Bitting Up: Part 1

Find the right bit to make your horse a willing partner with AQHA Professional Horseman Don Murphy.

In the California vaquero tradition, horses were started later and the training evolved through a horse’s lifetime until he was a finished bridle horse at 7 or 8 years old. Today’s performance demands and emphasis on 3-year-old reining and reined cow horse futurities speed up the need to bit a horse. Horses are started sooner and introduced to shanked bits earlier in the training process.

But how do you select the right bit for your horse? Especially in National Reined Cow Horse Association events, where many competitors still use traditional spade and cathedral bits, finding the right bit that keeps your horse happy and productive in the show ring can be daunting.

The Journal turned to AQHA Professional Horseman Don Murphy of Marietta, Oklahoma, who grew up using traditional California methods for bitting horses, to get you started with the right bit for your horse.

Getting Started

When Don gets ready to start his 2-year-olds in preparation for the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity or the National Reining Horse Association Futurity, he starts their training by letting them carry a lightweight snaffle bit. For seven to 10 days before they’re started under saddle, the young horses wear a snaffle bit tied loosely to a halter with worn strands of twine that break easily if snagged. Wearing the snaffle helps teach the 2-year-olds how to carry the bit and prepare them for the next step in the training process.

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As Don introduces a saddle, he also begins to bit the horses by teaching them to give to lateral pressure from the bit and to give at the poll. Teaching them to give to the snaffle and not fight it lays the foundation for the rest of the horse’s training and enables him to be more responsive when he’s introduced to a shanked bit.

“If you have them soft in the sides and the poll – soft both ways – then you have control of your horse,” Don says. “If they are stiff in one spot, you don’t have control of your horse.”

Roll It!

What's all the excitement over reined cow horses? Check out the 2008 NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity in Reno, Nevada, and find out for yourself.

Don’s program revolves around building longevity in the horse. Taking the time to build the foundation in your horse’s training can save time in the long run by keeping you from having to repeat as many steps.

Don Dodge once told me that if your horse changes 1 percent a day, then in 100 days, you have a 100 percent better horse,” Don says. By making the changes easy for your horse, you can have a willing partner that won’t let you down when you’re taking a hard-charging cow down the fence. Skip a step, and your horse might skip out on you when the win is on the line.

Stay tuned for the second part of this series.

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