Dr. E. L. Johnson
Extension Horse Specialist
University of Florida
When selecting a bit, one must first understand the principles of how a bit works
and the pressure points on the horse that can be affected by a bit. Once one
understands this information, it should become clearer as to whether a snaffle or a
leverage (curb) bit should be selected or one of the many combination types of headgear
that is available. Also, there is the hackamore, which may be a true hackamore (bosal)
or a mechanical hackamore. It is generally considered that a hackamore does not have
a mouthpiece. There are many pieces of headgear that combine a mouthpiece with a
mechanical hackamore and there are several options that combine a snaffle bit with a
piece over the nose that does not incorporate leverage. In a training situation or for
pleasure riding, the selection really doesn't need to consider anything other than what is
best for the horse and/or rider. There are, however, some regulations enforced by
various breed and/or horse show associations that might restrict what bit may be used.
Additionally, tradition may play a role in the selection of a bit. Unfortunately, many
times this may result in a horse being bitted with a bit that is not the best choice either
for the horse and/or rider.
The points on a horse's head that can be affected by a bit or some type of
headgear include the tongue, bars, cheeks, lips, palate, nose, curb area, and poll. Some
pieces of headgear may be able to affect nearly all of these points and some may only
affect two or three of these points. Snaffle bits, which are direct pull bits, obviously
cannot put pressure on all these points nor can bitless hackamores. Combination types
of headgear can put pressure on the most points at one time.
There is a common misconception in the industry that a snaffle bit is one that
has a broken mouthpiece; that is, the mouthpiece is comprised of at least two pieces.
This is wrong even though it is propagated by many catalogs, books, and "experts." A
snaffle may have a solid mouthpiece, a two piece mouthpiece, a three piece mouthpiece
or multiple links such as a chain. The mouthpiece may or may not have a port. The
key to identifying a snaffle is that it is a bit that operates off direct pull; there is no
leverage involved. A curb or leverage bit is self explanatory-leverage is involved. Even
if a curb is not used, there is still leverage on the poll of the horse. If a curb is used,
then pressure is exerted on several points of the head.
If we assume that when selecting a bit the first consideration is to determine the
type of bit snafflee or leverage), then certainly the next criterion would be to select the
desired mouthpiece. First, the mouthpiece needs to be the proper width to fit the horse.
Standard bits are five inches wide and are the most common. Pony bits are generally
four and one-half inches wide, and bits designed for Arabians are four and three
quarters inches wide. For horses with wider mouths, bits are available in widths of five
and one-half inches, six inches, and even wider for some draft horses. Bits wider than
five inches may have to be special ordered and the availability of styles and mouthpiece
designs may be limited in commercial production bits. To get what you want may
require one to have a bit custom made by a bit maker. The same is true to some degree
with the narrow bits, though there is a better selection in snaffle bits.
Once you have determined if you need a snaffle or curb bit and decided the
appropriate width needed to fit your horse, the next step is to determine what you want
in terms of the mouthpiece. As previously stated, both a snaffle bit and curb bit may
have either a broken or solid mouthpiece. Selection of the mouthpiece is where much of
the confusion begins. This is due in part to the vast number of mouthpieces available,
and secondly to the lack of understanding of the conformation of the mouth and how
the mouthpieces fit and function in the mouth. You can have a mouthpiece that is mild
in its action and pressure (a soft bit) or you can have one that is severe (a harsh/hard
bit). Of course there are many gradations between the extremes. These moderate bits
are probably the best choice for most people and horses. Harsher bits should be
reserved for people who know how and when to use them and have the patience and
touch to use them. Soft bits can also be problematic in that it is easy to teach a horse to
pull against and evade them. This is certainly not desirable, though many people make
this mistake trying to be kind to their horse. A second problem associated with soft bits,
which are usually large in diameter, is that many young horses simply do not have
enough room in their mouth to comfortably carry the bit. This also can lead to
If you want a snaffle bit, then the next consideration is the design of the rings.
Snaffle bits typically are available in O-ring, D-ring, egg butt, and full cheek
configurations. The rings can vary in size from two and one-half inches in diameter to
four inches, with three inches being fairly standard. O-ring and egg butt bits are
probably the most popular styles. Full cheek bits are also popular, but should always
be used with bit keepers for safety concerns for both the horse and rider.
Selecting a curb bit is similar to selecting a snaffle bit. The main difference is
that once you have determined the desired mouthpiece and the appropriate width, the
next determinant is whether you want a solid cheek or a swivel cheek. You will need to
select the length and shape of the shank. Shanks are available in several styles. They
may be straight, have a gentle sweep (C bit), an acute sweep (grazing bit) or of a variety
of patterns (S shank, 7 shank, cavalry shank). Also, you will need to determine the
length of shank you want. The average shank length is six to seven inches, but may vary
from approximately four inches to eight plus inches. It is important to understand
certain principles about leverage bits. A straight shank, in comparison to a curved
shank, is quicker acting. A longer shank produces more leverage than a shorter shank.
Bits that have broken mouthpieces and/or swivel cheeks are slower acting and provide
the horse with what essentially amounts to a preparatory signal.
I must couch the previous text by saying there are always exceptions and
modifiers to most rules. Not every bit fits neatly into a category, especially if we are
trying to put everything into either a snaffle or traditional curb bit classification.
Neither is it possible to easily classify bits as either english or western. There are
examples like the Kimberwick, Pelham, Gag and Elevator bits that are really
combination bits. There is a very large group of bits used primarily by the speed events
and rodeo disciplines. These bits are also a form of combination bits. Many of these bits
utilize a modified gag action and many of them also function like a mechanical
hackamore. These bits and mechanical hackamores continue to gain acceptance in the
jumper ring as well as with many of the gaited horses.
Regardless of the bit selected, what generally makes it good or bad are the hands
using it. You must have confidence in the bit you select; otherwise you will not be happy
with the results attained. In most instances, the problems perceived as resulting from
not having the correct bit are in reality training problems.