What Bit Should I Use?

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Question:
Dear Julie,
I am currently schooling and riding in a D-ring snaffle bit. I want to start training for Western Pleasure. What kind of shank bit do you recommend for the transition?
Thanks,
Kim

Answer:
In most rule books, horses six years old and up are required to show Western in a curb bit. Horses five and under can be ridden two-handed in a snaffle. As the horse advances in his training and you are doing more advanced stuff, your horse will probably work better in the curb, provided you find the right bit for him.

First, it is important to understand the difference between curbs and snaffles; many people have misconceptions about this. It has nothing to do with the mouthpiece—being jointed doesn’t make it a snaffle. A snaffle is a “direct pressure” bit, meaning the reins are attached directly opposite the mouthpiece and there is a direct, pound-for-pound pressure on the horse’s mouth from a pull on the reins. A snaffle could have a solid mouthpiece and a bit with a joint in the mouthpiece but shanks is not a snaffle—it is a curb bit. Just because it is a snaffle does not mean it is mild and a curb is not necessarily harsh; many curb bits are milder and more comfortable for the horse than snaffles.

A curb bit has a shank on each side which drops down below the mouthpiece and the reins are attached below; a curb strap (or chain) behind the chin creates leverage. It is the ratio between the top part of the shank (the “purchase”) and the bottom part that dictates the amount of leverage; a 1:2 ratio means that for every one pound of pull, the horse gets two pounds of pressure. In general, the curb bit can give you more braking ability. If it has a mild port (a rise in the mouthpiece) it may be more comfortable for your horse than a straight snaffle; the port gives a relief of pressure from the tongue.

You should always ride two-handed in a snaffle. With a curb bit, you may be able to ride one handed or two. If the curb bit is one solid piece, riding two-handed does not do any good because if you pick up on one rein, the whole bit moves. If the bit has articulation from side to side, like Myler bits do, you can ride two-handed when you need to and you are able to work off the sides of the horse’s mouth, giving you greater training ability.
Most likely the bit I would recommend for your horse is the Myler MB04 with an HBT shank and a leather curb strap; it is an excellent bit to transition from snaffle to curb. The HBT shank is quite short and has very little leverage. The MB 04 mouthpiece has a small port which gives the horse a little relief of pressure for his tongue and is more comfortable for him than the D-ring snaffle you are using now.

Any time you change the bit on a horse, give him a little time to get used to the new feel in his mouth. Any different shape will be very noticeable for him, just like it would be for us, and he’ll need 15-20 minutes to get used to the new feel before you start doing anything with the reins. After that, you can start riding as you normally would, being aware that there is now a little leverage, so you may not need as much pressure from your hands.

Start out riding two-handed with a lightly loose rein as the horse gets used to the new bit. Practice keeping your hands closer and closer together and moving them as one; that’s how you’ll work up to riding one-handed. Even once you are riding one-handed, do not hesitate to go to two hands as needed to keep the horse correct (in the right frame and arc). Of course, in the show ring you’ll have to ride with one hand, but when training always keep the horse correct and use two hands as needed.

The Myler bits that I most frequently recommend to people are listed on this web page, along with an explanation of what type of horse I would use them on http://www.juliegoodngiht.com/myler Also, there’s a great new 4-part online free video series from Dale Myler that you can find a link to on the main page of my web site. He talks about his bits and explains the transitions well: http://juliegoodnight.com

Good luck with your horse and I hope your transition to a curb bit is easy!

Good luck!

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

The Different Types Of Bits

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Horse Master How To
“Get it Straight” Helping a frustrated rider find the right bit and cue her horse to move straight ahead
By Julie Goodnight

In the Horse Master episode we named “Get it Straight,” master bit maker, Dale Myler, joined me to help a horse and her frustrated rider move ahead with relaxation—and without a constant fight as the horse yanked the reins out of the rider’s hands. The show, featuring Julianne and her horse “Cherokee,” was named in part because Cherokee took any bit pressure as a cue to turn her head and move into a circle; it was also named to allude to the mishmash of information available about bits and bitting. As the Mylers like to say, “Help a horse be relaxed first and he can focus on what you’re asking.” If a bit is too big or has pressure points that interfere with the horse’s ability to swallow, the horse can’t relax and can’t easily focus on what the rider wants. While choosing to ride with no bit is an answer for some, the truth is that a kind and thoughtfully-created bit can provide you with a chance to cue your horse precisely for advanced maneuvers. Not all bits are bad, but it’s time to “Get it Straight.”

Types of Bits
There are two main types of bits–snaffles (direct pressure) and curbs (leverage bits). You may think that a snaffle bit is automatically mild and a curb bit is automatically harsh. Nothing can be further from the truth. There are many incredibly harsh snaffles on the market and there are very mild curbs.

