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Horse bits are an integral part of the equipment most horse riders use to control their horse. They are the point of contact between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth and allow for efficient communication between horse and rider.
According to research, bits were already used as early as 3500–3000 BC by the Botai people of northern Kazakhstan who originally domesticated horses. These primitive horse bits were typically made of rope, wood, bone, or horn. Metal bits only appeared later, around 1300-1200 BC.
Today, most horse riders ride with a bit, although bitless bridles are becoming increasingly popular.
This guide will explore what a horse bit is, common types of bits, and how to choose one for your horse! Also, don’t forget to check out our horse bit severity chart!
What is a Horse Bit?
A horse bit is a piece of tack that sits on the area of the horse’s mouth that lacks teeth. It can be made of metal or synthetic materials and is attached to the bridle and reins. Riders use the bit to control the direction and speed of the horse.
The bit works by applying pressure to the horse’s tongue, hard palate, and bars. Its effect is usually reinforced by other riding cues such as leg and weight signals that make the rider’s instructions clear to the horse.
Horse Bit Terminology
To understand how different types of bits work, we need to know some basic terminology. Here are the most common terms you’ll come across when reading about bits:
The mouthpiece is the part all bits share. It sits across the horse’s mouth over the tongue, resting between the incisors and the pre-molars.
The most important trait of the mouthpiece is its joint type. It determines the bit’s mode of action and severity in the mouth. The most common types of joints are straight or mullen, single-joint, double-joint, and chain.
Mouthpieces can also have attachments that serve a specific purpose in the training of the horse. For example, bits with keys encourage the horse to play with the bit, while spoons prevent the horse from getting its tongue over the bit.
Another consideration when choosing the right bit is the material of the mouthpiece. The most common materials are stainless steel, copper, rubber, or plastic that’s sometimes flavored.
Mouthpieces can also be smooth or textured, the latter adding to the severity of the bit.
The rings are the part of the bit that stick out of the horse’s mouth. Depending on the type of bit, they are either attached to the mouthpiece or the shanks. The rings are also attached to the cheekpieces of the bridle and the reins, which connect them to the rider’s hands.
There are two different types of bit rings: loose and fixed. Many horses prefer fixed rings, as they don’t pinch the corners of the mouth like loose ones do.
The shanks are the side pieces of curb bits. They allow the rider to exert leverage action on the horse’s mouth, increasing the pressure of the bit. Hence why curb bits are generally more powerful than snaffle bits.
Shanks can be either straight or curved and are typically made of metal. Curb bits are very popular in Western riding, where the shanks are often decorated with intricate patterns.
English riders also use curb bits, especially in dressage as part of a double bridle.
As the name suggests, curb chains or curb straps are used in conjunction with curb bits. They attach to the top of the shanks and run under the horse’s chin groove.
Curb bits should always be used with a curb chain or strap to ensure proper and safe action. These prevent the bit from putting too much pressure on the horse’s hard palate by pulling the bit closer to the bars of the mouth. In addition, curb chains also amplify rein signals.
A bit guard or cheek guard is an accessory piece that acts as a washer between the bit and the corners of the horse’s mouth. It’s typically made of soft rubber and is round in shape with a hole in the middle.
Riders use bit guards to prevent loose bit rings from pinching the horse’s mouth. They can also provide a better fit when the bit’s mouthpiece is too long for a horse.
Types of Horse Bits
The basic type of a horse bit depends on whether the bit works by direct pressure, leverage action, or a combination of the two.
The three main types of horse bits are snaffle, curb, and combination. However, there are many variations with each of the three types. There are also in-hand bits that are used for leading horses only.
Snaffle bits are generally considered the mildest type of horse bit, while curb bits are regarded as more severe. The two bits can also be used simultaneously in the horse’s mouth as part of a double bridle.
Meanwhile, in-hand bits are used for leading strong horses or stallions and include the chifney or anti-rearing bit, horseshoe stallion bit, and Tattersalls ring bit.
Snaffle Horse Bits
As mentioned above, snaffle horse bits act with direct pressure on the horse’s tongue and bars of the mouth. They often have a mouthpiece with a single joint, but they can also be double-jointed or straight.
Snaffle bits are most popular in English riding but are also used in other riding styles. Many people consider them a mild type of bit, although this isn’t always the case.
Snaffle bits that are used roughly or have a twisted mouthpiece can have severe effects on the horse’s mouth.
