A Bit of Advice, Part 2
Learn how to select the proper western bit for horse training, including what kind of curb bit you should use first.
August 18, 2014
From The American Quarter Horse Journal
In 2012, the Journal consulted with AQHA Executive Director of Shows and Judges Pete Kyle; AQHA Professional Horseman Robin Frid of Denton, Texas; and AQHA Professional Horsewoman Jackie Krshka of Yukon, Oklahoma, to see what was in their horses’ mouths. At the time of the interview, Pete was an AQHA Professional Horseman but now works for AQHA. Part 1 of the series looked at bits used to start colts. Now, we move on to the curb bit.
Once a colt is educated and ready to move into a curb, what is the first bridle the trainers grab?
Jackie prefers a Myler hinged snaffle curb with a medium shank.
“I use it with about two to three fingers between the curb and jaw line to start out with,” she says. “As the horse becomes comfortable with the feel of the curb, I may take it up slightly, so that the horse feels that curb pressure a bit earlier. This will prevent me from going too deep to the mouth.”
Both Pete and Robin’s first go-to bit of choice is a short-shanked, low-port correction bit, with the shanks measuring 5 to 6 inches from top to bottom.
“Once we put them into that bit, we still come back to the snaffle quite a bit,” Pete says. “We’ll ride them a couple days in the short-shanked correction, then come back to a snaffle for a few days.”
Another of Pete’s favorites is an aluminum solid-shank, medium port curb with a lot of tongue relief, as it is a soft bit that is easy for the horse to trust. But different horses enjoy different bits, and sometimes they enjoy variety.
“A lot of times, I don’t keep a horse in the same bridle,” Pete says. “There are certain horses that you find a bit and they really like it, and you can use it on them for a long time. But I try to rotate them around and use different corrections - with longer shanks or S-shanks and come back to a shorter shank, maybe with a little bit more of a cathedral mouthpiece. Just try to change it up occasionally. That seems to help them; they don’t just get bored with that same bridle.”
Robin says he has yet to find a horse that won’t go around in a short-shanked correction bit. His first preference is one with a U-shaped port to provide tongue relief, although some horses prefer a different set up, such as a higher port that works on a different part of their mouth. He says the shank material varies depending on the horse.
Check out AQHA’s “Tack Talk” DVD for even more great information about the tack you'll need for horseback-riding and training success.
“A horse that tends to move his head more, I like more of a steel bit, because it’s a little heavier and gives them something to hold on to,” he says. “A horse that is softer through its head and wants to hold it still, I like the aluminum shank.”
Robin prefers a shank with a sweep to it, as it’s more forgiving.
“When you’re dealing with pattern horses, to me, whether it be a western rider, trail or whatever, when they’re on a looser rein, they’re guiding through those bridle reins,” Robin says. “But especially in horsemanship, when you’re going to touch that horse’s mouth a decent amount, the straighter that shank, the quicker the reaction. It takes a great, strong rider for me to allow her to ride in a straighter shank bit, because she has to be very soft and very fluid with her hands.
“Things are so fast, and so active now when we show, and those riders have so much to think about, if you move your hand just a tiny bit too quick here or there, you’re going to catch that bit too fast and the horse is going to react poorly. That is a lot for the rider, so I try to keep where that shank cuts back a little more. It gives a lot slower reaction, and it’s more forgiving if my rider moves her hand a little fast.”
When deciding between a correction bit or a more solid bit, Robin has a piece of advice.
“The more solid the bit, the more solid the horse,” he says. “The looser the bit, the looser the horse. So if you’ve got a horse that’s just all over the place, you want to start making things a little more solid. If you have a horse that’s really tight through his body, and it’s hard to break things loose, you need something with more moveable parts.”
Don’t forget to correctly attach the curb strap - loose enough to get two fingers comfortably between the jaw and strap - and properly position the bit in the horse’s mouth.
