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Bitting with Centerline Equestrian

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

Bits are a tricky thing and now with so many available on the market, it is easy to get confused what is suitable and when to use what? My horse’s tongue hangs out when we ride, I cannot control my horse when jumping, the steering is not working. These are some common problems we have as riders. Luckily for us in Singapore, we have Samantha Wong-Marson from Centerline Equestrian to help us and answer these questions.

Firstly let’s break down the bit and understand the main parts and what it does. There are 2 main parts of the bit when we are discussing the type, firstly is the mouthpiece which sits on the tongue of the horse and the cheek piece which sits against the sides of the horse’s mouth and face and where the reins are or cheek pieces of the bridle is attached to. Cheek pieces come in 2 variations, fixed and loose. Fixed cheek pieces like the Fulmer, egg butt, baucher and D ring - these mouthpieces do not slide freely which gives the horse a stable feel and more a turning aid especially the fulmer, which exerts subtle pressure on the sides of the horse’s face.

These 2 components come in variations and finding the right combination is the trick to bit fitting.

What are the most basic bits?

Firstly, when competing in Dressage it is important to find out what is legal for the competition conducted. Example FEI or EA.

Generally in Dressage, anything with a gag action is not allowed, except when permitted for use in the double bridle at certain levels. Jointed snaffles come in double with a link in between or a single jointed. The main difference between these is the nutcracker action. In single jointed bits - the mouth pieces fold onto itself thus creating the nutcracker action. The main pressure points are the tongue, bar and the pallet (roof of the horses’ mouth) When either of these pressure points are overloaded, the common problems such as head tossing, inconsistent contact presents itself. These signs are the horse's way to evade pressure. The Double jointed in comparison to the single jointed mouthpiece then spreads out the pressure.

Top: Single Jointed Vs Bottom: Double Jointed

Nutcracker action on a singe joint

Another concept to understand is the surface of the bit. When examining a mouth piece, Samantha looks if the surface of the bit is smooth and uniform. A smooth and uniform bit distributes the pressure evenly. The surface area is also an important component, greater surface area distributes the pressure over a bigger area whereas smaller surface area creates an increased concentrated pressure. This may result in the horse evading from the pressure if not used correctly.

Whilst the same bits used in dressage or flatwork can also be used for jumping, some riders opt for a bit with greater leverage and control, as the bitting rules for dressage do not apply in the showjumping arena. For Jumpers the common problems are, brakes and heavy on the forehand. Which makes approaching the fence and recovery particularly difficult. The 2 bits we will look at closer is the Dutch Gag and Hackamore. The dutch gag comes in 2, 3 or even 4 ring. With the gag, the option of using a coupling or rein connector gives the rider more flexibility. An example would be, in practice the couple can be placed in the 1st and 2nd ring, during competition attach the coupling in the 1st and 3rd ring. This explains how the length of the shank affects the pressure applied to the horse, where the greater the distance between the rings used results in greater leverage and hence a stronger effect on the horse. This applies to rein position as well, where you put the reins has an effect on the pressure points. What is great about the gag is the multiple options offered in 1 bit.

The Hackamore is a bitless bit, the common misconception is the hackamore is less harsh than a bit, due to the missing mouthpiece, but the hackamore pressure point is concentrated on the poll and the nose. When used incorrectly, the immense pressure may cause damage to the soft bone on the nose of the horse. However when used correctly, it is suitable for horses that are shy in mouth. Horses who brace the head and go over the bit, when pressure is focused on the poll and nose, the rider has better influence in the horse’s frame.

3 Ring Gag

For bitting Samantha brings up the important concept of control vs resistance. The horse presents signs of evasion however as riders, we should ask yourself the question, is control or resistance issue? Are you looking to change the bit to exert more control ? or is the horses exhibiting signs of resistance, Samantha will then explore where the main point of resistance is and assess the situation further. It is also useful to notice if the horse communicates this only with the main rider? Instructor? Or both. It is also important to ensure that other physical causes of resistance, such as dental issues, back pain or ill-fitting tack, have been addressed. We asked Samantha what common problems rider’s encounter.

