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

One Rein At Time

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
Why do horses relax and listen when I use one rein at a time?

Question: Dear Julie,
My riding instructor and I have a question regarding using one rein while riding. I’ve seen it mentioned in several different articles and books. John Lyons discusses using one rein when starting a young horse. My instructor learned the technique from Karen O’Connor. When we use it on any of our horses – lesson horses to upper level eventers, it seems to calm them and refocus their attention. Can you help explain the equine thought process here and why it seems to be so effective? Also, in what situations would you recommend using it and why?
Thanks,
Sarah

Answer: Any horse will work better when the reins are used one at a time as opposed to using both reins at the same time. There are several reasons for this. First, when you pull on both reins at the same time, it causes a horse to clench his jaw, stiffen his neck and lean into the pressure. He ends up with a stiff and bracey neck that feels like it has two pieces of rod iron in it.

Secondly, using both reins at once puts you and your horse in a tug-of-war that he will always win because he out weighs you by so much.

We want our horses to stay soft in the jaw and loose in the neck (and body) and that will only happen when you use one rein at a time. The mechanics of the bit are such that when you pull on both reins at the same time, it creates pressure all over his mouth, tongue, jaw and palate; it is too much pressure and the horse’s only concern will be to get away from the pressure however he can– he quits thinking, which is not conducive to learning. You also lose any ability to be articulate with the rein aids or use the reins to influence certain parts of his body, because the pressure is every where and he cannot adjust to subtle rein cues.

Even in a hackamore, rope halter, side-pull, etc., you’ll get the same response if you pull on both reins at the same time. Horses tend to move into static pressure; try leaning on your horse and notice he shifts his weight and starts leaning back. Pulling with two reins simply gives the horse something to brace against and lean on. He cannot do that with one rein.

You’ll have much more control over the horse when his neck is slightly bent than when it is straight. It is when the horse stiffens his neck straight in front of him that we lose control. Using one rein to stop or using both reins alternately, like you do for collection is the ideal. Even when using both reins, you always want to keep a rhythm in the reins so that you are not giving the horse something to lean on.

There is a well-documented behavior that I think helps explain why horses are more responsive to one rein than two. When a horse eats or drinks (from the ground) he is very vulnerable because his vision is so poor at that point that he can only see the ground immediately around him. Therefore, when a horse eats or drinks (in the wild) he will eat a few bites, slowly lift his head, swing it to one side, go back down for another few bites, lift his head, slowly swing it to the other side. This is believed to be an instinctive behavior of horses that helps keep them safe from predators when their head would other wise be down in that vulnerable position. Therefore, it follows that if we can move a horse’s nose gently from side to side and keep his neck loose and relaxed, he stays soft and calm.

When a person pulls relentlessly on both reins in an attempt to bring the horse into control or to get him to come on the bit (something I see in every clinic that I do) it tends to lead to the horse getting more and more out of control and agitated until he begins to “run through the bridle” in an attempt to escape the confusing, painful and relentless pressure on his mouth. The more you pull back, the faster the horse goes (moving into pressure). It is hard for people to understand that they need to release the pressure before they can get the horse to stop or to be responsive at all. Check (with weight and reins) then release, then check, then release.

Using the one-rein stop, you’ll never have this problem, even if your release is not as good as it should be. By and large, the biggest problem that people have riding is not releasing the horse from bit pressure enough.

Finally, using the one rein stop will lead to a disengagement of the hindquarters (occurs when the horse crosses his hind legs) which will always cause the horse to calm down, focus on you and become more submissive.

To execute the one-rein stop, lift up on one rein toward your belly button or opposite shoulder, it causes the horse to disengage as he stops. As soon as you feel the horse’s back bend as his hip comes under you (it is a very distinctive feel) you release the rein entirely. With practice, a slight lift of one rein will cause the horse to stop easily. Use the disengagement any time you lose a horse’s attention or anytime he becomes nervous or fractious. We use the one rein stop on young horses or any horses that are very forward and/or resistant to pressure from the reins. It is really a general practice that you can use on any horse at any time.

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
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If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series

High Headed Pony

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I want my pony to carry her head in a low position. . . .

Dear Julie,
My pony keeps her head up when I’m attempting to ride her in a collected frame. When I first got her she was so nervous about the bit in her mouth and what the rider might do. We outfitted her in a loose-ring snaffle, which has helped her put her head down somewhat. However, she still keeps her head up more then I’d like it to be. She has a wide back, but we worked hard to find a saddle that fits well. I’m pretty certain her head carriage isn’t due to saddle discomfort. I also ride her bareback and she carries her head high even then. What can I do to lower her head?
High Headed
Dear High Headed,
Horses usually keep their heads up to avoid too much pressure from the bits on their tongues. When a horse puts her head up in the air, it allows the bit to slide to the back of her tongue as the pressure shifts to her lips and relieves the tongue.
You can feel how bad tongue pressure might feel to your horse by pressing your finger into your own tongue. Most horses that evade the bit are trying to find a release to this awkward tongue pressure.
Depending on the design of your pony’s bit, she might be feeling an unbearable amount of pressure. Look for a bit that offers some tongue relief—you’ll want a bit with a port (a convex-shaped bridge in the middle of the bit that allows the tongue relief). A ported bit might look like something that will cause your horse to feel more pressure, but in reality, the design allows the tongue to relax. I’ve used Myler Bits for years and have found that they’re designed to relieve tongue pressure and allow your horse to feel as relaxed as possible. Only when a horse is relaxed can she pay attention to your cues instead of her own discomfort.
Even when they are comfortable, horses must first be trained to respond properly to the bit; responding to the tool that you put into their mouths isn’t something they do naturally. You have to teach them how to find release from the bit’s pressure and how to “give” to the bit both laterally (to the side) and vertically (up and down). I have a new DVD that teaches you how to teach your horse to respond to lateral and vertical bit pressure so that you can use a bit as a kind communication tool (Bit Basics: Accepting and Responding to Bit Pressure). The DVD addresses how to train a young horse that’s never had a bit in her mouth and how to re-train the older confused horse.
I teach young and “rehab” horses to respond to pressure and find the proper release by applying light pressure to the bit through the reins (whatever amount of pressure it takes to make the horse notice and start looking for a way out of the pressure). I then watch the horse’s head closely. At the first instance her head drops—even a fraction of an inch— I release the rein pressure and rub the horse on the neck. Soon she will learn that when she drops her head, the pressure goes away. It’s best to use one rein when applying this constant pressure—ride with two hands, but only ask your horse to respond to the pressure on one side at a time. If you pull on two reins simultaneously you risk her locking her jaw or stiffening her neck. You’ll find an article, “Why one Rein is Better than Two” in my online Training Library (http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php)
Once your pony knows how to give to pressure on the bit, it’s your job to make sure she finds a small release every time she does the right thing and lowers her head. Most people make the mistake of continuing to put pressure on a horse’s mouth once she’s done the right thing. That’s when a horse continues to look for a release of pressure and ends up raising instead of lowering her head—to evade the bit and find a release in her own way. With soft hands and a bit with tongue relief, you can show your horse that there’s a release when she has her head in the proper position. She must have an incentive to drop her head and her incentive and reward is the release of pressure. Good luck with your pony!