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Various Bits and Their Effects

by Heike Bean

There still seems to be so much confusion in the driving world about the use of various bits that I decided to write down some of my thoughts and experiences, and also, to quote some well-known horsemen on the subject.
The bit is undoubtedly the most important means of control and communication in driving and the right choice is clearly crucial for a successful horse-driver relationship. The multitude of bits available indicates that through the centuries a lot of thought has gone into this subject. We constantly see new models on the market in the endeavor to improve and/or facilitate the task of conveying our wishes to the horse.

The fact that only a very limited number of bits have become permissible for our sport also indicates that many of them are thought unsuitable. Most of them for the reason that they are cruel, cause injury and/or force horses through pain into submission. An attempt has been made to limit the use to the most humane exemplars. However, as will be explained later, even some of those permissible bits can under the right (or rather wrong) circumstances be extremely painful. The action of every bit has to be fully understood before it is used.

There are two basic groups of bits: leverage bits like curbs and kimberwickes - and non-leverage bits which we call snaffle bits. Either one may have straight, curved or broken mouthpieces, and the main visual difference is the design: any bit with shanks and a strap or chain under the horse's chin is a leverage bit, while snaffle bits have no shanks. Historically the snaffle bit is by far the older bit (supposedly it goes back as far as 7000 years), while the curb bit appeared sometime in the second century AD, and from then on made its way through Islamic cavalry men into Africa and Spain.

While the snaffle bit was designed for two-handed contact and the encouraging of forward movement, the curb was intended to be handled with one hand only and was to be contacted only for slowing or stopping the horse. Depending on its severity, its pure presence has a more or less restraining effect on the horse. Before further exploring the two different groups of bits, let us first consider how a bit in general should and will influence the horse to submit his body to us.

In order for the horse to be able to accept and feel the bit effectively and send control messages to the brain one very important thing has to happen: he has to flex his poll to a degree that his head comes close to the vertical so the bit can act on his tongue and bars and at the same time is at least somewhat in front of the produced energy of the hindquarters; if the horse's head is way up in the air, the mouthpiece gets hung up on his teeth, the horse hardly feels it and the energy cannot be caught and contained by the bit since it runs out underneath it.
Now we have two ways to achieve this position of the head:

1) We can train the horse through the basics of dressage to stretch his topline and reach for the bit, thus training his body and mind to relax and to submit calmly and willingly. This will understandably require a mild and friendly bit.
2) We can force him with a leverage bit into this position since this is one of the main effects of the applied leverage through its various pressures onto the horses head. This will, with certainty, cause the horse discomfort or even pain, but it gets the desired result of slowing or stopping (and maybe even a pretty headset), however one hardly gets relaxation and calm cooperation. Both will work as history proves, but at what cost to the horse?

Let me first elaborate on 1):
The Snaffle Bit
In dressage training the complete, willing and trusting acceptance of the bit is a complex process and it will take the horse at least 2 years to fully understand mentally all the necessary commands, and his physical development will take equally as long in order to build his body up so it is able to comply with all the commands.

The basic idea behind this training is that through complete physical relaxation, suppleness and ability the horse's mind is free to relax, respond and trust, and that due do to constant good body balance (self carriage) the horse can control his own power and change it instantly on command. In order to achieve this balance, there may be no tension or restriction applied to the horse through the bit, but the horse himself has to reach and stretch to the bit and hold it lightly. This alone will allow him to be in good self carriage.

Pressure will cause counter pressure, and the more we pull on a rein, the more the horse pulls against us to maintain a basic balance. But this is no longer self carriage, since his balance followed the pressure that he applies to the bit and this is undoubtedly toward the fore hand. Therefore the horse may not oppose the bit, he may not hang on it, he must not hide behind it or above it, no, he must reach for it and hold it for us, while staying totally soft and flexible in both his jaws, with his head in or near the vertical. And this is the absolute key: the constant flexibility (vertically and laterally) of the jaws while maintaining the proper angle between head and neck.

This is what allows the rein actions to go back through the horse to control forward momentum at all times in any gait and this is what creates the light and constant acceptance of the bit. Just a little stiffening of one jaw, and we lost some control. And this is what the main job of the bit really is: to help the horse to maintain this softness and flexibility.

