Custom bit maker Ray Maheu of Pawling, New York can build 8,500 different types of bits simply by mixing and matching mouthpieces and shank styles. With that many choices, deciding which one is right for your horse can be overwhelming. Most riders won’t need to choose among thousands of options. Knowing the basics about snaffles, curb bits and correctional bits are suitable for the majority of horse owners.
So, what’s the best option for your horse? A snaffle? A bit with a curb or a Pelham?
The answer is....it depends. This horse bit guide offers advice to get you started.
Horse trainer and champion colt starter Cliff Schadt, Jr. explains that the horse’s level of training and discipline along with your feel determines the best choice for your horse. He believes every horse should start with a snaffle.
“A snaffle teaches the horse to yield to pressure,” he says. “Most people rush through bitting a horse up on the ground so the horse isn’t really ready when they get under saddle. I start on the ground with a snaffle and begin teaching my horses to give to bit pressure there.”
Maheu agrees that trainers typically start 2-year-olds, regardless of discipline, in a loose ring snaffle with a fat mouthpiece that’s gentle on sensitive mouths.
“With a loose ring snaffle the motion of the bit in the horse’s mouth is somewhat delayed because the mouthpiece slides through the ring,” he says.
From there, trainers typically advance horses to a D-ring style bit. The D forms a solid connection point with the mouthpiece. It’s a larger area of steel and it creates more contact with the horse’s face. The solid connection prevents the mouthpiece from slipping through the horse’s mouth.
After a snaffle, trainers often move to correction bits, Maheu explains. In western disciplines, these bits have shanks of varying lengths and shape. The shank may be straight or have several curves. English riders call correctional style bits Pelham bits. They also have shanks, but they are much shorter than those on western bits.
“The correctional bit gives a lot more lateral direction,” he says. “If I pull left or right the bit only pulls on that side of the horse’s mouth so he doesn’t get mixed signals.”
Sounds easy enough, right? Within the three basic bits that Maheu and Schadt describe, there’s a wide range of mouthpiece configurations. The height, shape and the port may be solid or jointed among other options.
“The proper bit is really based on the discipline you ride and how the bit itself fits into the horse’s mouth,” Schadt says. “In reining, the horses need a bit with more leverage to help them pick up their shoulders and get their backend in the ground so they can slide. In jumping, horses need to lift from their front end.”
Western pleasure riders often use a cathedral port for lift and collection, according to Maheu. The cathedral port makes contact on the roof of the horse’s mouth and is designed to get more flexion in the poll, which is why it’s popular in western pleasure.
“The height of the cathedral won’t hurt a horse but if it is not the right size or the horse is not prepared it will make the horse gape their mouth,” Maheu says.
Schadt compares bits to human shoes. What’s comfortable for one person, may not be for the next. And just because two people may be the same height, their shoe sizes may not match. The same is true for horse’s mouths.
“Some horses have a shallower pallet and need a softer mouthpiece,” he says. “Others have thick leathery lips and need a little bit more bite because they don’t feel the bit as well.”
Generally speaking, Maheu notes that warmbloods are most comfortable with bits that are 5 ¼" or larger whereas stock breeds such as Quarter Horses, Paints and Appaloosas take a 5” mouthpiece. Arabians have smaller mouths and use 4 ¾" while small pony mouths prefer 4 ½" or smaller. A bit that is too small can rub on the horse’s cheeks and press on their molars.
“When you fit a bit, you want to try and have a few wrinkles in the horse’s lips,” he says. “Too high up and it can really irritate the horse. Too low and you really have to take a hold of the bridle and reins. The goal is to have it rest against the bars of the horse’s mouth.”
The purchase is one bit measurement Maheu considers when building and recommending bits. This is the spot where the headstall connects to ring at the top of the bit. The longer the purchase, the faster the bit moves in the horse’s mouth. Both Maheu and Schadt caution riders against buying bigger bits to “solve problems.” Instead, they encourage them to choose a bit based on discipline and fit within the horse’s mouth.
When a bit is too harsh the horse spends more time worrying about what’s in his mouth instead of what the rider is trying to teach him. The diameter of the bars is what makes a bit less severe or harsh. The smaller the bar, the more severe. In rough hands, a bit with thin bars can make a horse jump right off the ground if a rider pulls too hard with their hands.
“People think the problem is with the bit so they go buy a new one,” Maheu says.” What it really comes down to is good feel and timing on the rider’s part.”
Schadt emphasizes, “Bigger bits are like using a band aid to fix a problem. Pretty soon the magic doesn’t work and the bit becomes a tool of intimidation.”
Finding the right bit for your horse may take some experimentation. It should be comfortable and the right fit for the job you’re asking him to perform. Don’t be afraid to ask an experienced horse person you trust or a trainer for advice. Most importantly, remember that when a horse shows resistance to the bit, revisiting training fundamentals and yielding to pressure will lead to more productive long-term results than grabbing a harsher bit.