit. While the rule of thumb is generally that thicker = softer, for some horses with a low palate and relatively narrow gap in their teeth, a thinner bit can be kinder. For the first time ever, a trainer of mine actually put her hand in Tristan's mouth and felt the way the bit lay against his tongue and his gums, and explained to me what she was feeling. I felt dumbfounded: after eight years of riding this horse, I was still not there yet! So I borrowed a thinner bit from the barn and it did make a difference. Then I went out and bought what I thought was a thinner bit, only it wasn't.

So we haven't made the switch full time yet, because I am the worst. But I have my eye on it, and will likely try to find what works for us at Everything Equine next month.

What bits have you tried? Have you thought a lot about your horse's bit or do you tend to find something and stick with it?


  1. I have been meaning to comment on this topic at keeping it low key. .. I am in the samw boat. I really want to stick to a snaffle but I have a feeling that I'll have to bit up for group work/faster work outside and then train him from there to progress to the snaffle.

  2. Bits confuse me. I've tried a couple but I still haven't found the perfect one.

  3. I may be on the obsessive side of this subject. I have a bucket of bits, including a wide array of double-jointed snaffles that every other horse has liked but my mare hates. She just prefers ported bits to jointed bits...she has a narrow mouth with a low palate. I've tried switching to others but she always goes better in that ported uxeter kimberwick-just like the one you used to ride Tristan in. She's just happier in it... One day I'll get my hands on a used S-hackamore and just try her bitless. One day...

  4. I felt like it took years to find the right bit for Carlos, though I know most of that was a combination of bits plus schooling of horse and rider to what he ultimately went in.

  5. Great post! Trying bits has been problematic for me b/c all of my previous horses were in smaller bits (4.5 - 5") whereas Loki needs a 5.5". I've tried borrowing some but it has been limiting and why are bits so darn expensive sometimes! That said I do know that Loki prefers a double joint to a single and he hated the mullen mouth I tried but he really seems to go pretty well in the Myler comfort snaffle which I'm not 100% sure what that compares to. I've never tried anything with a true port to it.

    All that said what I think seems to be working best for him as far as control goes is the nose pressure from the combo bit. He seems to respect that way more than a bit but then again I haven't tried anything like a kimberwicke or a pelham.

    Aaaaah! So many bits to choose from and it all gets confusing and I'll have two different people tell me the opposite things about the same bit. One will say that bit is super harsh and the second will say that it is kinder. In this instance I sure do wish Loki could just talk and tell me what he would prefer except I might not like his answer, lol.

    I think you are right, though, that the failure is bitting up because of fear and then not dealing with the underlying cause. I don't think that is the issue for Loki and me. I will hold out hope that we will get back down to a snaffle for XC someday.

  6. Heh. Dixie was a show TWH. When I bought her, I was told that she had a very soft mouth and that her current owner had been riding her to great success in a 7" shank slow twist curb wrapped in vet wrap. Yes. You read that right.

    So I put her in a shorter-shanked single piece curb with tongue relief. She locked up and went like a freight train in it. I put her in a double-jointed snaffle and she immediately ran away with me - we cantered circles in the arena for about 20 minutes before she got tired enough to woah. But I kept at it with the snaffle.

    I got the bolting thing under control and started doing LD endurance on her. Our second or third ride, she went out hot as the devil and ran up a hill for about two miles - we were on trail, but I had no brakes at all, so I headed back to curb-land for endurance rides.

    A friend sent me a Priority Mail box completely stuffed with bits, and I tried every single one. She liked the short-shanked Myler with the rolling thingie in the middle, so I bought one and have used it for years now. I've just recently started dropping the bit entirely mid-ride and going in a halter only, once we're well past the point where she might decide to try and win the race.

  7. I was using a kimberwicke in a random fashion on Penny (fullbred Cheval Canadienne, looks like Perch/TB cross, goes like a freight train) to get her to carry her own damn head. It was amazing how much difference it made. This is a horse who can lean on a rein on the buckle. When the kimberwicke is on, she'll carry herself like an entirely different horse, and the effects linger. My elbows and shoulders are grateful.

  8. Tucker is a weirdo and has done half his career at least in a single-jointed bit. At this point I have an involuntary kneejerk loathing for the phrase “nutcracker effect.” Yes, that looks like what should happen if you fold a single-jointed bit in half while holding it in your hands. Buuuuuuut it’s a terrible analogy for how the bit operates in the horse’s mouth – I totally believe that some horses are more comfortable in double-jointed bits for reasons of mouth conformation, but those reasons have zero relationship with the way that a nutcracker deploys leverage – and if a rider is using the bit in a way that _does_ create a “nutcracker effect” on the lower jaw, then it’s either an emergency situation or they are doing it wrong.

    Thank you for letting me get that off my chest. :-p

    So for this horse, I’m basically agnostic about jointed-snaffle mouthpieces; I have a collection ranging from “fancy $100+ ergonomic design” to “I may have accidentally stolen this one from the school horse tack box several barns ago but they had twelve more just like it so I only feel a little bit guilty” that I pick from every 6-8+ months based on what I’m feeling in the contact and what color butterfly I when I stepped out of the car.

    Alllllllways loose rings, though. He was in fixed-sidepiece bits (an eggbutt and then a dee) during his life as a hunter and I found a baucher useful a couple of years back (I have a rant about bauchers, too! but I think you’ve heard that one) to offer him a more stable feel when he was super inconsistent in the contact, but at this point I much prefer the mobility of the free-moving mouthpiece. He might prefer otherwise, but that’s too bad.

    He still jumps in – I don’t actually know what it’s called! Loose ring single-jointed thing with fixed attachment points for cheekpiece and rein, kind of like a Myler with hooks but not that. I’ve heard it called a wonder bit but that’s also something else, so I dunno. It basically rides like a snaffle (and he can be put onto it like a snaffle, which is important to me), but there’s just a little more _there_ there, which I appreciate every once in a while on XC or out in the wider world.

    I’m in the middle of doing some deep pondering about that wider world. Now that I have a trail bridle, I would like a bit on it so that I don’t have to swap around. I want something that rides like a snaffle because 98+% of the time, a snaffle works great and I do ride him on contact most of the time on trail. But I want the option of having more bit available in an emergency or extreme disagreement and optimally I’d like to experiment with the “more bit” distributing pressure rather than being more in his mouth, and I’m just not finding anything that I love. Toying with the idea of trying a Myler combo bit and a second snap-on rein that would mostly just rest on his withers unless I need to pick it up and could transfer for his halter for a lead rope at holds (since my trail-bridle reins are deliberately buckle-ended), but I’ve read mixed reviews about it’s snaffle-ring feel, so I dunno. We shall see.

  9. I always think bit severity has far, far more to do with the hands on the other end of the reins then the mouth piece. The kimberwicke obviously worked great for you when you needed it. It wasn't cruel because you used it tactfully. I hate going to breed shows and seeing spoiled 12 year olds banging on their horse's mouths with a kimberwick, though I suppose the poor old saints are used to it.

    Good post.


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