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

Opinion Of Myler Bits

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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
Lisa
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
http://www.juliegoodnight.com

Talk About Tack: Snaffle To Curb

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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: Kim,

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: www.juliegoodnight.com/myler

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

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Talk About Tack: Is A Snaffle Really Comfortable?

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Question Category: Talk about Tack

Question: Hi Julie,

I came across a book recently that talked about the comfort snaffle. I was surprised to learn that snaffles are not exactly what they are supposed to be and some bits that I thought were snaffles (like the Tom Thumb) are not snaffles, nor are they mild. I have noticed at times some of our horses pulling on the reins and opening their mouths. From what I read it was saying that snaffles could keep a horse from swallowing because of the pressure on the tongue. I’d like to keep our horses as comfortable as possible as they work and I know they have to endure the constant stream of uneducated and unskilled riders. Is it better to use a snaffle or a curb on our trail horses?

Answer: The kind of bits you use on your lesson and trail horses depends on the horse, its training and temperament, the type of riding it will be expected to do and the average skill level of its riders. For program horses, we have to consider many factors: will your clients be riding one handed or two (do you want them to be able to hold onto the horn?); are your horses trained to neck rein; will they only be required to follow in a line out on the trail, with minimal need for contact on the bit; or will the riders be in the arena and doing school figures with lots of turns and transitions?

There are basically two classifications of bits: direct pressure and leverage. Direct pressure bits are what we commonly refer to as snaffles and the reins are always attached directly opposite the mouthpiece, causing a direct pound-for –pound pull on the horse’s mouth from the rider’s hands. Most, but not all, snaffles are jointed in the middle and in general they can be mild but they do put maximum pressure on the horse’s tongue.

However, it is not the jointed mouthpiece that defines them as snaffles, nor is that what make them mild. This is what leads to a lot of confusion with the Tom Thumb, which is actually a leverage bit, not a snaffle. Some snaffles can be mild, while others can be quite harsh; they can apply pressure to the lips, tongue, bars of the mouth (gums and jaw bone). Since beginner riders tend to hang on the reins, and the snaffle puts maximum pressure on the tongue (which is what horses protest the most about bit contact) the snaffle might not be the best bit for program horses, particularly if the horse is already trained to a curb bit. I have found that horses that neck rein and are being ridden one-handed are usually more comfortable in a mild curb bit.

A leverage bit (commonly called a curb bit) has shanks (bars running along side the horse’s mouth) and a curb strap (or curb chain), like the Tom Thumb; the reins are attached below the mouthpiece at the bottom of the shanks and the head stall is attached above the mouthpiece, at the top of the purchase. There is not direct pressure from the bit, but leveraged pressure on the horse’s mouth. A leverage bit (commonly referred to as a Curb bit) can apply pressure to the horse’s lips, tongue, bars and palate; as well as the poll and chin.

Just remember, the curb bit can put considerably more leverage on the horse, which can multiply the pressure from the rider’s hands. The curb bit should be ridden on a loose rein and light pressure should be used. It is best to ride one-handed but do not hesitate to pick up the other rein if you need to correct the horse’s response. Ironically, many people think that it is okay to go to a harsher bit when you have control issues with a horse. The truth is, the curb bit should only be used on well trained and responsive horses, so that it can be ridden with little or not contact. Going to a harsher bit will never fix a training problem; only training will, and that will usually involve a milder bit.

The curb is more appropriate for finished horses and horses that are trained to neck rein. Remember, horses don’t automatically know how to neck rein; it is a learned response. If you have to revert to two hands a lot that is probably an indication that your horse is not well enough trained for the curb and may need more two-handed work in a snaffle.

Many people consider the snaffle to be milder than the curb, but that is certainly not always true all of the time. A mild curb bit may be much more comfortable for your horses than a snaffle, especially if it means the rider will use less pressure and the horse has less pressure on his tongue. That, of course, depends largely on the rider and the type of riding he will do.

