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Horseback riding is one of the best physical activities you can engage in daily. In addition to being great exercise, it is also an incredible connection between rider and horse. To get that connection, we use various tools, from our riding tack and aids to our bodies, voice, and energy.
Your riding tack can be divided into the tack that helps you ride (saddles, girths, and stirrups) and the tack that allows you to communicate with your horse (reins, bridle, and the bit).
The bit is an integral component of the riding partnership. As a rider, you use the bit to ask the horse for specific movements and use it as part of the stopping movement. However, the challenge comes when you discover that not all bits are suitable for all horses.
Each horse has their own unique preference, and they don’t come with an instruction manual to tell us which bit your horse would like. You have to figure it out based on a few almost invisible signals the horse sends your way.
I recall the journey I’ve been on with my horses to find the bit that suits each of them. The options for bits are endless. My journey to finding the best horse bits included a horse that ran away and ended up bitless, a horse I retrained to transition from a ported pelham to a French link snaffle, and now a youngster I am training up.
My Bottom Line Up Front: The Best Horse Bit
Several basic go-to bits suit most horses quite well, and depending on the riding you do, these could work well. My personal favorite is an easy-going Kimberwick bit, as it has minimal pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth. A close second is a kind French link or elliptical snaffle bit, as these have the least amount of nutcracker action.
My current bit of choice is Dover Saddlery® Uxeter Kimberwick Bit, as it allows for the most natural movement while maintaining a reasonable amount of control.
But first, let’s talk about the best bit and how you should choose one.
What Is the Best Horse Bit?
Before you rush out to the nearest tack shop or Google “best bits,” it is important to understand what is the best bit. It’s not a brand or a specific design. The best bit is the bit that works well for your horse, encourages relaxation and good communication, and uses minimal force to achieve your training and riding goals.
What works for your friend’s horse won’t necessarily work for your horse. AND what is a massive factor is the quality of your hands when riding. Even a piece of dental floss can feel like torture to your horse if you have restless or hard hands when riding.
How to Choose the Best Horse Bit
Before we get into the finer details of different bits, it’s important to know how to choose a bit, how to decide whether the bit is right for your horse, and what will show you that the bit is not suitable for your horse.
Before considering anything else, the bit needs to fit your horse correctly. It should be the correct width for your horse’s face and mouth.
For starters, the bit should fit with enough space to slide the tip of your little finger on either side of the bit between the bit ring and your horse’s cheek. If you can fit more finger space, the bit will slide around. If you cannot fit that much finger, the bit will chafe your horse and cause pinching and sores.
For the height of the bit, a snaffle should fit with a soft wrinkle forming at the corners of your horse’s mouth, while a pelham bit must be loose enough not to form wrinkles. Check whether your horse can or does fit their tongue over the bit. If they can’t, adjust the bit by raising one hole on the bridle.
Bits with a curbed chain require the chain to be twisted until it lies flat, then hooked, so you can still fit two fingers between the curb and the horse’s jaw. The chain should rest comfortably in the chin groove where the horse’s chin joins their jaw. In more technical terms, the curb should engage no more than 45 degrees before the horse has a positive reaction.
Part of the best bit selection process is checking whether your horse responds softly to any questions or “asks” on the bit. Start with as little pressure as possible, and ensure your horse responds with a soft “give.”
It’s a good idea to start with some basic schooling on the bit (whoa, go, turn, slow down, and back up) before you ride out and discover on the trail that the bit is a huge problem.
While the bit lies in the horse’s mouth, your hands are at the reins. Be sure the bit is suitable to your riding ability.
Young children who tend to grab the reins may not do well with a snaffle or a severe ported bit. If you carry your hands excessively high, you should invest in quality riding lessons to help you learn correct rein holding and signaling.
A horse with dental problems such as serious hooks, ramps, and wolf teeth won’t be able to give to the bit. Having your horse’s teeth floated professionally can make all the difference in whether your horse can yield to the bit.