Top: Smooth, Bottom: Rough

Top: Thin Mouth Piece, Bottom: Thick Mouth Piece

1. My horse has a leaning problem, what are the options?

I would assess the rider and horse together and observe the rider’s position. Incorrect position may perpetuate the problem, which affects the possibilities of bits. An example would be, a jumping rider is happy with their jumping bit but when schooling, the horse leans on the bit. The rider should simultaneously work on lightening the aids and riding more from the seat, or engage the help of an instructor to school the horse to work in a more uphill manner. I would suggest a bit with more mobile parts discourages the horse to lean. In some cases, a Waterford with multiple joints or cherry roller discourages a horse to fix and lean (assuming the rider is not competing in dressage). These bits may be suitable only on the flat and the rider continues with the pelham for jumping. It is very common for 1 horse to have several training bits in use.

2. My horse sucks back behind the vertical, what is a good bit to influence that area?

Horses tend to tuck their head back in a false outline due to tension in the back, or to escape the pressure of the bit on the tongue or bars. In these cases, a mild bit, or even a softer straight bar with more flex such as the bombers moulded mullen can help give the horse confidence in taking the contact without too much pressure or discomfort.

It has a full flex to encourage the horse to go into the bit to feel more comfortable. Some horses not only suck back with the neck, the tongue also sucks back. A good indicator is a tight TMJ.

Another alternative is the Happy tongue ported bit pictured below

The port gives more room for the tongue. Research shows that modern dressage breeding produces more light and flashy horses. Modern horses are bred with a narrow mouth, the narrow width has less space for the tongue than previously thought. To address this, Bombers happy tongue gives more room for the tongue.

However, as described above, the rider should also seek to assess the effectiveness of their riding and the aids applied, and seek help from an instructor to improve this.

3. Bits and bridles

When assessing the situation, Samantha will ask the type of bridle used. Because of the different cheek pieces and the pressure exerted by the bit in combination with the bridle, the bridle fit is just as important as the bit. The bridle and bit has to be assessed holistically to find out the best combination.

Our horses and training journey is not a straightforward path, Samantha shares her experience with her off the track thoroughbred, Black Jack (Blackie). When I first started with Blackie, I used a fulmer mouthpiece with a french link mouth piece. This bit is very stable and soft. WHen he was off the track, he was very shy in the mouth, but could also suddenly become very strong, and we focused on the basics of riding. Which were steering, stretching into the contact and listening to my aids. As we progressed and Blackie was more and more confident in the mouth, we moved on to loose ring double-jointed snaffle that had more mobility. This enabled us to work towards more lift, even more stretching of the neck.

Bitting is very personal to the rider and the horse. There are some horses that benefit from a more frequent change and play of bits and some horses stress with change. The 3 main factors you have to consider is the training. Is it me or the horse? Where am I in my training and where is my goal? The personality of my horse - does it respond to change or does her stress with changes? The fit of the bridle and nose pieces. Am I using a cavasson noseband ? Drop noseband? Micklem ? Sometimes we have to try the same bit with several different bridle pieces to find the best combination. Health - when was the last visit from the dentist? These are the main areas that affect the bitting process.

The best tell tale sign that the bit and bridle combination works is the horse. The horse will tell you by being more relaxed, soft salivation, chewing and soft eyes. The bit is not the be all and end all in fixing riding problems. Bits are a training aid and a useful tool to assist the rider. It unfortunately does not magically make the rider a better rider. It can help the rider on her journey by creating a comfortable balance for the horse's receptiveness to the aids and the rider to achieve his riding goals.

Centerline Equestrian offers Bomber and Trust bits and offers a trial period of 1 - 10 days at 25% cost of the bit. Samantha offers bit fitting and consultation services which include measurement of the mouth, and assessment of the anatomy of the horse's mouth as well. We are very lucky to have Samantha who has completed her training with Bombers and Trust Bits and is currently doing a full LANTRA vocational qualifications in Equine Bits and Bitting Science.

If you liked this article, share with us your thoughts, questions and your experience below.

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