I’ve been having too much fun this week taking a private bitting clinic from Dale Myler, of Myler Bits USA. Dale was kind enough to come and give us his undivided attention for a couple of days to impart a lifetime of information on bits and bit design. I invited a several friends—all riders and/or trainers and over the course of two days, we worked with 15 different horses. Everything from an unbroke three year old who never had a bit in his mouth to Rich’s finished bridle horse—with a big variety of training levels in-between .
It was the most fun with horses I’ve had in a while and I don’t have enough time today to write all the things I learned (hence the fun). I fell in love with Myler bits years ago when they first came out and gradually through the years, they became the only bits to hang on bridles in my tack room. I knew intuitively why I liked them, knowing from the beginning that they had an ergonomic shape and must be more comfortable in the horse’s mouth. Although I was the only one in our group that had much experience with Myler bits, we all figured out right away, from Dale’s power point presentation, why the bits would work. It wasn’t until we were in the arena trading horses and bridles like crazy, that we could see the results first-hand.
What I got the most from the clinic, was learning why I love the Myler bits so much. First off, looking at a dental picture with the horse’s teeth closed but lips opened by a speculum, you can see that the tongue fills the entire mouth when his teeth are shut—just like yours does. Having your tongue up in your palate is normal and feels good. It is not possible to put a bit in a horse’s mouth without it being pressed into the palate by the tongue. Pressure on the tongue does not feel good and if you don’t believe it, try poking your finger into your tongue.
Everything a horse can do to evade bit pressure has to do with him looking for relief from tongue pressure—whether he throws his head up, roots the reins, gapes at the mouth, sucks his tongue up in his throat, puts his tongue over the bit, comes behind the vertical. He’d rather have pressure anywhere than the tongue and by going through these gyrations, he always finds tongue relief. Even the bars of his mouth can take a lot more pressure than the tongue (try pressing on your bars—behind your molars and you’ll see what I mean). Myler bits are designed to relieve tongue pressure and distribute the pressure to other areas (like the nose, chin, poll, bars) in order to make the horse more comfortable and relaxed so that he is trainable and can perform to his fullest.
Here’s another interesting thing Dale said, a rider will never learn to have quiet and soft hands until she rides a soft and relaxed horse. That makes so much sense. If your pulling and struggling and hanging on for dear life, where’s the feel comes from? What I learned was that sometimes we can bit a horse differently so that he can tolerate the rider’s uneducated or inarticulate hands. Because I sell a lot of finished horses to novice riders, I already knew this and it’s one reason why I always send the horses to their new home with the right bit.
What was fun about the clinic was switching bits on horses and seeing instant results. I was pleased to learn that the bit I was already using on my horse Dually was probably the best thing for him but I realized I can get the same mouth piece in a snaffle side piece when I want to do more schooling on him. Rich had bought a Myler hand crafted reined cowhorse bit for his new horse a few months ago and Dale felt it was the ideal bit for him for show and we tried a few different bits on him for home-use. It was really interesting to feel the different bits on a very finished horse—a small change in the bit would be very noticeable in how Diggs responded and we settled on the same bit that I use on Dually for Diggs.
A lot of people these days seem to be asking, “why use a bit at all?” While many, if not most broke horses will work okay in a halter, a bit can provide the communication and precise cues that will help you achieve great performances. When used improperly, the devices can be treacherous, but with education and proper, kind use, a bit can help you better your communication and control. There are many things that compel us to use bits: more control, subtle communication, training to a high level of performance or maybe because the rules for your discipline compel you. What about you? What do you think about riding in a halter only or riding bridleless and without a bit? And are you happy, or more importantly, is your horse happy with the bit you use? Every time I’ve given a presentation on bits, the room has been full of people with lots of questions. I find it’s important to ask horse owners a few questions, too: How and what have you learned about bits? Why are you using the bit you use? If you have reasons beyond “that’s what someone told you to use,” do the reasons make sense? It’s a big subject! Post your thoughts here!
Julie Goodnight: How to clean your bit, why bits change color (Myler)
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?
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!