Best Bits of Different Types
Bits have evolved along with the demands of riding horses. The first bit in history, which was probably a leather strip much like the reins, advanced to the latest Nathe bits and scientifically sculpted bits (that can be specially tailored to your horse’s mouth with a very costly molding process).
The three main classes of bits are:
- Snaffle (or broken) bits
- Pelham (or shanked and curbed) bits
- Bitless (or out-of-the-mouth) bits
Within each of these classes, there is also quite a lot of variation, so I’ll discuss some of the popular bits I’ve had the opportunity to work with on my own horses.
Single-Jointed Snaffle Bit
What Type of Action It Has
A single jointed snaffle has no peanut or spacer between the two halves of the bit, meaning the bit forms a prominent point that raises against the bars of the horse’s mouth.
When the rider pulls on the reins, the bit will rise in the mouth and pinch the sides of the horse’s tongue. This is termed a nutcracker bit, as the action is much like that of a mechanical nutcracker. It is not considered a particularly kind bit due to this action.
An Example of a Single Jointed Snaffle
The Korsteel Slow Twist Eggbutt Snaffle is an example of a single-jointed snaffle. This example has an eggbutt mouthpiece, meaning there are D-rings at the sides of the bit instead of the loose rings often found on regular snaffles. The D-ring mouthpiece makes for a milder bit as it can’t pinch the horse’s mouth as much.
- Affordable type of bit
- This bit has a curved mouthpiece, making it kinder than the standard nutcracker single-jointed snaffle
- Available in four sizes, from 4¾ inch to 6 inches
- It is still a single-jointed snaffle, which can be quite severe in the wrong hands
- It may not fit all horses’ unique mouth shapes; especially problematic for horses with large fleshy tongues
French Link Snaffle Bit
What Type of Action This Bit Has
The French link snaffle has a flattened lozenge, which applies moderate pressure to the tongue and palate of the horse’s mouth. The French link snaffle is considered a mild bit, though it is slightly stronger than an elliptical snaffle. However, more horses accept it than the single jointed snaffle.
Due to the double-jointed shape, the rider can communicate with either side of the horse’s face at any time, making for greater steering and better refinement of aids.
An Example of a French Link Snaffle Bit
The JP by Korsteel® French Link Hunter D-Ring Snaffle Bit is a D-ring snaffle bit that has a flattened lozenge between the two halves of the mouthpiece. The edges of the lozenge provide more pressure on the bars of the mouth. When the lozenge is set at an angle, it creates even more pressure, making for a more powerful controlling action.
The rider’s hands can rotate either side of the mouthpiece, communicating independently with both sides of the horse’s body.
- Available in an anatomically shaped mouthpiece that follows the natural shape of the horse’s mouth for greater sensitivity
- Available in three sizes, from 4¾ inches to 5½ inches
- Some horses prefer to have a quieter bit in their mouth, and the action of the rotating sides of the mouthpiece may be too busy for the horse
- Riders with unsteady hands can affect the horse’s mouth negatively
Elliptical Snaffle Bit
What Type of Action This Bit Has
An elliptical bit has a round lozenge, resting between the two halves of the mouthpiece. With the mouthpiece effectively broken into two separate joints, the bit is softer in the mouth and applies less pressure to the bars of the mouth.
When the rider pulls on the reins, the bit raises, placing the round lozenge in the center of the horse’s mouth. The rider can communicate with either side of the horse’s mouth.
An Example of an Elliptical Loose Ring Snaffle Bit
The Stubben Sweet Copper Loose Ring Snaffle Bit is an example of a typical loose ring elliptical mouthpiece snaffle bit. This example has a copper mouthpiece. The sweetness of oxidation on the copper nugget encourages salivation and helps the horse accept the bit more easily.
- The double broken mouthpiece is softer on the bars of the mouth, shaping pressure around the central nugget or lozenge
- Available in five sizes, from 5 inches to 6 inches, with quarter-inch adjustments
- Not all horses enjoy the taste of copper and may hyper salivate
- The round-shaped lozenge may not be comfortable for horses with fleshy tongues where there is limited mouth space
What Type of Action This Bit Has
The pelham bit is a straight bar bit, or it can also have a ported mouthpiece or even a broken or snaffle mouthpiece.
