December 18, 2017

Should I Change My Horse’s Bit?

Should I Change My Horse’s Bit?

     This is a question I received last week. The client wanted to know if they needed a new bit for their horse. Since this customer was a boarding client and not in a lesson or training program, I hadn’t really paid much attention to how the horse worked. The question was asked in the barn aisle, so I couldn’t see the horse work either. The owner was not willing to pay for an evaluation so I was reduced to giving out some general information. The next time I saw them riding, the bid had been changed.  The owner stated that the horse went better with the new bit. Happy ending?  Maybe. Maybe not. I didn’t evaluate the horse either time, so I don’t really know for sure. I guess time will tell.

     So the question of the week is- Should you change your horse’s bit? There are several reasons it could be time for a change. The most common one is that the horse isn’t responding to the bit correctly. Sometimes the horse will be non-responsive. That might call for a change to a more “severe” bit. Sometimes the horse is over-responsive. That could mean they need a “milder” bit. Just remember that no bit is a “magic-bullet”. Often what a horse really needs is training, not a different bit. Or perhaps, the rider isn’t cueing the horse properly. But those are talks for another day.

     Another reason to change bits is due to horse show rules. Let’s say you ride western and compete with your horse. Your horse is great at western pleasure and the trail classes.  Western horse’s younger than 6 may be shown two-handed in a smooth snaffle bit, which is the bit most horses are started in. Once that same western horse is 6 years of age or older, they must be shown in a curb bit ridden with one hand on the reins. Therefore, when they turn six, it becomes necessary to change to a curb bit. A curb bit is generally more “severe” than a snaffle bit. If you want to continue showing western you have no choice in the matter. You must make the change in bit and be sure your horse is trained to handle it.

     Today, I’m going to address the first scenario. How do you know your horse is in the wrong bit? An over-bitted horse will display some of the following signs when the reins are pulled. If the horse is over-bitted long enough, these signs will show up even without any rein pressure. (FYI- I have found more over-bitted than under-bitted horses during my years as a trainer.)  Here’s what to look for:

  1.  Over-flexing to the side or at the poll.
  2.  Refusing to move forward.
  3.  Head tossing.
  4.  Pulling on the bit.
  5.  Rearing.
  6.  Refusing to stop or give to the bit.
  7.  Chomping on the bit.

 The under-bitted horse will show some or all of these signs:

  1.  Not turning or bending when asked.
  2.  Pulling on the bit.
  3.  Head tossing
  4.  Nosing out
  5.  Refusing to stop.
  6.  Not giving to the bit.
  7.  Hanging on the bit or leaning on the riders hands.
  8.  Being very “heavy” on a bit he used to respond well to.

      Now that you recognize you have a problem, how do you know which one you have? As you can see, the signs of over-biting and under-biting can be similar or exactly the same! It may be best to consult a professional to help. This situation can be very complex and requires personal attention. If your horse is displaying some of these signs, be sure to address it quickly, before it becomes unsafe. A horse you can’t control, that is uncomfortable or in pain can very rapidly become hazardous to ride. Contact your local Certified Instructor and set up an evaluation lesson. They should be able to tell you what the actual problem is and help you resolve it.

      When I have been presented with this situation, I follow these steps. First, I will observe the horse being ridden while asking relevant questions. Sometimes I will ride the horse. If I decide the problem is indeed the bit, I determine if the current bit is too mild or too severe. Then we will try out a few different bits to see which one helps. After we have settled on one bit, I will let them borrow it for a week or so.

     After the trial period, if the new bit is still looking good, I write a description of the bit including size, type, etc. I may even take a picture or let them take my bit as a reference when they head to the tack store. I just want to be sure they purchase the correct one. People who work in tack stores don’t always know enough about bits, so the description helps. I have even had our local tack store employees call me to ask if a bit they have in stock with a slight variation will work. Sometimes we will just order a bit from one of the many catalogs I keep on hand for just these occasions. However we go about it, I try my best to be sure the correct bit is purchased.

      What you shouldn’t do is start buying bits and trying them out on your horse. You could be making the problem worse or not solving it at all. Good bits are expensive. Many bits cost in excess of $100.00! Buy a few of those and you could pay for several months of lessons!  While a good bit is a very worthwhile investment if it works on your horse, it might become an extremely expensive paperweight if it doesn’t do the job. A trip to a trainer will cost you a little money and time, but may very well save you plenty of both in the long run. And who knows, it might not be a problem with the bit at all. In that case, think of all the money you saved not buying new bits! As an added bonus, working with a trainer, even for an hour or two, will give you new insight about your riding and your horse. And you might just have some fun as well! 

      I welcome your comments and questions about bits or other topics. Or you may attend my free Bits and Bitting class to be held in early November. Dates and details of upcoming classes will be announced soon. Feel free to share this article with your friends!



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