Types of Bits: The Essential Buying Guide for Western Horse Bits
If you have ever wondered, "What type of bit to use on my horse?", we can help you find out. Knowing all the types of bits on the market is a time-consuming project, especially if you’re new to horse ownership. Understanding all the types of horse bits and their uses, however, is essential knowledge for any equestrian or cowboy. Of course, your time is limited, and it should be spent on the more important things of life, namely your horse. The team at NRS has you covered. We combined our collective knowledge and experience to create the definitive guide to different types of horse bits and how to choose the best one for you.
Western Horse Bits 101: What They Are & Why They Matter
If you’ve ever seen someone ride a horse, it’s pretty obvious what purpose the bit serves. The bit enables a rider to control the horse. How a bit provides this control, however, may not be clear to those unfamiliar with horses and horse tack.
Horse Bits Explained in Detail
The following parts make up most types of bits: the mouthpiece, the cheeks, the purchase, the shank and the rings.
- The Mouthpiece - This rests inside the horse’s mouth in the space behind their front and back teeth. There are numerous kinds of mouthpieces that vary in design and material (typically metal, rubber or plastic).
- The Cheeks -These are the sides of the bit that rest outside of the horse’s mouth. The purchase and the shank are parts of the cheeks.
- The Purchase -This is the part of the cheeks above the mouthpiece. When the reins are pulled, shorter purchases allow for quicker reactions, while longer purchases deliver slower reactions.
- The Shank -This is the part of the cheeks below the mouthpiece. The shank provides leverage on the mouthpiece. As a result, a shorter shank will deliver less leverage, while a longer shank will allow for more leverage. More leverage equates to a more intense sensation in the mouth while bits with less leverage are more mild. Severe bits with long shanks can be a disaster in the wrong hands, so make sure you start small and ask for help from a trainer before moving up to longer shanks.
- The Rings -These exist to attach the reins to the bit. Rings come in many different styles that all have a different effect on the bit's function and severity. Also, some cow horse bits have multiple rings on each side of the mouth to allow for different rein placement and even multiple reins attached at once.
The overall bit is connected to the bridle and reins. When the reins are pulled, the various elements of the bit work together to put pressure on the horse’s tongue and sides of the mouth to provide control and create a line of communication between horse and rider.
Of course, each horse and rider are different. Depending on which discipline you participate in, certain types of Western bits work better than others. In fact, most disciplines require specific bit types to compete and ban other types. Your horse's unique personality and size can also come into play when deciding on your perfect bit. Many riders switch reining bits from day to day depending on their horse's energy level that day as well as what they plan to do together. Over time, a lot of different horse bits have been developed to accommodate the unique needs of various horses and riders. In spite of all the numerous and nuanced types of bits for horses, there are two basic bit types: snaffle bits and curb bits.
Classic Western Bits: Snaffle vs. Curb
Snaffle and curb bits apply pressure to different areas of the horse’s mouth. In general, a snaffle bit applies equal pressure more directly on the mouth of your horse when the reins are pulled. Curb bits, on the other hand, utilize indirect pressure on your horse’s mouth, but the design multiplies the pressure such that less pull on the reins achieves greater pressure compared to a snaffle bit or other types of bits.
While some snaffle bits feature cheeks, most snaffle horse bit types simply consist of a jointed mouthpiece and rings. As previously mentioned, this design delivers equal, direct pressure to the horse’s mouth when the reins are pulled. The simple design of a snaffle bit has made it a popular choice in both English and Western riding.
Curb bits predominately feature a port, curb chain and cheeks.
- The Port is a curve or U-shape in the center of the mouthpiece. This provides pressure relief on the horse’s tongue and emphasizes pressure on the horse’s mouth.
- The Curb Chain is a linked chain attached to the purchase rings. This chain runs underneath the horse’s chin and applies pressure to the chin groove.
- The Cheeks are the sides of the bit outside the horse’s mouth. Cheeks with varying lengths and shapes provide different degrees of leverage and control.
These elements typically make up most curb horse bit types. The advanced design of the curb bit delivers more indirect pressure and control options for your horse. As a result, the curb bit is most commonly found in fast-paced Western disciplines, but it is not unheard of to find curb bits present in English riding as well.