“Most people can recognize when a bit’s too high, for the most part, but a lot of people don’t seem to recognize when a bit’s too low,” Robin says. “A lot of horses will kind of fool you when you get that bridle on, they’ll hold it up in their mouth. Then you go to riding, they let go, and it’s now hanging an inch too low. And it’s really not being effective for you at that point. Every time I get on a horse, I check that bridle. Even if I know I rode him in it yesterday, and didn’t use it since, I still pay attention.”
A few other favorites Jackie uses on her older horses include a Sunburst “C” bit, with tongue room that is easy on the bars of a horse’s mouth. Another is an Avila correction bit, which adds mild palate pressure to encourage breaking at the poll.
The Magic Slipper
A horse that is uncomfortable with his bridle is like a runner with an ill-fitting shoe - the athletic performance is bound to be affected. It is important to find the bit that the horse likes best.
“You can tell real quick if you have too much bridle, because it’s going to scare them,” Pete says. “They’re going to raise their head up and be a little scared of that bridle. They’ll let you know pretty quick on that. Some that just kind of lean on you and drag you around a little bit, you probably need to go to more bridle. They’re not respecting that bridle and respecting your hands and legs, they’re just tugging on you and dragging you around. That’s when we’ll switch and go up to a little more bridle.”
Don’t be afraid to try different bits, Robin says, to see your horse’s reaction.
If a horse is gapping his mouth, even on a loose rein, it is a good sign there is too much bit in his mouth, he says. And if a horse’s reactions change for the worse - he suddenly becomes dull and unresponsive, or his initial reaction to feeling you pick up your hand is defensive - it is a good idea to try a different bit. And that includes your veteran show horse.
“Horses change as they get older,” Robin says. “People tend to think the older a horse gets, the duller he gets, the bigger the bridle. I actually find as my horses age, I go to less bridle. They’re getting a little older - a little grumpier, maybe - but they’re broke. They know their jobs.”
More bit isn’t always better. If a horse isn’t giving to the bit, you might automatically reach for a stronger bit, but that’s where you might be wrong, Robin says.
“Just because they’re not giving, because they’re not soft, doesn’t mean they need more bridle … they might need less bridle,” he says. “If you try more bridle and they’re better, you might want to check less bridle and see if they’re better yet. That’s why it’s important to have different bridles to try out. Don’t be afraid to try different things to see what will work for your horse.”
Want to about learn more about horseback-riding equipment? Purchase AQHA’s “Tack Talk” DVD for great information from expert tack maker Dennis Moreland.
The Greatest Tool
A bit is simply a communication tool we use when riding our horses. The foremost thing to keep in mind is that there are other, more important tools, starting with the hands at the other end of the rein.
“My ultimate goal is that everything we do is leg to hand,” Robin says. “It might be a fraction of a second, but your legs close before your hand moves.”
That ultimate riding goal, Robin says, and one he works on every ride, is to never have to bump on his horse’s head, to be able to close his leg and hold his hand and have the horse be soft.
“Try to keep it simple,” Pete says about bit shopping. “There are a lot of different options out there with bits, and a lot of the bridle is really how you use your hands and legs, as much as what you have in their face.
“Sometimes it’s not the bridle’s fault, it’s that you’re too quick with your hands,” he continues. “Especially an amateur or non-pro, but even sometimes as an open rider, we get too fast with our hands. The jerk we give those horses is what scares them, not necessarily the bridle. So be aware of that: What training are you doing to them, and what are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to get a little bit more break at the poll? Then maybe you could go to a little higher port and try to get that on those broke, older horses, and that’ll help them. But again, if you go to more port, you have to be slower with your hands. I think that’s really important to realize; the bridle is only as good as how you use it.
“You can easily put too much bridle in a horse, and sometimes not enough, but it’s much better to have a little less than too much,” Pete says.
“Find reading material that explains the function of all bits,” Jackie says. “Each and every bit differs in its pressure and contact points with the mouth.”
Those changes in a bit’s design - shape, size and material - all influence how it will affect a horse, and needs to be carefully considered for both the horse and the rider using the tool.
“Any bit can be made severe by a rider’s severe use of his hands,” Jackie says.