You can use two hands with the curb bit, but it is designed to ride one-handed. The snaffle is better suited for two-handed riding, but it can be used one-handed if the reins are loose most of the time and little contact is needed. If the horse is well-trained, obedient and easy to control and it is trained well to the neck rein, it might work best in a very mild curb. Some of these horses will work well and comfortably in the snaffle as well; use the least amount of bit you can get away with and still have good control, keeping in mind that a mild curb with tongue relief and a leather chin strap may be more comfortable for your one-handed, neck-reining horses than a snaffle.

Let’s face it, most of our good trail horses will do their job just as well in a halter with a lead rope thrown around its neck. Of course, we need to have bridles on any horses we put clients on, because that is the standard means to control a horse for riding and therefore that is the accepted protocol. We always must design our policies and procedures and conduct our rides in a manner that is defensible on a witness stand.
As I said, people often confuse the Tom Thumb with a mild bit when in fact it is quite harsh. Whenever you pick up on the reins, two things happen to your horse’s mouth with the Tom Thumb. The joint pokes up into the horse’s palate and the sides of the bit collapse onto the horse’s jaw in a motion known as the “nutcracker effect” and the joint presses down into the horse’s tongue. Both of these harsh actions will cause the horse to throw his head up (to escape the palate pressure) and gape his mouth open (to avoid the nutcracker effect and tongue pressure). The only time I have used a Tom Thumb on trail horses is when I have a big stout horse being ridden by lightweight riders and the horse has a habit of trying to pull the reins out of the rider’s hands to eat grass. The Tom Thumb will help dissuade the horse from this bad habit and give the lightweight rider enough pressure to get its attention.

What makes the curb bit harsh or mild, is the length of the shanks compared to the length of purchase, the configuration of the mouthpiece and the texture and diameter of the curb strap. The amount of leverage the bit has depends on the ratio between the purchase(the part of the shank that is above the mouthpiece) and the shank (which is the part below the mouthpiece). A one to one ratio would be very mild with little leverage; a one to 3, 4 or 5 ratio would be increasingly harsher and multiply the leverage by 3, 4 or 5 times. There are literally thousands of different type mouthpieces, from mild to wild, but the bits I use are Myler bits because they are designed ergonomically and to give the horse as much comfort as possible in his mouth. The wider the diameter of the mouthpiece and the smoother it is, the less pressure on the horse’s mouth. This applies to snaffles as well.

Consideration should also be given to the shape of the mouthpiece in regards to relieving pressure on the horse’s tongue and that is why the so-called Myler comfort snaffle is superior, being more ergonomically shaped for the horse’s mouth and give relief on his tongue. Although a very high and/or sharp port can be quite harsh, pushing into the horse’s palate if excessive rein pressure is used, a totally flat mouthpiece (like a mullen mouth) does not give any escape for the tongue and makes it hard for the horse to swallow and keep his mouth and tongue moving to promote salivation, which acts as a lubricant in the horse’s mouth.

For a mild curb bit, I like the Myler 04 mouthpiece with the HBT shank. I also like the Myler 33 mouthpiece on either the short shank (HBT) or the long shank. This bit would be good for the horse with a lot of training that is responsive and doesn’t need much contact. It gives the greatest amount of tongue relief with an ergonomic port that is shaped to the contours of the horse’s mouth. The jointed mouthpiece is nice and mild if it is designed in such a way as to eliminate the two harsh actions of the Tom Thumb. The kind I like are made with a little tube across the joint which both prevents it from poking into the horse’s palate and also keeps the sides from collapsing on itself. I would also try to find a mouthpiece with curvature at the corners to give tongue relief and made of sweet iron with copper inlays to encourage salivation and maybe even some sort of roller for the horse to play with. This encourages the horse to accept the bit and play with it, keeping him soft and relaxed.

There are literally thousands of bits on the market and many are great bits and some are horrible torture devices that ought to be illegal. It really helps to understand how bits work on the horse’s mouth and head and what makes them mild or harsh. Most trail and lesson programs use a combination of snaffles and mild curbs, with the occasional horse needing something different. You’ll have to experiment with a few basic kinds of bit to see what each horse seems more comfortable with and works best.

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.