Types of Horse Bits and Their Uses
Within the two main categories of snaffle and curb bits, there are numerous different types of horse bits. You only need to walk into a tack shop and look at the "bit wall" to know that there are hundreds of types of bits for horses with unique variations designed to produce nuanced effects while riding. The following list of types of horse bits and their uses is by no means comprehensive given the incredible number of horse bits/types on the market, but we wanted to highlight at least eight of the most common types of bits you should be familiar with:
Mullen Mouth Bits
More comfortable than a straight bar mouthpiece, Mullen Mouth bits have a slight curve in the mouthpiece, so they don't rest directly on the horse's tongue. Without a joint in the bar, Mullen Mouth bits are typically gentle because they do not produce any nutcracker action.
Composed of a double-jointed mouthpiece with a small plate in the middle, French Links are mild horse bits that soften the bit’s pressure while still giving the rider control and leverage over the horse's mouth.
Ball Link Bits
Similar to French Link bits, Ball Link bits consist of a double-jointed mouthpiece connected by a ball that sits on the horse's tongue. Ball Link bits also produce a nutcracker action that function much like french link bits but tend to be slightly more severe.
Roller bits have small, rotating pieces of metal on the mouthpiece that encourage the horse to play with them. Playing with these "rollers" makes the horse's tongue and jaw relax and, in theory, helps the horse to accept the bit.
As we mentioned earlier, Port bits feature a curve or U-shape in the center of the mouthpiece. This provides pressure relief on the horse’s tongue and emphasizes pressure on the horse’s mouth. The U also prevents the horse from using its tongue to soften the bit's effect. Both Western and English types of bits can have ports.
Among the more harsh horse bits, Twisted bits are distinguished from other horse bit types by the twist in the mouthpiece. These twists in the mouthpiece produce more pressure and pinching force to give the rider more leverage and control. Straight, mullen or jointed mouthpieces that are twisted can fall under the Twisted bit category.
Wire & Chain Bits
Finally, Wire and Chain bits are composed of two rings and a connecting mouthpiece made of wire or chain. Because the wire or chain is typically thin and often twisted, these types of bits can be very severe, especially when used incorrectly, due to the amount of concentrated pressure they are capable of applying to a horse's mouth.
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Horse Bit Severity Chart
Putting horse bits in order of harshness is a difficult task due to the incredible variety of horse bits that exist. We will first speak generally about the various characteristics that will affect the harshness or gentleness of any bit.
Looseness of Ring Cheekpieces
It might be an intuitive observation that smoother mouthpieces will always create gentle horse bits as opposed to those mouthpieces that are twisted or textured. If you want to make your bit a little more harsh and responsive, you can get a mouthpiece that is twisted or textured.
Thinner mouthpieces tend to create harsh horse bits as opposed to thicker mouthpieces due to the pointed pressure they apply. If you are trying to make a horse bit harsher or gentler based on the thickness of the mouthpiece, you will need to take the shape of your horse's mouth into account to achieve the desired effect. Some horses’ mouths are not large enough to comfortably fit a thicker bit. Similarly, some have tongues that are too large and must wear a thinner mouthpiece. You can hire a professional bit fitter to help you if you wish to feel more secure in your buying choices.
If you are using a bit with a port, the bit will be more gentle or harsh depending on its size. A shallow port will produce a gentle horse bit while tall, narrow ports tend to be harsher because they put pressure on the horse’s palate.
Length of the Shank
If you are working with a curb bit, the length of the shank determines the severity of the bit. Shorter shanks produce gentle horse bits while longer shanks create harsh horse bits. This difference is largely due to leverage. Longer shanks provide the rider with more leverage and power as opposed to shorter shanks which deliver less.
Straightness of the Shank
Moreover, curved or angled shanks are more gentle compared to straight shanks due to the smaller amount of leverage they give the rider.
More could be said about the general elements of bit design that produce harsh as opposed to gentle bits for horses, but we will turn our attention to identifying specific types of horse bits in order of harshness.
Gentle Horse Bits
If you've ever wondered, "What is the gentlest bit for a horse?" you will find that most sources suggest the Eggbutt snaffle due to its thick mouthpiece and loose ring bits. The Eggbutt Snaffle does not pinch the sides of the horse's mouth and exerts minimal lateral pressure. While slightly harsher, D-ring snaffle bits are also considered very gentle bits for horses. The mouthpiece is typically thinner which exerts more pressure per square inch than the thicker mouthpiece in an Eggbutt Snaffle. The Mullen Mouth bit is also considered to be among the more relatively gentle bits for horses.
