Finding the perfect bit for your horse
Do you lack control across country? Does your horse get his tongue over the bit? Are they inconsistent in the contact? These could all be signs that he isn’t comfortable. Ensuring your horse is happy with his bit and bridle is a vital component to good performance, so it’s worth spending time to get it right.
What bit should I be using?
Every horse’s mouth is different and a bit that might suit one horse, might not suit another. Gill Batt-Denzey from Horse Bit Advice recommends that choosing a bit should start with an assessment of the horse’s external and internal facial anatomy.
Taking the time to do this will determine what shape will sit comfortably within the mouth, what actions will offer clear signals and which cheekpiece best supports the rider’s needs.
A correctly fitting bit should result in a horse that is relaxed and willing to accept the contact, and is responsive to what you’re asking.
What to consider when looking for a bit:
- Does the horse has thick, fleshy lips; is short from the front of lip to the corner of the mouth; has a large tongue or a small, low, narrow top palate space?
- Have the horse’s teeth and saddle have been checked by the appropriate professionals, ideally within six months, as well as a qualified physiotherapist or chiropractor within the last three months? Any sore and tight areas are often where improvements will be noticed after a bit change, as the horse is more relaxed and able to work in a less evasive way.
- Knowing the horse’s recent bitting history can also be helpful when deciphering what the horse is finding difficult to accommodate or understand.
Changing bits is not a quick fix
“Any bit choice should not be viewed as a quick solution to ‘get an outline’; it should only be there to encourage the horse to stretch across its back and create a soft but consistent contact, achieving a true connection and using its abdominals to support self-carriage,” says Gill. “The bit should complement the age, level of education and physical form and strength of the horse, combined with the rider’s experience.”
Fitting your bit
Once you know the shape and size of the horse’s mouth, you can start to work out what bit would best suit them:
- A lot of horses prefer the bit to be stabilised by a form of cheek, and for the bit to sit a little higher in the mouth so it gives better clearance for the tongue. If a bit hangs too low, it can create a fussy reaction to the bit.
- There should be little or no gape in the cheekpiece of your bridle when the height of the bit is correct.
- When fitting any form of loose ring you would choose a 1/4” larger so that the horse’s lip isn’t pinched in the ring hole. Choose a smaller diameter bit ranging from 12mm to 14mm, and for larger horse 16mm. This makes the bit less intrusive and it’s easier to keep tension out of the TMJ so the jaw can remain relaxed.
“If you are always experiencing the same evasion, your horse becomes reluctant to being bridled or you’re not progressing, don’t keep persisting as it’s damaging to the horse, soul-destroying for the rider and only cements incorrect muscle build,” adds Gill.
“Although bitting is not the only answer, it is the piece of equipment situated in the most sensitive area of your horse, and the one that should be looked at first.”
Key bridle-fitting rules
There are four things to look out for:
- On a cut away headpiece, check that the ear cut isn’t too short or ends too high because it will dig into the horse’s ears.
- Bridle buckles should not be near the sensitive nerves above the horse’s eye around the TMJ – ideally, they should be in line with the eye.
- The browband shouldn’t be too tight because it may pull the headpiece towards the ears.
- Whatever style of noseband is used, make sure it doesn’t interfere with the cheek bones, doesn’t restrict your horse’s airway or isn’t done up too tight.
Finding a new bridle
Small changes in shape and padding can have a big impact on bridle fit and comfort.
Every horse and rider combination is different and there is no single magic bridle for everybody. Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) Scholar and Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) qualified bridle maker Kelly Jones of KellyJ leather shares her top tips for finding the perfect bridle:
- What am I going to use the bridle for? A bridle suitable for gentle hacking and a bridle for competitions have different needs.
- Does my horse have specific needs that a bridle can help with? Even small changes, like a different noseband that avoids pressure points and nerves on the horse’s face, can make a big difference. Comfort headpieces with buckles moved clear of the ears and temporomandibular joint [TMJ] can help reduce headshaking. However, a bridle cannot cure everything, and some issues should be assessed by a vet before being masked by a new bridle.
- New bridles aren’t cheap, but you can usually try before you buy to ensure it’s the correct fit and type. Most bespoke bridle makers offer this service and some saddle fitters hold a stock of off-the-peg bridles for trial that can be altered by a saddle fitter if they’re not quite right.
- Are there any new bridle designs worth considering? In recent years, there has been research into how fit and comfort of a bridle affects the horse’s performance. This has led to a range of new designs, such as the Micklem, Fairfax Performance and Stubben Freedom bridles, which aim to relieve pressure on the sensitive nerves and points on the horse’s face.
First published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of British Eventing Life, original words by Stephanie Bateman