Here are common types of snaffle horse bits:
Loose Ring Snaffle
A loose ring snaffle is a common type of horse bit used for breaking and training. It has free-moving rings on the side that allow the mouthpiece to rest in the most comfortable position in the horse’s mouth.
Like any other snaffle, the mouthpiece of this bit can be mullen, single, or double-jointed. Loose ring snaffle bits are suitable for horses that respond well to the rider’s aids and don’t have a tendency to pull.
A special type of loose ring snaffle is the bradoon, a very thin bit that’s only used in double bridles.
A D-ring snaffle is a horse bit with characteristic D-shaped rings that apply some lateral pressure on the horse’s mouth. Because the rings are fixed, they do not allow the bit to rotate and are more comfortable to wear for some horses.
Like the loose-ring snaffle, this type of bit is also relatively common in the horse world. The D-ring snaffle is convenient to many riders as it’s a milder bit that still provides some turning aid.
An eggbutt snaffle is a gentle horse bit with slightly oval-shaped fixed rings. Due to the type of the rings, the mouthpiece has a more fixed position in the horse’s mouth and offers consistent contact.
Many horses prefer the comfort and predictability of the eggbutt snaffle to a loose ring snaffle. However, this bit isn’t ideal for horses that tend to lean on the bit.
Hanging Cheek Snaffle
A hanging cheek snaffle is a horse bit that exerts mild pressure on the poll and the corners of the mouth. It’s ideal for horses that have a slight difficulty turning or softening in the poll.
The mouthpiece stays fixed in the horse’s mouth because the bridle and reins attach to separate rings on a hanging cheek snaffle. This allows the rider to communicate with more subtle cues during a ride.
Full Cheek Snaffle
A full cheek snaffle is a horse bit with long vertical arms attached to the rings. These arms prevent the bit from being pulled through the horse’s mouth and enhance the rider’s lateral signals.
The full cheek snaffle is a useful training aid for young or inexperienced horses that respond poorly to turning aids.
By applying pressure to the side of the mouth, the arms make it difficult for the horse to escape lateral rein signals. This bit is also ideal for horses that tend to avoid pressure by tilting their heads.
Read our full snaffle bits guide to learn more.
Curb Horse Bits
Curb horse bits work by leverage action that applies pressure to the mouth, chin groove, and poll of the horse. Most curb bits have mullen mouthpieces with a slight to moderate arch or port in the middle for tongue relief.
The length of the shanks on a curb bit determines the strength of the leverage action. The longer the shanks, the more magnified the rider’s signals are in the horse’s mouth.
Here are common types of curb bits:
A weymouth is a type of curb horse bit with a mullen mouthpiece that may or may not have a port. It’s typically used in a double bridle in conjunction with a bradoon.
Double bridles are popular in advanced dressage as they allow for finer communication between horse and rider. They combine the best of both bits and require four reins so the bits can act independently of one another.
Using both a weymouth and a bradoon, riders are able to send very subtle but elaborate signals to the horse’s mouth. Their correct use requires years of experience and training in the field of dressage.
English Shank Bit
An English shank bit is a type of horse bit with particularly long shanks that hang way below the horse’s chin. The extra leverage encourages the horse’s head to come up, allowing for free shoulder movement.
This type of bit is most popular with gaited horse breeds that often need to be light on the forehand. English shank bits can have a variety of mouthpieces and often have ports in the middle.
A Tom Thumb is a curb horse bit with a single-jointed mouthpiece and shanks. It’s designed to encourage the horse to lower their head by putting pressure on the poll and tongue.
Tom Thumb bits are often used by dressage riders who want to improve their horse’s head carriage. As this is a moderately powerful bit, it should only be used by experienced riders with steady hands.
Western Correction Bit
A western correction bit is a curb horse bit used for training purposes only. Its design aims to correct unresponsive horses by magnifying the rider’s aids in the horse’s mouth.
This western-style bit often has a high port with joints on both sides and curved shanks. It’s a powerful training aid that experienced hands should only temporarily use.
Western S-Shank Bit
A western s-shank bit is a curb horse bit with shanks curved in an “s” shape. These shanks offer more leverage action compared to straight ones, making the bit more severe.
The western s-shank bit also has a high port that’s either made out of copper or stainless steel. This type of bit is commonly used in western riding when the rider needs slightly more control over the horse.