The jaws are the only part of the body we can directly influence with the bit, and thanks to the build of the horse's body it is absolutely sufficient, as the motion of the jaws like a chain reaction influences his entire body. We can duplicate this very easily on our own bodies: just walk, stand or sit in good posture with both jaws well relaxed and feel how relaxed the rest of your body feels. Then just stiffen one jaw by pulling it inward a little and listen to your body again. Feel all the tension that is now apparent. Now stiffen both jaws and feel how stiff your body is as a result.

Broken snaffle or bar snaffle?

While the curved bar snaffle is definitely the most comfortable bit for the horse to carry in his mouth, it makes contact on both reins at all times a lot more difficult if not impossible, and it is a lot more rigid instrument to keep both jaws of the horse flexible.

The single jointed snaffle has the definite disadvantage that it will poke up into the roof of the mouth when activated and press down onto the bars in a nutcracker like fashion. The bit that avoids this problem largely and still allows for superior influence of both jaws is the double jointed mouthpiece. Of course it is essential that the bit is well made, that is, with curved branches on each side of the link, a fairly short link so the joints will not be pulled onto the bars and also very small and smooth joints so they will not contact the roof of the mouth when the bit is moved in the horse's mouth.

I would like to quote Carol Lavell from an article in Dressage and Combined Training, December 1997:
"I have never used a mullen-mouth snaffle. When you pull on the reins, the mullen-mouth acts straight back on the corners of the mouth and puts pressure on the tongue, it affords no lateral suppleness at all."

John Lyons is as well a strong supporter of the broken snaffle bit. In his opinion the jaw has to be controlled, and it is the cue the horse has to listen to, not force or pain. He also says that a horse can be calmed down on cue any time so desired. I would like to quote him from his periodical "The Perfect Horse", June 1997:

" The fact is that when the head is up, the lights are on and excitement continues to build in the horse. When we turn the lights off and the horse drops his head, he calms down. He'll learn that when you ask him to drop his head, he's got to calm down.
You already know we don't ride the whole horse, we only work with one spot of the horse at a time. The spot we have been working with in asking the horse to give to the bit is his jawbone. Technically speaking, it's a little spot about the size of a quarter on his jawbone."

Another quote from his periodical "The Perfect Horse", issue May 1997:

"He isn't going to stop because you pulled on the rein - he's going to stop because he knows that if he stops, you'll release the rein. It isn't a mechanical brake stopping the horse. It's the promise of a pay check if he does a good job. That's the reason bits don't train horses. It doesn't matter what variety of pain you cause the horse by fancy bits, it's the release of the rein that the horse will work for. Consequently, we use the mildest bit that we can - the (broken) full cheek snaffle - and are prepared to release the rein immediately when the horse has done what we've requested."

In order to totally gain access to the horses body, there is one more vital part of the vertebral column we have to pay attention to as well: the junction of the neck and withers. The horse can seemingly be quite soft in his jaws but he still may be holding himself tight right in front of his withers. An experienced driver will feel this in the jaws as well, but it is not always obvious to a novice. Only when the horse drops and/or stretches his neck by suspending it from the withers solely through the ligament and muscles that run along his topline, without any lower muscles pushing up, except the scalenus muscle (at the front base of the neck) can the horse's spine and with it the whole body fully relax.
We can duplicate this as well with our bodies. Not quite as well as we walk upright and our necks are very short, but all the same muscles are there nevertheless. The true availability of the jaws to the bit is only possible when the neck is relaxed this way. Horses are very good at cheating and pretending, since total submission is really against their nature and a little testing and power game is often going on. However, with a friendly bit one can ask the horse again and again for this stretch and flexion.

2) The Curb Bit
I would like to quote Dr. Deb Bennett from an article in Equus 174, April 1992:
"The curb bit, in contrast, is not nearly as old nor as useful in flexing the horse laterally. When it appeared in the mid-second century AD, it was designed to go in the mouth and around the jaw of the horse. Islamic cavalrymen brought the curb bit to Africa and Spain in the eighth century. Eight hundred years after that, the curb bit came to America courtesy of the conquistadors. It worked by means of leverage exerted on the horse's tongue, bars, chin groove, palate and poll to strongly encourage longitudinal flexion - flexing of the horse's poll and arching of the neck. Curbs require a single hand on the reins with contact only during slowing and stopping signals. They also tend to restrain the horse's forward motion."