Mild Horse Bits
French Links, especially when used with gentle horse bits like the D-ring snaffle, can produce more mild horse bits by offering more control without causing too much excessive force or potential pain to your horse. A French Link is a small, flat link in the middle of the mouthpiece that applies some additional pressure to the tongue of your horse. Most horses work well with this mild horse bit setup and some even prefer it over a single joint snaffle bit. The Ball Link bit is also considered among the more mild horse bits, though it is technically slightly more severe than a French Link bit.
Harsh Horse Bits
At the end of the horse bit severity chart, you will find Twisted bits, Port bits and Spade bits are among the most harsh horse bits regularly sold in tack stores. These bits are not for inexperienced riders or horses. They all deliver greater pressure to the horse's mouth and give the rider more leverage in the reins. Twisted bits tend to put more pressure on the tongue and sides of the horse's mouth, while Port bits, especially ones with tall, narrow ports, place pressure on the horse's palate. Like Port bits, Spade bits put direct pressure on the horse's palate when the reins are pulled. If used improperly, the Spade bit can even damage a horse's mouth.
How to Choose the Right Bit for Your Horse
Now that you understand the different horse bits and their uses, choosing a bit for a horse is the next step. You’ve got the knowledge, and now it’s time to apply it. When searching for the best horse bits, you should consider the following before making a purchase:
1. Consider a Good-Quality Bit an Investment In Your Horse
Everyone wants their horses to be as comfortable as possible. And your horse's mouth is just as important as its back or legs. Purchasing quality tack and accessories is an investment in the well-being of your horse. The right bit will be kinder on the horse, create a safer experience for the rider and last much longer than cheaper options.
2. Understand Your Horse
Age, previous training,comfort and chosen discipline are among the most important things to consider when choosing a bit for a horse.
- Age - You can use gentle bits for horses that are young and inexperienced, while older, experienced horses may require harsher bits due to being desensitized to lighter pressures and prompts.
- Previous Training -Certain types of bits are effective or ineffective depending on the horse’s previous training. If a horse has been handled sternly its entire life, gentle horse bits are unlikely to deliver the control you require. On the other hand, a horse that easily responds to lighter aids will be uncomfortable and agitated when paired with harsh horse bits.
- Comfort -When in doubt, comfort is perhaps the most important consideration when learning how to choose a bit for your horse. You want your horse’s neck and mouth to look relaxed. Insistent tossing of the head, biting down on the bit or restlessness of the mouth are often signs of a poor-fitting bit. Figuring out your horse’s comfort level takes time and experimenting with a variety of different reining bits. As you get to know your horse and your preferred riding and handling style, the best horse bit will become clearer.
- Chosen Discipline - Depending on which discipline you participate in, certain types of bits work better than others. In fact, most disciplines require specific bit types to compete and ban other types. The last thing you want is to be disqualified for a simple tack error.
3. Consider Your Experience as a Rider
Whether you are researching different types of horse bits for yourself or someone else, the experience of the rider can help dictate your choice. For example, beginner riders typically do not know how to communicate with their horse as well as an experienced rider with years of training. They often don't know the best way to use the reins, how hard to pull, when to release, etc. As a result, it is often best to have beginner riders use gentle horse bits, like the Snaffle bit, so they do not accidentally cause the horse unnecessary pain while learning how to ride. Experienced riders, on the other hand, can opt to use harsh horse bits to make communication with their horse more responsive with less effort. Still, a properly trained horse often never needs a harsh bit to give a quick and powerful response to its rider’s cues.
4. Different Horse Bits Can Only Do So Much
If by the end of all this you are still unsure how to choose a bit for your horse, don't worry. Horsemanship is an art; it is a beautiful bond between a human and an animal. Developing a bond with your horse takes time, care and lots of dedication. In short, it does not happen overnight. We may wish that using different types of horse bits will quickly fix the challenges of horsemanship, but this is rarely the case. Various types of bits and tack for horses are merely tools placed in our hands. Tools do not teach, but we do. When choosing a bit for a horse, the most important thing you can do is listen to your horse and seek expert help when needed. Then, when you do eventually find the best bit for both you and your horse, you will certainly find the effort to have been worth it.