The Language of Bits
By by Barbara Connors
Hailing from the state of Massachusetts, Barbara has shown huntseat, western pleasure and a myriad of other disciplines. Although her current passions are trail riding and driving, she has trained horses over the years in a variety of disciplines. Barbara is currently working toward becoming an AANHCP certified Natural Hoof Care Practicitioner.
A few different styles of the numerous types of mouthpieces found are shown in Figure 3. The most common is the single joint or the double joint. Both of these allow the bit some flexibility when using each rein separately, which help provide clearer cues for the horse to learn (the double joint offering more flexibility than the single joint). Despite popular belief, the single jointed mouthpiece does not poke into the horse’s palate with rein pressure, unless the bit is misused by “hauling on the reins”.
Leverage bits are more complex in their design, and so also in their function. Because the bridle and reins are attached above and below the mouthpiece, respectively, any pull on the reins causes the bit to turn in the horse’s mouth. As the shanks move backward with the reins, the bridle gets pulled slightly forward putting pressure on the poll, and the curb chain is pulled up snug against the chin groove (see Figure 4a; Figure 4b shows a mechanical hackamore which has no mouthpiece, but is a leverage “bit” since it behaves in the same way).
These bits are named “leverage bits” because in addition to turning in the horse’s mouth, they also exert more pressure on the mouth than what we use on the reins. It is the length of the shank that determines how much the pressure from our hands gets magnified when we apply it to the horse’s mouth, however, a shorter shank will deliver “quicker” pressure to the mouth while a longer shank delivers a “slower” message, since the shanks must be pulled farther back in order to cause the bit to turn. This means a shorter shank is capable of less damaging force on the horse’s mouth, but is also liable to bump the horse more than a longer shank would. A curved shank will also impact how far the bit can turn in the mouth by limiting how far back it can physically move. Imagine the straight shank in Figure 4a swept backward; you would have to pull the rein higher and higher toward the horse’s ears to keep the bit turning in the mouth. Since we wouldn’t do that anyway, the curved or swept back shank limits the force the bit can exert (which is appreciated by the horse!).
Obeying pressure from the bit in his mouth is not one of the horse’s natural instincts. To communicate efficiently as partners, we have to focus on teaching the horse a new language with the bit as a learning tool. A big part to achieving this partnership is to use the bit only as a teaching tool and never a device to punish or reprimand the horse. Bearing this in mind, we’ll move from our examination of the horse’s face and mouth to examining the bit itself and how its design determines its function.
The two major parts to every bit are the cheekpieces (the sides of the bit that sit outside of the horse’s mouth), and the mouthpiece (everything sitting inside the mouth). The cheekpiece is what determines whether the bit is a leverage bit or a non-leverage bit. Very simply, if the bridle and reins attach to the same ring, the bit is a non-leverage bit. If the bridle attaches to a ring above the mouthpiece and the reins attach below, the bit is a leverage bit. There are many types of available mouthpieces, and any of them can be found on either leverage or non-leverage cheeks.
Non-leverage bits tend to be the simplest in design, and also provide the simplest cues to the horse. The bridle and reins attach to the same ring on either side of the mouthpiece, so the bit does not turn in the horse’s mouth. This configuration provides a very direct pull on either side of the horse’s mouth (see Figure 1), and tends to give the horse a very clear, uncomplicated signal that will then be taught as a cue (and the basis of teaching the language!). Showing the typical initial reaction to bit pressure in Figure 2, the pony at first resist, but then gives to it and gets a release, telling him he has correctly deciphered the cue.
The most common style of cheekpiece found on non-leverage bits is a ring. A loose ring allows the bit to wiggle more in the mouth and lets the horse hold it precisely where he wants it while an eggbutt fixes the mouthpiece in place and creates a very solid kind of feel. Different shapes like the D-ring and full cheek both provide a little more “push” from the opposite side and help keep the bit from sliding through the mouth.
Figure 5 shows a handful of common leverage bits. Note how the bridle attachment for each is above the mouthpiece, and the rein attachment is below. Three of these have solid mouthpieces with ports, which give a little room for the tongue and will press into the palate as soon as the reins are pulled (remember from examining the horse’s mouth that the tongue presses the bit up against the palate already). A very high port can cause serious damage, so caution must be used when choosing one of these bits.
The other two leverage bits show two different types of jointed mouths. The one on the top of the photo shows a single jointed mouthpiece usually found in non-leverage bits. Because of the shanks, though, this kind of mouthpiece lets the shank squeeze into the horse’s cheeks when only one rein is used. This also causes the joint to press down directly onto the center of the tongue. Because the bit is unstable, it cannot effectively give the already complex set of cues a leverage bit is designed to give, and can quickly become a very confusing device, breaking down the communication we’re working toward. A better option for a jointed mouthpiece in a leverage bit is shown below it, which has a hinged joint, allowing the bit to bend only back and forth. The cheekpieces are prevented from turning into the horse’s cheeks but still allow some flexibility for the horse to hold the bit more comfortably.
Because leverage bits are so complex in the way they cue the horse, they are best suited to more advanced horses who already understand the language of using bits fairly well. These more advanced horses can sort through the numerous pressures they feel from the bit and respond to them without becoming overwhelmed.
Now that we know how to examine the horse’s face and mouth, and how to start identifying how a particular bit is likely to “behave” when used, we can start putting the two together and finding a bit that will work to teach the horse the all important language of bit cues. Next time, we will go into this more in depth and examine some common bit-related behaviors, why they crop up, and how we can handle them effectively.