Pelham bits always have shanked sides to the mouthpiece, which is how we can tell them apart from other bits. Usually, they also have a curbed chain to secure the bit in the mouth and prevent it from sliding through the mouth while also giving extra leverage on the jaw for better control.
When the curbed chain is engaged by the shanks pulling back at 45 degrees, it leverages the bit to rise in the mouth, pressing the port into the bars of the mouth or raising the snaffle joint.
An Example of a Pelham Bit
The Korsteel Hard Rubber Mullen Mouth Pelham Bit is an example of a pelham bit. The hard rubber mouthpiece is more forgiving than the steel mouthpieces that many pelham bits have.
The solid mouthpiece provides a steady contact, while the short shanks deliver more leverage when pulled back as the curbed chain engages. This type of bit is known for being a medium control bit that can be harsh if pulled back suddenly, yet, it is gentle in the right hands.
- It can be ridden with a double rein to alternate between the plain straight bar pressure or shanked pressure
- Made from high-quality stainless steel and rubber
- A poorly fitting curbed chain can be damaging to the nerves on the lower jaw of the horse
- A thicker mouthpiece may be uncomfortable to some horses
What Type of Action It Has
The kimberwick bit is different from a regular pelham bit in that the shanks are built into a D-shaped end to the mouthpieces. These mouthpieces have several options for where you’d like to attach the reins. When placed on the highest setting, the reins function like snaffle or direct pressure reins. The lowest rein setting enacts shanked pressure with additional leverage for beginner riders or stronger horses.
An Example of a Kimberwick Bit
The Dover Saddlery® Uxeter Kimberwick Bit is an example of a typical kimberwick bit. This example has a ported mouthpiece, but roller barrel mouthpieces, straight bar mouthpieces, and even snaffle mouthpieces are available.
- Available in three sizes, from 4¾ inches up to 6 inches
- It helps riders with unsteady hands or who lack the strength to control a strong horse
- The curbed chain can come undone when riding
- Can encourage horses to lean on the bit and become heavy in hand
What Type of Action a Combination Bit Has
A combination bit is essentially two bits fitted simultaneously, such as for a dressage competition. The bridle has a special bradoon fitting to allow for the addition of a second bit. Combination bits are used in dressage competitions and with dressage saddles and other equitation disciplines.
The softness of the snaffle type part of the combination encourages the horse to yield, while the control of the curbed bit that completes the set will stimulate elevation and collection. A combination bit is not meant to be used on a horse that fights. Instead, this bit combination is a tool of refinement meant for experienced riders.
An Example of a Combination Bit Set
The Sanft Short Shank Curb and Bradoon Set is an example of a combination bit set. This combination set features a 12-millimeter curbed bit with 7-centimeter-long shanks, while the bradoon or snaffle bit is 14 millimeters thick for a softening effect.
- Ideal bit set for those moving up in English competition riding
- Provides reasonable control of the forward and upward movement of the horse
- To be used with double reins for individual communication of the different mouthpieces
- It still results in a lot of steel fitting in the horse’s mouth, which can make horses with smaller mouths feel uncomfortable
- Not a tool for beginner riders
What Type of Action a Gag Bit Has
A gag bit offers the rider a means to engage the bit at different intensities, depending on where the reins are attached.
The three-ring sides of the bit allow for the reins to be attached at the regular snaffle setting, slightly stronger in the middle ring, and with increased leverage at the lowest or shanked setting. Some gag bits come with an additional leather strip to further integrate the pressure of the bit.
Gag bits are popular with those doing jumping. Still, it is a bit best left to professional riders who are ambidextrous enough to signal each side of the horse’s mouth on its own instead of simply pulling back on a potentially severe bit.
An Example of a Gag Bit
The Shires Three-Ring Dutch Gag Bit with French Link offers greater control over horses in competition situations. The bit has a French link mouth lozenge, making for a softer ride.
