Bitting Up: Part 2

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

This is the second of a two-part series. Need to review Part 1?

Making the Right Choice

Many horse owners simply hang whatever bit they happen to own in the horse’s mouth and expect the horse to accept it. If the horse doesn’t respond to that bit, then the tendency is to buy heavier and harsher bits until the horse is forced into submission. While it might be effective short term, using a harsher bit might not be the best for your horse’s longevity.

Ultimately, your horse tells you – by his body language, eyes and responsiveness – when you’ve made the right bit decision.

“We want our horse to be happy,” says AQHA Professional Horseman Don Murphy of Marietta, Oklahoma. “He’s our partner in getting something done.”

Learn to read your horse’s response to a particular bit.

“I’ve had bits that only worked on one horse,” Don says. “And I’ve had horses that will go in just about anything.”
In today’s performance world, make sure your horse’s teeth are well-maintained and free of any sharp corners or imbalances that could cause pain. It’s especially important in young horses and new horses. Don suggests feeling in the side of the horse’s mouth. Using two fingers, gauge the width of his mouth, the depth and sharpness of his bars, and the thickness of the horse’s tongue. If you’ve never done it, ask an experienced horseman to help you.

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All of those features can give you an indication of where to start finding the right bit for your horse. For instance, a thick-tongued horse with flat bars might need a heavier bit with more tongue relief, while a horse whose thin tongue lies flat between the bars might need a lighter bit.

Don also evaluates the horse’s conformation to see how he naturally moves and carries his head. While the current style in the show ring might tend toward lower-headed horses, don’t expect to be able to manufacture that look through bitting alone. In other words, if your horse’s neck comes out high from his withers and he naturally carries his head higher, forcing him to carry his head lower will result in a manufactured look and, ultimately, isn’t good for your horse’s performance or value.

Checking Up

After evaluating the horse’s mouth, start with a basic bit that is relatively straight and fits the amount of tongue relief you expect for that horse, depending on if his tongue fits in the space between the bars or sits above them.

According to National Reined Cow Horse Association rules, Don uses a leather curb strap on his high-ported bits. Regardless of the height of the bit’s port, the curb strap dictates the amount of movement the port moves within the horse’s mouth. Don begins with the curb strap fairly tight with just a finger’s width between the strap and the horse’s chin. When the reins are pulled back, the curb strap applies pressure to the horse’s chin before the port hits the top of the horse’s mouth. However, the signal from the port, coupled with the pressure on the horse’s chin, should be enough to get the horse to flex his poll and give to the bit.

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In the round pen, Don checks the horse by running the reins back to the saddle. He starts with a small amount of pressure from the reins to allow the horse to find the place where he can find release from the pressure. For reiners, he runs the reins lower, through the D-rings of the saddle so that the horse learns to give farther back toward his withers. For cow horses that need to carry their heads higher to balance themselves through turns on the fence, he runs the reins through the pommel of the saddle.

From the ground, Don lopes the horse in both directions around the round pen until the horse gives softly to the bit and accepts it. However, he rarely lets the horse stay checked up for more than seven or eight minutes. And he constantly watches the horse for fatigue or excessive irritation with the bit.

If your horse continues to toss his head or doesn’t seem to accept the bit you’ve chosen, experiment with bits with different tongue pressure, port height and weight.

Final Selection

Finding the right bit for your horse might require perseverance. Spade and cathedral bits might look like medieval torture devices at first, but they’re designed for communication instead of intimidation.

“All bits are good tools, if you use them right and they fit your horse,” Don says. “If a horse gets real nervous in the mouth, a lot of times it’s because something else is wrong. Your training program is too severe or too quick.”

To prolong your horse’s competitive life, it’s never too late to go back to the basics and find a bit that improves your reiner’s or cow horse’s performance. By making a willing partner, you’ll find yourself scoring winning runs more often.