Horse Bits and Bitting

Horse Bits and Bitting

A bit needs to suit not only the horse but also the rider as the severity of a bit does not depend solely on the bit, but also how it is handled. For that reason it is not a good idea to use a severe bit on a child’s pony. Children seldom have the experience to handle a strong bit, the sensitivity to use it wisely and the experience to make no mistakes.The correct bit, fitted properly and in the right hands will not do damage and cause no pain, but will still serve its function, but all three of these criteria need to be met for this to be true. The best bit for any horse or pony is the mildest possible. When a mild bit is used correctly it causes little or no pain or damage but a strong bit, heavy hands, ill-fitting bridle or badly placed bit can trigger various reactions in a horse. These may be; discomfort which can lead to bad behaviour – you would not want to go forward if someone stuck a knife in your mouth each time you did; pain which can result in the horse having a hard mouth – a bit like blisters on your feet where, eventually the skin will harden.There are too many types of bit to go into full technical detail in one article, so this article looks at the broad picture and a few common bits in more detail.

Uses of a Bit

A bit is both your steering and brake, so plays a vital role when riding. While it is true an experienced rider on a well-schooled horse could technically manage without a bit or bridle by using leg aids, seat and back to steer and brake, in reality this is seldom the case and leaves no controls if something frightens the horse and an emergency situation arises.An interesting point to note is the oldest bits known to exist date back to 1500 BCE and were metal snaffles.

How to Choose a Bit

You need to know what size your horse’s mouth is, and buy a bit that protrudes about ¼” either side. To measure your horse’s mouth you can either measure an old bit and work from there or use a piece of string or twine and place it in the horse’s mouth and measure that.Unfortunately other than that it is often a case of trial and error to find what bit works best for each horse. Try the mildest first and work your way towards stronger ones or bits that work on different techniques until you find the one that suits. If you know any other horsey people you may be able to borrow some of their bits to experiment as this saves buying a bit you end up finding unsuitable. Whatever bit you end up with remember you can work with the horse to try and get them using a milder bit. After some schooling there could be a great improvement, or very little really, so you are the only person who can say what bit suits best and whether a milder one will now work. You can always ask an expert to try your horse as they may be able to recommend a certain type of bit to correct whatever problem you are having, but again it often boils down to trying the bit for a while to see if it works well.If you use a strong bit you may find it stops working after a while as the horse has become numb to it, so do try to get the animal working with a milder mouthpiece.

Types of Bits

Although there are very many variations there really are only two main categories of bit; snaffle and curb. There is also a bit called a pelham, but this is really a mixture of snaffle and curb. All of these can be jointed, double jointed, double ringed, rubber, vulcanised, copper, thick, thin, twisted, chain, with a port, (upward protruding curve), without a port, mullen, (curved), with rollers, middle flat link, hollow, heavy, any combination of these and more.


A plain snaffle is a round ring with the bit attached in the middle. The rein fits onto the ring. There are loose ring snaffles and eggbutt snaffles. The eggbutt has the mouthpiece broadening out to become one with the ring whereas the loose ring literally has a loose ring. This can pinch the horse’s lips so rubber disks are often added to the sides to prevent this happening. Snaffles are generally considered to be the mildest, gentlest bits. There are eggbutt, jointed, straight, rubber and vulcanised snaffles, to name but a few. Like any bit, the thicker it is the kinder on the horse’s mouth. This is the same principle that lets you painlessly carry a heavy suitcase using a broad handle, while the same weight held on a piece of thin string would cause a lot of pain.


This is the second most widely used type of bit after a snaffle. It has a shank and usually has two rings which can either be used separately or joined by a rounding (a piece of leather connecting the two rings and allowing one rein to work simultaneously on both rings). The lower ring has a leverage action, placing pressure on the poll and curb while the upper ring acts as a snaffle. The longer the shank the more severe the bit is. There is a curb chain on pelhams and this is an important part. It stops the shank being pulled too far back and gives another pressure point when the curb chain is pulled across the back of the horses chin.This bit is used for horses that pull or in experienced hands it can act as a schooling aid.


A curb is similar to a pelham, (in fact pelhams are part of the curb family), in that it has a shank and works on a leverage action. They are seldom used alone but forms part of a double bridle.


There is a bit that is a mixture of both the snaffle and Pelham and it is called a Kimberwick. This is especially useful for children who have a pony they find hard to hold. It is generally quite thick and while stronger than an ordinary snaffle has a sort of short shank for a slight curb action giving better control. This makes it nearly as mild as a snaffle, but better for the pony than a pelham.The Kimberwick has “D” shaped rings where the bit goes into the pony’s mouth, a small ring at the top that the bridle cheek pieces are attached to and a curb chain. Some types of Kimberwick have holes on the D ring to let you choose a height for attaching the rein and therefore changing the strength of the bit. Like the others, this can be jointed, straight and so forth.


Technically speaking a hackamore is not a bit; it is a “bitless bridle”. This is a contraption of a nosepiece and shanks that fits onto the bridle and performs the function of a bit by putting pressure on the horse’s nose with nothing actually in the horse’s mouth. This is good if a horse has a mouth problem or injury such as a cut, abscess or similar and also for those animals that do not like bits in any form or were badly mouthed. Like the Pelham, the longer the shank the more severe the action and as this sits on the horses nose a soft padded cover, either as part of the hackamore of one that slips over the nosepiece is pretty much an essential. An ill-fitting hackamore can cause untold damage to nerves and interfere with the horses breathing – remember a horse cannot breathe through its mouth and must breathe through its nose!

Double Bridle

There is also a double bridle which has two bits; a small snaffle, (or bridoon), and a curb bit. This should only be used for advanced work, training or dressage in capable hands.



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