I would like to explain why a curb bit should always only be handled with one hand:
In order to assure that the horse does not get severely pinched on one side equal pressure has to be applied to both sides of the mouth. This can usually best be accomplished with the same hand. In any case, one sided pull on a curb bit should be avoided under all circumstances as it causes severe pain for the horse. This would mean that steering in a curb bit should be achieved with slightest signals stemming from the same hand, for example, like in western riding, through neck reining. This is not practical in driving. So every time we steer a driving horse in a curb with one rein applying more pressure than the other, we hurt and thus punish the horse. Relaxation and trust become impossible.
Not to mention, that steering becomes very confusing to the horse.

Contrary to the snaffle, which touches the horse merely on the respective side on the lower jawbone, thus clearly indicating the desired direction, the curb keeps exerting pressure all around, including the poll, and in addition causes pinching at the side that is pulled tighter.

Another very limiting factor of the curb bit is, as Dr. Bennett mentioned, that it should only come into contact for stopping or slowing signals. Constant contact will cut off blood- and nerve supply and the horse becomes totally dead in the mouth. It happened more than once that I saw horses on the marathon pull the carriage with the mouth, traces slack, on a curb in the second ring or slot, the mouth totally gone dead, the tongue almost black, the driver complaining that he/she can't hold the horse. In a very brief time a curb bit can totally ruin the nerves in the horse's mouth, making him harder and harder to the hand and thus more and more difficult to control.

Also, when the curb chain is adjusted too loosely, but tight enough that it will draw tight at a severe angle of the shanks, the tongue becomes literally squashed between the bit and the chain, thus speeding, of course, loss of sensitivity. Also, as Dr. Bennett mentioned as well, it discourages forward motion and lateral bend, the two things absolutely crucial for correct dressage training.

Of course, the severity of a bar bit depends on factors of design and, as already mentioned, educated adjustment and use of hands.

The lower the reins are fixed on the shanks, the more severe the action. The ratio of the lower to the upper shank is also important. Is the lower shank about 2 and a half times as long as the upper shank, a pull of the reins is distributed about as equal pressure to the poll above the bit, and his tongue, bar and jaws below. When the lower shank is proportionally longer than this, the effect of the bit is concentrated on the mouth and jaws, causing the horse to want to tuck his nose.

What I frequently see at driving shows is people who use fierce looking curb bits but have the reins attached to the mouthpiece in a snaffle setting. I am sure they have found out that their horses do not need or tolerate curb action, but they sell themselves short with a straight or mullen mouth bit. These bits allow a lot less control than a broken bit since the horse's jaws can't be softened as well and most horses either back away from these mouthpieces or start leaning on them. All problems that can be prevented and dealt with when using a broken mouthpiece.

Then, there exist the broken mouth curb bits. I see them used more widely recently and occasionally I use one myself temporarily. When used in the snaffle setting they are of course no different from a snaffle, and when used in a slot, they apply some curb action. When used in the first slot, which is usually very close to the snaffle setting these bits demand just a bit more attention and respect from a horse. Horses who are being reschooled from a curb bit may respond well to this, as do horses with dense minds and thick throat latches. However, even this slight curb action diminishes steering and suppling ability. They are preferable to unbroken mouthpieces, (especially when they are double-jointed), when driving out on the road or even at a competition. They do not seem to be as restrictive and allow for better communication. But they should never be used below the first slot, otherwise bad gouging can occur.

I would like to quote Carol Lavell again from the above mentioned article: "Remember one thing when you select a bit for your horse: In direct proportion to the bit's severity, you will get less and less acceptance and more and more defensiveness from him. If you use a bit to make him back away, you'll never get a flow of energy from his hind-legs, through his back, through the bit, and into your hands. He must want to go there and approach the bit and accept it - to relax into your hand as you use it."


Here another quote, this from an article "Choosing Bits" by Ron Meredith in the Steed Read, February 1998. Ron Meredith is president of the Meredith Manor International Equestrian Center Parkersburg, WV.

"Bits are one of the most MythUnderstood pieces of horse equipment man has ever invented. The things that people think they're supposed to do with a bit in a horse's mouth are unbelievable. All too often, the human take on the situation is that the horse is a big animal, therefore the pressure needed to control it must be big and strong. That's a myth....... All it needs are tiny bits of information fed to it with the right timing to get with the program."....

