Four Different Types of Horse Bits and Their Uses

Apr 13, 2019

For thousands of years, humans have been working with horses using bits. The art of communicating with a half-ton animal by a piece of metal in its sensitive mouth is central to what riding has become. In the right hands, any bit can be gentle, and in the wrong ones, any bit can be harsh. But which bit can be used for which riding discipline? And which one would best suit your horse?

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Four Categories of Bits

There are literally hundreds of different bits. Variations in the shape of the cheekpiece (the part of the bit that sticks out of the horse’s mouth) and mouthpiece (the part that is inside the horse’s mouth) create different actions on the horse’s mouth and head. Different materials can also be used in making the bit, which provide different tastes and textures to the horse.

Broadly speaking, bits can be put into four different categories: snaffles, curbs, Pelhams, and gags. In this article, we’ll take a look at the general uses of each category; then within each category, we will explore some of the most popular bits and their actions and uses.

Snaffles

are the most common type of bit, and with good reason. These are generally the softest bits on the market and can legally be used in almost every discipline (excluding the highest levels of dressage and Western reining). Snaffles do not have any leverage, so they don’t place pressure on the horse’s poll or jaw.

Curbs

on the other hand, are the harshest bits. These have a strong lever action that causes the bridle to press on the horse’s poll. They are also fitted with curb chains, which press into the horse’s jaw. These are only for use by the most highly skilled riders at the highest levels. In English riding, the curb is never used except in a double bridle in conjunction with a snaffle (bridoon).

Pelhams

including Kimberwicks, are a combination of the snaffle and the curb. These are used with connectors or double reins. They have a similar action to the double bridle without necessitating the skill. They are considerably harsher than snaffles, but softer than curbs.

Gags

are leverage bits that do not utilise a curb chain. They are sharper than snaffles and generally have a lifting effect on the horse’s head, which makes them unsuitable for dressage. They are popular for jumping and polo.

Most Popular Snaffle Bits

• The single joint snaffle is commonly used all over the world for everything from trail riding to Western to dressage to jumping. This simple bit is usually very affordable and freely available. The bit has no leverage, but its single joint provides a “nutcracker” action, squeezing the bars of the mouth and placing pressure on the palate. Quiet-mouthed horses generally go well in it, but fussier horses such as thoroughbreds, or horses with low palates such as draft horses, can often object to the nutcracker action. Used with a D-ring cheekpiece, this bit is especially popular in the hunter world and for racing.

• The French link snaffle is most easily accepted by most horses. It has the mildest action of all snaffles, pressing only on the tongue and the bars of the mouth when pressure is placed on the reins. Some horses can object to the tongue pressure, but these are in the minority. The French link is often used on soft-mouthed, unspoilt young horses.

• The fulmer’s long cheekpieces prevent the bit from sliding through the horse’s mouth if one rein is pulled. This makes it ideal for use on very young horses who are still learning to steer, as it also provides some additional pressure on the side of the horse’s mouth, or for beginner riders whose hands are still somewhat clumsy.

Most Popular Curb Bits

NOTE: Curb bits must NEVER be used without a curb chain. This allows the bit to move dramatically in the horse’s mouth, causing pain and potentially causing an accident should the horse rear and flip over on the rider.

• The Weymouth curb is commonly used in conjunction with a bridoon in an English double bridle. Double bridles are used only by experienced riders in saddle seat, dressage, or showing; they are also allowed only in the highest levels. The double bridle allows for more refinement of the aids, not more control of the horse, and should never be used as a substitute for correct schooling.

• The classic Western curb can be with or without a roller, and is used on Western pleasure and reining horses. It requires an extremely light hand, and encourages the horse to lower its head and keep the hindquarters engaged in movements such as the jog, the rollback, and the sliding stop.

• The spade bit is only used in Western riding and is arguably the harshest bit of them all. It is for use only by extremely experienced riders with sympathetic, balanced, and correct hands. In the wrong hands, no bit has more potential to cause pain than the spade. It provides strong pressure on the tongue, bars of the mouth, palate, poll, and jaw.

Most Popular Pelhams

• The plain Pelham combines the actions of both snaffle and curb in a single bit. It does not have the sharpness of the curb, but is stronger than the snaffle. Not allowed in dressage, this bit is popular for showjumping, showing or use by child riders with strong ponies. It should be used either with double reins or with connectors.

• The Kimberwick does not have long shanks and double rings like the Pelham, but it has slightly more of a lever action than the snaffle and is also equipped with a curb chain. This bit is ideal for horses that are too strong for a snaffle, but not strong enough for a Pelham. It is popular for jumping disciplines.

Most Popular Gags

• The rope gag is most popular for polo, but can also be used in jumping. It provides extreme and direct poll pressure and is not for use by inexperienced riders. However, it is not as harsh on the mouth as the Pelham, and therefore useful for a strong horse that objects to poll pressure.

Full-Ring-Rope-Gag

Rope Gag

• The Portuguese or Dutch gag is ideal for horses that are only slightly too strong for the snaffle. It provides a little leverage, giving some poll pressure, without being as strong as other gags or Pelhams. This is commonly used on sensitive but strong horses such as thoroughbreds and is very popular for showjumping. It has the effect of lifting the horse’s head somewhat, making it unsuitable – and not allowed anyway – for dressage and showing.

3-Ring-Continental-Gag-Bit

Portuguese or Dutch Gag

Conclusion

Bitting is a crucial element to get right, but can be a very complicated decision. Seek the advice of an instructor or qualified bit fitter to get exactly the right bit for your equine partner. Remember that the rider’s hands have a much greater effect than the bit itself!

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