Horse Training

English Bits, Part I

October 22, 2013

From flat work to over fences: Learn which English bits are best for horse training.

Photo caption: The proper bit can be the best training tool in your arsenal, but finding the right one can be the hardest part.

The proper bit can be the best training tool in your arsenal, but finding the right one can be the hardest part. Journal photo.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal.

The numerous variations and types of horse bits can be a little intimidating for horsemen. Different events, training purposes or horse preference could determine which bit is most appropriate. The most common English bit is the snaffle, but there are far more options than you may think. There are many different mouthpiece options for a snaffle – from the smooth mouthpiece to a rubber bit to one with a twist and a little more bite. There are also leverage bits, including snaffles with curb chains, Kimberwicks and Pelhams.

David Connors of Colts Neck, New Jersey; Jerry Erickson of Sanger, Texas; and Sandy Vaughn of Hernando, Florida, all weighed in on the best bits for English horses in a two-part series.

Starting Out

The first bit David and Jerry reach for when a new horse arrives at their barn is a smooth-mouth snaffle.

“We usually ride in a plain snaffle bit for most of the stuff we do,” David says. “We start a lot our horses using the bitting rigs and putting them in the round pen. Not to put their head down, but so they accept contact, flex their neck and learn how to bend on their own, lightly. When we really move on with our hunters, we don’t use strong bits. We usually go from a snaffle to maybe a slow twist. It’s not a tightly woven twist, but it gives you a little more control if you need it when you’re going around the course.”

Before you can even worry about which bit to select, you must have a horse! Carla Wennberg and Leslie Lange show you what to look for in a hunter under saddle horse and how the event is judged in “Selecting and Showing: Hunter Under Saddle” DVD. Once you’ve found the perfect mount and spent some time in the saddle, you’ll be ready for the show pen.

It is key, Jerry says, to give a horse a chance to show himself and his training before choosing a bit to use.

“When new horses come to my place, unless it’s a horse I know, the first thing that goes into their face is a smooth-mouth snaffle,” Jerry says. “Then, after those first few rides, I have an idea if it is or isn’t going to work. It doesn’t have to be a big huge fat hollow mouth or a rubber bit, just an old smooth snaffle. I want to give him a chance first and see what we’ve got. Then I start making adjustments.”

The three preferred bits for Sandy’s training program are a Waterford, corkscrew and slow-twist snaffle. The Waterford, or a ball bit, has a series of balls and joints, making it very flexible. It works off the horse’s bars.

“The Waterford, I use a lot, then I don’t use it for a long time,” Sandy says. “But it’s a bit I can go to when I feel like I need a little more, but not too much more.”

She also frequently uses a rubber snaffle on a horse who has a tendency to duck and hide from the hand.

David, who focuses on over-fences competition in both United States Equestrian Federation and AQHA competition, relies on traditional English bits. His favorites include a rubber snaffle, plain snaffle, a slow-twist snaffle and a Pelham.

“You have to know and understand your own horse,” David says. “You have to tune in to your horse. Don’t get caught up in trends. Does your horse need that stuff? Stop and ask yourself those questions and know your own animal.”

On the Flat

Flat horses are asked to move with a different carriage than their over-fences counterparts. However, they also need to move differently than western rail horses.

While he rides exclusively English horses now, Jerry got his start riding western. He will periodically use a western curb for training, if he feels it will help a horse, and also uses training aids such as draw reins on his flat horses.

“You want them broke at their withers, not at the poll,” he says. “A lot of these very severe bits (will cause them to) break at the poll so their face will be up and down or behind, but the neck hasn’t dropped, here’s where the hands and leg become so important. To break them at the withers, you’ve got to push them up to the bit.”

All three experts prefer not to use snaffles with curb chains attached if they need a little more of a severe or step-up bit for the horse.

Now that you have your horse bitted up and ready to show, Carla Wennberg and Leslie Lange show you how the event is judged in “Selecting and Showing: Hunter Under Saddle” DVD.

These bits have a slot on the inside of the bit ring that the curb chain is attached to, and should not be confused with Kimberwick or Pelham bits, which are traditional English bits that also use curb action.

“I find the horses just brace against those things,” Jerry says.”

Sandy agrees.

“Personally, I don’t like them myself,” she says. “I primarily am a snaffle kind of gal. If I have to go to a curb chain, I’ll use a little shorter-shanked Pelham. Not for the rail horses – for the hunters.”

David says that if a horse required more bit, he, too, would turn to a Pelham.

“The traditional Pelham was invented so you had a snaffle and you had some leverage for more control with the lower rein,” David says. “The chain goes across the horse’s chin, not his jaw or the cheekbone.”

These trainers all suggest choosing a bit that is as least severe as possible. Instead, invest in a horse’s training before stepping up the bit used. This will be beneficial for the rider and the horse in the future.

Check back next week for Part 2, where our experts will focus on English bits for over-fences classes.

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