In a snaffle bit, the reins are attached directly opposite the mouthpiece and cause a direct (pound-for-pound) pull on the horse’s mouth from the rider’s hands. A leverage bit has shanks (bars running alongside the horse’s mouth) and a curb strap (or chain) and the reins are attached below the mouthpiece. There isn’t direct pressure but leveraged pressure on the horse’s mouth. A curb bit can apply pressure to the horse’s lips, tongue and bars; as well as the poll, chin and palate.

A joint in the middle of the bit isn’t what makes a bit a snaffle; direct pressure, with the reins attached at the line of the mouthpiece, makes a snaffle. A bit with shanks, a traditional-styled jointed mouthpiece and a curb chain isn’t a snaffle—that bit is called a Tom Thumb and is one of the harshest bits available.

The Rider’s Hands
Many, if not most bitting problems originate with the rider’s hands. No horse wants pressure on his mouth, so he will always look for an escape from the pressure. If doing the right things (dropping his head and giving to the pressure) doesn’t get the release he is looking for, he begins to try other things, such as throwing his head up or rooting the reins. He’ll look for an answer that provides a momentary release. If he inadvertently gets a release when he is doing the wrong thing, the wrong thing becomes a learned response.

It isn’t important whether or not the bit is mild or harsh; what’s important is the way the rider uses her hands. The mildest bit in the wrong hands can be harsh and the harshest bit in the right hands can be mild. Also, changing bits will not fix a training problem with a horse. In other words, if you have a horse that’s going too fast, putting a stronger bit in his mouth will not fix the problem. Only more training will fix it. Changing to a harsher bit will often make a training problem worse because it causes the horse to feel anxious. A fast horse already has a tendency to speed up when he feels anxious, so the problem escalates.

The Horse’s Comfort
My tack room has been filled with Myler bits since they came on the market in the 1990s—and long before Dale Myler appeared on the TV show. I love them and have a tack room full of them-both snaffle and curb. They’re manufactured with the highest-quality materials, they’re ergonomically designed to fit a horse’s mouth comfortably, and they’re also designed for specific effectiveness. Myler makes a variety of but styles and each is rated for the horse’s level of training, so that your horse can move seamlessly from one bit to another as his training level increases and his needs change. The bits also come in a variety of cheek pieces—so you can choose the amount of leverage depending on who is riding and how educated the rider is about how to keep their hands quiet.

My favorite Myler bits are the comfort snaffle and the jointed curb bits. The snaffles have a curved mouthpiece, so that the bit is actually the shape of the horse’s mouth, giving him tongue and palate relief and making the bit more effective working off the corners of the mouth with the lightest possible pressure. The mouthpiece is made with sweet iron with copper inlays–giving the horse a sweet and saliva-producing taste in his mouth. I like a bit with the copper roller in the middle. I have about every level of curb bit too, for the Western horses that need to work in a curb. They’re made with the same high-quality materials and an effective shape and function.

Proper Introductions and Training
Many horses were never properly “bitted out” (taught to work in and accept a bit and understand the bit’s cues) and don’t know the correct way to respond to bit pressure. A surprisingly high number of horses were never really trained properly. Instead, well-meaning trainers stuck bits in their mouths and forceful pressure made the horses respond. A horse must be systematically trained to know what to do when he feels pressure on the bit and how to give both laterally and longitudinally (vertically) when he feels pressure. (I describe this process fully on my Bit Basics DVD available at www.JulieGoodnight.com.) Many older horses that fight the bit have become desensitized to bit pressure because their riders pulled too much. It’s common for horses to come “untrained” because of poor riding when they become defensive about their mouths because they never felt a release of pressure when they cooperated.

Many horses who have learned to ignore bit pressure—or who never learned how to respond in the first place—can learn quickly in the Goodnight Bitting System. The piece of tack, commonly called an elbow-pull biting rig teaches the horse to give longitudinally to the bit and be soft in the mouth and jaw. Without a rider on board and while working in a round pen, the horse gets an instant release when he places his head in the optimum self-carriage position. With his new learning in place, horses can more quickly understand an educated rider’s rein cues and move ahead without fighting and without confusion. It’s also important to do lateral flexes until the horse gives to the side, and then start over from the saddle teaching him to give to light pressure both vertically and laterally and find the release.

Good luck finding the correct bit for you and your horse—and keep in mind that you, the rider, have just as much to do with what bit will work best as what the horse is used to and most comfortable feeling. For more precise answers to your bitting questions, check out Dale’s multi-part video series online with a link at www.JulieGoodnight.com and visit the Myler’s online bitting questionnaire and guide at: http://mylerbits.com/bitting_assistant.php
–Julie Goodnight