"Leverage decreases the amount of time it takes for the horse to feel bit pressure. If you have a bit with 3:1 leverage, the horse feels 10 pounds of pressure three times faster than he would if you applied 10 pounds of pressure with a non-leverage bit like a snaffle. To make this kind of bit pressure understandable and horse logical you would have to soften the pressure to reward the horse three times as quickly as you would with a non-leverage bit. Because of this exaggerated pressure and release, curb bits impede true feel and understanding between you and your horse. Curbs are non-directional. Their pressure is felt as a clamping between the horse's chin and the bars of his mouth, and therefore can convey minimal direction to the horse."

A question may arise here in the reader's mind: Why, in upper level dressage, are horses ridden in a double bridle?
Certainly not for controlling forward motion or bending the animal. The only reason for the curb bit in riding is to remind the well trained and duly prepared horse to maintain collection, thus to make it easier on the rider to concentrate his efforts on the required maneuvers. All bending work is done with the bridoon bit and great care is taken to never activate one side more of the curb bit. This makes riding on a double bridle quite demanding. Unfortunately, we see too many riders who are not yet skilled enough and therefore too many tortured looking horses.

 After reading all this, you may ask yourself: Why is it then that the curb bit is a traditional driving bit? There must be a good reason for it.

First of all, a lot of driving has always taken place on snaffle bits. Hungary as a whole country, for example, drives on snaffle bits. Most work horse driving ( I mean real work, in the woods, in the fields) and even the pleasure driving in the show ring is mostly done on a snaffle. Matter of fact, even today the double ring snaffle is the correct turn out bit for a breast collar harness (because the breast collar harness originates in Hungary!)
So where does this curb bit driving really come from? You guessed it, from England. Traditionally a curb bit is used with a neck collar harness. How did it come about? Obviously, the English liked their horses animated and flashy, not like the Hungarians who wanted their horses merely useful and responsive.

Check reins come also from England. You put those two devices together and you have a really animated animal, mostly due to pain, but also because the relaxed lowered head is impossible. Then, of course, you better have some means to control these wound up animals with some more pain, because nothing else will work at all. Certainly not good reasoning.

As long as the horses are driven on straight lines down the road, the bit is only touched for slowing or stopping and the driver has sympathetic hands there may not be too much wrong with these bits either. Remember, a bit is only as severe as the hand working it. However, when continuous turns are added as in our pleasure driving today or even in Combined Driving the situation totally changes.
So why do so many drivers feel more comfortable using a curb bit? Because driving the horse on a snaffle requires skilled and patient training. Many drivers have no riding background at all and many do not understand the basics of training, which is, in other words, dressage training. Those drivers like the feel of a horse backing away from the bit instead of reaching for the bit and putting some weight against it. They feel threatened when the horse takes the bit a little out of the driver's hands and holds it there for him. All this is very understandable. But in return they will never really command the horse's mind and body to its full extent, and true cooperation remains denied to them.

Unfortunately, they also slowly destroy their horse's body, because a horse that can never fully relax his body - which a curb bit does not allow - will stiffen and tense through his back and work increased through their (now stiff!) hind-leg joints, thus using them up early and creating pain and discomfort. Driving is already very demanding on the horse's hocks, driving with a tense topline is detrimental.

If driving your horse in competition is more than you can handle on a snaffle because you are not skilled enough to control him in such a situation yet, go ahead, use a stronger bit, but give him all the benefit of a mild and helpful bit at home, when you train him in safe and familiar surroundings. Just make sure you get him used to the stronger bit at home as well.

One last word of wisdom: It is not the bit that controls the horse. It's what you do with the bit, it's what you taught your horse to do when you move the bit in a certain way. Kindness and true understanding and communication will always lead to better results than strict discipline and the threat of pain. Most horses who resist mild bits or do not respect the bit, are either poorly trained or have discomfort or pain somewhere. Resistance in the mouth is the horse's only way of telling us that something is wrong somewhere. It is up to you to find out what. Only one thing is for certain: A more severe bit will make matters worse!

A past chairman and member of the American Driving Society Dressage Committee, Heike Bean has many years' experience teaching riders and drivers about driven dressage. A native of Germany, she is licensed as an instructor by the German Equestrian Federation. She has successfully competed, and currently judges, at shows around the country. Bean is the co-author of Carriage Driving: A Logical Approach Through Dressage Training.


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