–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
Question: Dear Julie,
My question to you is what is your opinion of Myler bits? I came across a book recently that talked about the Myler comfort snaffle. I was surprised to learn that not all snaffles are exactly what they are supposed to be. The reason I’m asking is my horse Montana is in a D-ring snaffle. I have noticed at times him pulling the reins and opening his mouth. Even when I put him in the round pen with saddle and head stall on he does the same thing and I’m not even on him. It seems to me that it’s bothering him more and more. From what I read, snaffles can keep a horse from swallowing because of the pressure on the tongue. I keep checking my hands to make sure they are not harsh. I even notice it when his head is down and he’s relaxed like Western pleasure…he still opens and gaps his mouth, pulls the reins and goes sideways. I have been working on changing some of his habits from before I had him. Who ever had him before used to put lots of pressure on his mouth so he’d rout out. He’s come a long way from doing that; I just want to make sure I haven’t missed something or over looked anything. There are so many bits on the market how does one decide which is best? If you have any ideas I’d appreciate it. Thanks so much
Answer: Hi Lisa,
There is a lot of confusion about bits and many misconceptions. Many people do not really understand the difference between the two main types of bits, snaffles and curbs (or direct pressure and leverage bits) and many people think a snaffle is automatically mild and a curb is automatically harsh. In reality, nothing can be further from the truth-there are many incredibly harsh snaffles out there and there are many very mild curbs. And the joint in the middle of the bit is not what makes it a snaffle, so a bit with shanks and a jointed mouth piece is not a snaffle-if it has shanks and the reins do not attach directly opposite the mouthpiece, it is not a snaffle (see the Q&A on my website about Tom Thumb bits).
There are other common misconceptions about bits. First, it is not 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 is going too fast for instance, putting a stronger bit in his mouth will not fix the problem; only more training will fix it. Going to a harsher bit will often make a training problem worse because it causes more anxiety for the horse and usually exacerbates the problem, especially in the case of the fast horse since horses have a tendency to speed up when they become more anxious.
As for your question on Myler bits, I love them and have a tack room full of them-both snaffle and curb. It’s all I use. I’ve used them since they came on the market 10 years ago and am now lucky to have them as a sponsor. That said, I make sure I like what sponsors have before we talk business. These are the bits I’ve used and recommended for a long time. I like them because they are manufactured with the highest quality materials and craftsmanship, they are ergonomically designed to fit a horse’s mouth comfortably and they are also designed for specific effectiveness. There are a huge range of bits available through Myler and each one 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. You’re right when you say that there are so many bits on the market that it is sometimes hard for people to make sense of them. Myler has worked hard to educate horse owners about what makes a bit mild or harsh and how it works in the horse’s mouth. So that even a person that knows little or nothing about bits can read the pamphlet that comes with the bit, view the video on bits and look at the rating of the bit to make an informed decision about what bit is best for their horse.
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 the bit with the copper roller in the middle and this is my bit of choice for the snaffle horses. I have about every level of curb bit too, for the Western horses that need to work in a curb and they are made with the same high quality materials and an effective shape and function.
For your horse, it sounds like changing bits might be helpful. If the horse is fighting the bit without a rider, I would be highly suspicious. Have you checked his tongue for scarring? Have his teeth been checked and have his wolf teeth been removed? Have you tried riding him in a bosal, side pull or rope halter to see if that alleviates the problem? This might help determine how much of the issue is bit fit, how much has to do with the rider’s hands and how much of it is a training issue. If there is a physical problem, obviously that will have to be addressed before you decide on the best bit or bridle for your horse. It is possible that your horse has never been properly bitted out and he does not know the correct way to respond to pressure on the bit. A surprisingly high number of horses were never really trained properly, they just had a bit stuck in their mouth one day and forceful pressure made the horse respond. A horse must be systematically trained what to do when he feels pressure on the bit and how to give both laterally and longitudinally (vertically) when he feels pressure. Or, he may have had his mouth anti-trained from poor riding, learning to be defensive about his mouth and/or to ignore light pressure because he never got a release.
After ruling out a physical problem, I would spend some time with him in the round pen with an elbow- pull biting rig (see the Training Library on my website) and see if the horse can learn to give longitudinally to the bit and be soft in the mouth and jaw. Then we would do some 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.
Many, if not most bitting problems originate with the rider’s hands-maybe yours or maybe the hands that came before you. 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, like throwing his head or inverting or rooting the reins, until he finds something that does get him a release. If he inadvertently gets a release when he is doing the wrong thing, the wrong thing becomes a learned response.
Without seeing you in action, I can’t really guess whether or not your riding is causing a problem for the horse but it seems like from your description, he is not happy with the bit you are currently using. Certainly putting him in a snaffle that has a more comfortable fit would be a good place to start. Assessing whether or not there are any physical issues preventing him from accepting the bit and better training to teach him the proper response to pressure on the bit are necessary steps as well. Good luck!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
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