Bitting A Horse For The First Time

There are no hard and fast rules as to what bit should be used for a young horse. ln the early stages of breaking some people use a bit with ‘keys‘ that hang down from the centre of the mouthpiece. These keys lie on the tongue and their purpose is to encourage the horse to play with them, thus causing it to salivate and have a wet mouth. Some horses, however, will play with these keys all the time and will then go on to try to play, or in other words mess about, with any other bit they find in their mouths.

A straight rubber bit is fairly gentle but can give a rather dead feeling, and horses often chew these bits. If you do own one, check that it has a chain running through the middle for safety. Some makes do not and if these are bitten through there could be an accident.

A straight or half-moon metal bit does not give the horse or rider an independent feel on each side of the mouth; if you feel the left rein, the right side of the bit moves forward. It acts more directly on the top of the bars of the mouth and on the tongue. It is not so easy to keep a young horse going forward in a straight line in an unjointed bit.

Jointed bits act on the top and sides of the bars of the mouth, on the corners of the lips and also on the tongue. The two ‘arms’ can work independently and there is a certain amount of nutcracker action (inward pressure of each arm of the bit on the lower jaw).

Horses may chew a jointed rubber bit.

An eggbutt snaffle with smooth, rounded joints is less likely to rub the corners of the mouth.

A loose-ring snaffle allows the bit to move more freely in the mouth but may pinch the corners of the lips. The wire-ringed type tits more closely into its joints and is less likely to pinch the lips. Rubber ‘biscuits’ can be fitted to prevent pinching. The eggbutt mouthpiece prevents pinching but allows less movement of the bit.

The double, figure-of-eight-shaped joint of the French snaffle has hardly any nutcracker action. Many young horses go exceptionally well and happily in this bit. There is movement of the bit, there is room for the tongue. and the bit follows the natural shape of the horse’s mouth. Each ‘arm‘ can be used independently. There is very little to fight or dislike about this bit.

Horses’ tongues vary in thickness and a horse with a thick tongue may find a thick bit too much of a mouthful. A double-jointed bit such as the French snaffle will give a thick tongue more room. If you use one with cheeks kept in place by little leather keepers attached to the cheek pieces of the bridle, the keepers will keep the cheeks in line with the bridle, and the cheeks keep the bit raised up in the horse’s mouth which a fussy-mouthed or thick-tongued horse may find more comfortable.

Any form of jointed cheek snaffle must be used correctly, with the keepers in place. This bit hangs at a totally different angle to a jointed ring bit and acts on a different part of the mouth. Its action is a little higher up on the tongue and a little higher up on the bars of the mouth. Because the bit hangs higher and the pressure is higher up on the tongue, the horse is much less likely to try to get its tongue over the bit when first introduced to this new feeling. There is more direct nutcracker action on the lower jaw with the single jointed bit and the cheekpieces help to ‘steer’ the horse more accurately. The habit of getting the tongue over the bit must be avoided as, once established, it is very difficult to cure. It is much better to have the bit slightly too high in the mouth at first than to allow the horse to get its tongue over.

The bit must not be too wide for the horse’s mouth or the joint of a jointed ring snaffle will hang down in a low V in the centre of the mouth. The pressure of the bit will then come low down on the tongue and the horse can very easily bring its tongue over the bit. In addition, as you feel on one rein, the bit will slide through the horse’s mouth and the centre joint may then press directly on the bars of the mouth on that side.

If a cheek snaffle is too wide, the joint will stick up in a V into the roof of the horse’s mouth when you feel on the reins, probably causing the horse to open its mouth and throw its head up.

Well-bred, Thoroughbred-type horses and Arabs have very narrow lower jaws, often no wider than that of a 12 hh pony, so use a bit that is suitable for the width of your horse’s jaw. Do not assume that because the horse is 16.2 hh it will automatically require a large bit. A well-fitting bit should protrude about 7mm (14in) on each side of the horse’s mouth.

‘Mouthy’ Horses

Some young horses are very ‘mouthy’, chewing or manoeuvring the bit in their mouths all the time, moving their tongues all over the place and raising, lowering and turning their heads in their efforts to get rid of the bit. it is better not to try to control these horses’ heads in any way. After a week of daily lungeing or loose-schooling, they will usually settle down.

Jointed or straight-bar bits, made of metal, nylon, rubber or vulcanite. can be tried to see if one is more acceptable to the horse but this behaviour Usually remains the same no matter what bit is in the horse’s mouth – the horse just hates the feeling and wants to be rid of it. Sometimes leaving the bridle on in the stable for a few hours each day can work, but you must make quite sure that there is nothing for the bridle or bit rings to get caught up on. Also be aware that the horse may attempt to get rid of the bridle by rubbing it off over its ears. Sometimes a Polo mint tied in the centre of the bit can occupy the horse’s mind.

If this problem has still not been overcome when you begin to ride the horse, you will have difficulties because the constant head movement unbalances the horse and makes control very difficult. Sometimes removing the bit and riding in a mild bitless bridle or attaching the reins to a drop noseband will enable you to ride the horse, but you should only do this in a small, enclosed area because you will not have much control over a very ‘green’ horse.

When the horse can be guided by pressure on its nose, try putting the bit in without reins attached to it and continue to use nose pressure alone to guide the horse. Next, attach a second set of reins to the bit in the normal way but continue to use mostly the noseband reins, gradually taking up a little contact on the bit rein as well.

A young horse may have a sore, uncomfortable mouth when teething; the age between three and five causing most trouble. Be patient and aware of how your horse’s teeth are developing. If the horse seems really uncomfortable, do not use a bit for a few days. Uncomfortable, sharp teeth or loose milk teeth can be the cause of mouthiness, as can wolf teeth.

Very often, however, this resentment of the bit seems to be a mental problem. Some horses get over it completely but this can take a year or longer. It is no good tying up the horse’s head with gadgets, nor getting furious, because this will simply make the horse’s tension worse. Patience, and riding on as light a contact as possible, using your weight, voice and legs as aids, but very little rein, may win through eventually. Obviously, such a horse will never go well for someone with heavy or rough hands.

A young horse’s soft skin at the corners of the lips often gets rubbed by the bit. Keep the skin greased with Vaseline so that splits will not form. These cause a lot of pain and can become chronic. Rubber rings or ‘biscuits’ on the bit may help but they can be very fiddly when bridling a young horse.

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