Western Grazing Bit
A western grazing bit is one of the most common western horse bits. It typically has a mullen mouthpiece with a slight port and shanks that are angled back.
As you can probably guess, western grazing bits are designed to allow the horse to graze with the bit in its mouth. This is a particularly handy feature for horses working long hours on the range that had to be able to graze with their tack on.
Combination Horse Bits
Combination horse bits use both direct pressure and leverage action by incorporating snaffle and curb bits elements. They are generally suitable for horses with a higher level of training that require more precise cues to perform certain tasks.
Here are common combination bits:
A Pelham is the perfect combination of a snaffle and a curb bit. It can be used as either type of bit with a single rein, whereas two reins give the rider a combined effect.
Essentially, a Pelham is a double bridle in one bit, although somewhat milder. It can have any mouthpiece and is commonly used for horses with short bars, such as the Arabian or Irish Sport Horse.
A Kimberwick is a combination horse bit similar in appearance to a D-ring snaffle. However, the rings of a Kimberwick have two slots for the reins, one higher and one lower. Depending on which slot the reins are in, the bit can act as a snaffle or a curb bit.
Although not as strong as a curb bit, the lower slot of a kimberwick offers some leverage action. Kimberwicks are used in both English and western riding, generally for stronger horses.
A gag bit is another combination horse bit that uses both direct pressure and leverage action. Gag bits were originally derived from snaffle bits and are considered powerful correction bits.
Gag bits are mostly used short-term to correct a specific problem in the horse such as pulling or bolting. Because of the risks of misuse, they are illegal on most shows and race tracks.
There are four different types of gag bits: Gag snaffle, Dutch gag, Elevator, and Duncan gag. Some bits like the Gag snaffle slide the bridle’s cheekpieces through the rings and attach them to the reins. Gag bits are among the most severe of all horse bits.
What Type of Bit is Best for My Horse?
The type of bit that’s best for your horse depends on the horse’s age, temperament, experience, preference, and chosen discipline. Ideally, you should ride your horse with the least severe bit that still gives you enough control.
Choosing the right bit for your horse takes careful consideration. Think about your own aims and your horse’s need and decide which type of mouthpiece, rings/shank, and material would suit both.
Most horses will go happily in a mild snaffle bit without any problems. However, if you aspire to train in dressage, reining, eventing, or other demanding disciplines, you might need something more elaborate.
What is the Softest Horse Bit?
The softest horse bit is a rubber mouth snaffle with no joints. This flexible bit is perfect for introducing a young horse to the bridle as it exerts minimal pressure on the mouth.
As a rule of thumb, bits with thicker mouthpieces are milder than thinner ones. Thin mouthpieces create a sharper sensation in the horse’s mouth when the rider applies rein pressure.
Bits with fixed rings are also more comfortable for horses to wear as they don’t pinch the corners of the mouth. Alternatively, you can use rubber guards against loose rings to prevent pinching.
Also, read our guide to bitless horse bridles.
What is the Most Severe Horse Bit?
The most severe horse bit is any curb bit with a twisted wire mouthpiece. The wired texture of these bits creates a sharp effect on the horse’s mouth that’s further intensified by the leverage action of the shanks.
Most horse riders condemn such severe bits as they are almost always painful for the horse. Because they are associated with poor welfare, wire curb bits are frowned upon in the horse world.
Another particularly severe horse bit is the Duncan gag bit. When using this bit, the reins are a continuation of the bridle’s cheekpieces that run through the holes on the rings. This way, the rider can exert considerable force on the horse’s poll, potentially damaging this sensitive area.
Horse Bit Severity Chart
The severity of a horse bit depends greatly on the rider’s hands and experience in using that particular type of bit. However, there are other factors that contribute to the severity of a bit, such as the amount of leverage and type of mouthpiece (joint, port, texture, thickness, material).
We have rated the severity of common horse bits based on our knowledge and research. The table below scores the severity of each bit, with 1 being the softest and 10 being the most severe.
|Horse Bit||Severity (1-10)|
|Loose Ring Snaffle||1|
|Hanging Cheek Snaffle||2|
|Full Cheek Snaffle||3|
|Western Grazing Bit||4|
|Western Correction Bit||7|
|English Shank Bit||8|
|Western S-Shank Bit||8|
Also read: Are Horse Bits Cruel?