- Available in three sizes, from 4½ inches to 5½ inches
- When used correctly, this can be a very comfortable bit for horses with a low palate
- Severe bit when set to the highest leverage setting
- Painful to the horse when used by an untrained rider
What Type of Action the Rope Hackamore Has
A rope hackamore is essentially a horseman’s halter or rope halter that has the reins tied onto the bottom of the headstall in Mecate style. The horse responds to the pressure across the sides of their face and the top of their muzzle. When the horse is correctly schooled to the rope hackamore, they give more quickly to introducing a soft snaffle, making for a light and easily ridden horse.
While a rope hackamore is not seen as a bit, it serves as a bit alternative.
An Example of a Rope Hackamore
The Noble Equestrian™ Rope Halter with Lead is an excellent example of a simple rope halter that can be used as a rope hackamore. An alternative to this setup is a Western headstall with a bosal and a set of mecate reins such as the Mustang Harness Leather Breaking Hackamore.
- Simple design easily used on any horse
- Creates precise pressure on the sides of the horse’s face to turn them, with downward pressure on the nose to stop them
- Allows the horse to settle and learn without being bothered by a bit in the mouth
- Not suitable for beginner riders
- It can be severe if pulled on continuously
- If misused, the hackamore can lead to resistance and facial pain
What Type of Action an English Hackamore Has
Many consider the English hackamore a type of bit as it operates on the same principles as a shanked bit, except there is no mouthpiece.
Pressure is applied to the bridge of the nose by a leather strap with shanked sides moderating the pressure. When used with soft hands, the English hackamore allows for gentle riding in the English style (with two hands) with a horse trained to go in the bitless way.
An Example of an English Hackamore Bit
The Western CP Fleece Lined Hackamore with Curb Strap is a good example of an English hackamore, despite the name indicating otherwise. The shanked sides and leather nose piece are typical of an English hackamore. Cover the curb chain with a sheepskin sleeve if a horse is overly sensitive to pressure on the jawbone.
- Allows for gentle signaling for mouthy horses that don’t go well on a bit
- A tool of finesse with horses, allowing for gentle correction and intuitive signaling
- It can be severe and potentially cause injury to a horse if used incorrectly or harshly
- Only available in one size
Answer: The snaffle bit remains one of the best-selling and most popular horse bits for those starting with horseback riding. Pelham bits remain popular for working horses, where riding with one hand is a requirement, and the pelham reduces uneven pressure in the mouth while providing excellent control.
Answer: A beginner horse requires a thicker bit since this is milder on the mouth. A snaffle where clear communication by an experienced rider’s hands on either side of the face can happen is a great training tool.
Answer: Beginner riders should ride in a bit that is soft on the horse’s mouth, such as a thick elliptical snaffle or a gentle kimberwick bit as they may still snatch at the reins when they get a fright or struggle to feel what the horse is doing.
Answer: While a hackamore is termed a bitless device, it is still sold on the same shelf as any other bits. In the wrong hands, a hackamore can also be severe, pinching facial nerves and potentially damaging the soft cartilage in the horse’s nose.
However, a hackamore can be ideal for a horse that doesn’t like pressure in their mouth. If used correctly, it is a sophisticated tool for communication that many horses enjoy.
Answer: Horses have delicate mouths, and while dressage riders may use a combination of a ported bit and a snaffle bit, this is a potentially severe setup that can harm the horse if misused. Never fit two bits in a horse’s mouth for better control, as this will not work and is cruel. Instead, work on training basics to improve mental control.
The Last Bit
Perhaps the most important aspect to remember about horse bits is that the best bit is the one that most clearly communicates with your horse. If your horse responds badly to the lightest and most polite of cues, then the bit is not suitable for your horse.
Take the time to learn what bit your horse enjoys, whether they need stronger or softer bits, what level of schooling they have, and whether the problems aren’t perhaps due to poor training and not what type of bit you are using.
If you are interested in riding in the best possible gear for your horse’s safety and continued good health, then read my guide on the types of horse saddles.