The styles and functions of bits!


I have no idea which bit will be best for your horse. But I can give you some basic information about bits in general, and that can start you down the road on what bits to try for your horse. Remember, horses like to be perfect on paper and then make you throw that out the window because they can. You’ll need to try all of the bits!


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  • I’ll also encourage you to get with your vet once you think you have a bit you like. The inside of a horse’s mouth makes certain bits more appropriate than others. There might not be a lot of room, there could be wolf teeth in the way, the palette might be shallow.


  • A good place to start is knowing what type of bit might suit your horse. Things to consider – your discipline, any tack rules as outlined by your association (if you show), your trainer’s input, your horse’s mouth health, and even what type of bit you use now.


  • Also, keep in mind that bits act on many parts of the horse’s head – the tongue, bars, cheeks, lips, palate, nose, curb area, and poll. Different bits will put pressure in different places, so knowing what works where can help you decide what’s best.


sweet iron bit

A snaffle bit. Sweet iron, with fancy fixed rings.


There are two primary types of bits to consider – the snaffle and the curb.


  • There are also a few other styles that are sort of hybrids, the gags and the pelhams and the hackamores. More on those later.


  • Snaffle bits are defined by the way they work – direct pressure. The reins are connected directly to the mouthpiece. Pressure on the horse is a direct result of pressure on the reins. Snaffle bits work on the mouth – tongue, bars, and roof as the joints bend.


  • Curb bits work through leverage. Less pressure on the reins translates to more pressure on the bit. Curb bits have the reins attached to shanks – the long things – and the shanks are attached to the mouthpiece. Curb bits will act on the poll of the horse and his mouth.


shanks on western bits

Different shank styles.

Speaking of mouthpieces – that’s another piece of the pie.


  • You can have straight, jointed, and mullen mouthpieces. Mullen mouth bits are solid, no joints, but curved. Jointed bits can have one or two joints. For double-jointed mouthpieces, the short portion in the middle can be flat, have a roller, be rounded….lots of options.


  • Curb bits might be straight or ported. A port is a curve that is raised away from the tongue and can act on the roof of your horse’s mouth. Curb bits often have chains that connect from the top of the shank to top of the shank, resting across your horse’s chin groove.


ported western bit with rollers

A ported western bit with rollers.


Then you need to consider the cheekpieces.


  • For snaffles, you have a few options. Loose rings are just that – the rings are allowed to move freely through the ends of the mouthpiece. Many moons ago I heard that loose rings are desired by riders that want to wiggle the bit a little more to encourage soft chewing and submission on the bit. Also, take note that some loose rings can pinch cheeks.


  • D rings and egg butts are fixed and shaped like D’s and eggs, designed to avoid the pinched cheek thing. Full cheeks are also fixed, and the long vertical portions act on the side of your horse’s face. Use keepers on full cheek bits to help prevent them from hooking in your horse’s boots and all of the other things that horses like to get stuck on.


  • For curb bits, the shanks vary in size and curve. Straighter curb bits act quickly on your horse, whereas a curve gives your horse some warning that more pressure is coming.


snaffle bit with copper mouthpiece

Another style of fixed ring on a snaffle.


What materials are used for bits


  • Stainless steel is common, it’s durable, it looks good at shows.


  • Bits made of sweet iron will rust, which some horses like. Sweet iron has come a long way, you can find stainless-looking bits that are actually sweet iron.


  • Some bits are now made with copper in some concentration. Copper stimulates salivation, and for harder-mouthed horses this can be nice. It will also help the bit slide around.


  • You can also find a bit made of rubber or some sort of plastic, which might teach your horse to chew on the bit like it’s a piece of beef jerky. Not good in some cases. Also, these materials tend to be quite large in diameter, so finding one that fits can be tricky. It’s difficult to generalize that thin bits are harsh and fat bits are soft. A fat bit in a shallow and small horse’s mouth will be harsh. A thin bit attached to skilled hands can be quite mild.


Hybrid styles of bits.


  • Gag bits look and work like snaffles, but have options for leverage.


  • Pelhams are a cross between a snaffle and an English double bit system. One set of reins attaches to the bit like a snaffle, and there’s a shank that allows attachment of another set of reins.


  • Kimberwicks and elevator bits are more examples of a hybrid type bit.


  • Hackamores come in two variations, the direct pull, like the bosal, and the mechanical that uses leverage across the nose.


dressage bits bridoon and curb

This dressage bridle has a ported curb bit and a three-piece bridoon. Bridoon is what you call the snaffle part of the double bridle. The rings are typically smaller than a normal snaffle.


So in a nutshell – finding the right bit for your horse is a daunting task. Before you go to the tack shop to get overwhelmed with the wall of bits, figure out where you need to influence your horse and start there.


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