Now In: Horse Bits

Welcome to

A site dedicated to enlightening the novice horse owner about Horse Bits and Western Tack

Horse Bits seem like a straight forward piece of horse tack. Every horse owner has one or more. Many people have tried several in an effort to either fit their horse with an acceptable bit or to have an arsenal of bits for different stages of training. Some trainers have buckets of frustratingly unacceptable bits. There are literally hundreds of horse bits available today and many types that should be understood before you settle on the two or three you will need to take your horse from a green broke colt to a well-trained riding horse.

Bits are for controlling the speed of a horse, his direction and his stop. Your horse should perform all maneuvers with his head in a natural position. However, leg cues and other body cues contribute more than 50% to the experience. In fact in a well-trained horse they may be 90% of the experience. The bit is meant to receive a signal from the rider's hands and tell the horse what the rider wants. When the horse is trained, the other aids speak to the horse first, and the bit is just a reminder to your horse of what is expected (in case he doesn't respond immediately to your other aids). If you have to pull the horse using his head, he is not trained.

Because this site is for the comparative novice horse trainer, we will concentrate on non-correction bits only, leaving the most complicated and expert bits for another lesson.



For our purposes, we will break bits down into two main types according to the bar configuration. Most bits with solid mouthpieces are curb-type bits. Bits with broken mouthpieces are snaffle-type bits. Snaffle bits can have either one, two or more joints in the middle. Snaffle bits can have direct rings or shank cheeks.




Horse bits are designed to "pressure" different parts of a horse's mouth and face. As he tries to avoid the pressure, he is induced to change pace, direction, or posture. The bit bars put pressure on the soft gum tissue of the horse's mouth between his front incisors and back molars. Some bits put pressure down onto his tongue or up into the roof of his mouth (palate). Most bits pressure his lips. Bits with shanks and curb chains put pressure under his chin in his curb area and often exert pressure downward on his poll (the sensitive area just behind his ears).

Pressure is uncomfortable. A horse whose ground training has taught him to move away from pressure will have no problem understanding that if pressure is exerted on his head or mouth (ie: pulling him to the right), he can stop the pressure by moving to the right. The goal of pressure is for your horse to figure out how to avoid it. In so doing, he moves the way you want him to move, and he is rewarded with a cessation of pressure.

In the first steps of training, we will use the sensitive areas of a horse's face to communicate to him to move around. After teaching him how to understand what you are asking using early bit cues paired with simultaneous body cues, we substitute the body aids for bit pressure. Body and leg aids will take the place of bit pressure throughout most of his life. But his face and bit pressure is where it all starts.

Most novice trainers think that a trainer goes from gentle bits to harsher bits as training progresses - level one to level 4 means more and more severe. That theory misses the point. The progression is actually from less-sophisticated, harsher bits to more freedom of his face but higher sophistication in the bit. The horse moves through bit stages by learning how to react to different pressure on his face and by repetitive learning of simultaneous body cues that happen with each unique type of pressure.

His first bit is probably fairly simple. It pressures only one or two areas and requires him to make one or two moves to avoid that pressure. His next bit has less pressure where the first bit worked, but adds pressure to a different part of his face and teaches him to move in a different way or move a different part of his body - or stop quickly. Each step up, his bit helps him learn a different maneuver, and the other aids are controlling movements he has already mastered with his previous bit.

A fully trained horse has very little need for his bit. It is there just as a reminder. His face and mouth are very free as he uses more and more leg and body aids and less and less face aids.

It is especially important that a rider stay off the reins (use NO pressure) when a horse is performing a maneuver correctly. It is the stark contrast between bit pressure and bit neutrality that teaches the lesson: Pressure until performance. No pressure when compliance is achieved.

Aside from knowledge and experience, the difference between a novice trainer (rider) and an expert lies in timing and balance. A rider who is still using the reins to balance himself is putting pressure on the horse's face when no pressure should be applied. That definitely confuses the horse and can make him very uncomfortable. As you become a better rider, the false signals to the horse will disappear.

As you become a better trainer, the timing of pressure and release will be more and more precise. There won't be even a tenth of a second delay between pressure and the release the very moment the horse performs his job.

As you learn about bits and watch your horse's reaction to them, your understanding will grow. Which bits are best for pressuring which points, why, and when?