Touchy About Bits.

Confession #1: There was a time that I would have sold my soul for a spade bit with 12″ shanks. My hands were thick and tense and I didn’t breathe. Naturally, my horse was braced and tense and he didn’t breathe, either. Through gritted teeth, I knew my gelding would behave if I just had a stronger bit. Instead, my trainer took my bridle away. I think she just couldn’t stand to watch me torment my stoic horse one moment longer. It’s what good trainers do …and I’m still grateful.

Confession #2: Passover and Easter are about forgiveness and I’m holding a grudge. It happened last summer and I’m still cranky. A cowboy ‘splained to me (like I couldn’t see) how Spanish spade bits work. He had a certain tone as he ‘splained the horse has to learn how to carry it (like the horse can’t already tell that if he lifts his nose he’ll give himself a lobotomy.) In a situation like this I have world-class eye contact. His horse was in my arena in a halter because I don’t allow illegal bits. The good gelding still refused to walk forward.

Later, I went online and googled a few videos by folks who looked like they’d won an extreme cowboy dressing challenge. I listened to them pontificate, candy-coat, and try to normalize how these bits work. I understood how a novice rider might even believe them. But I come by my skepticism honestly. Like the western trainer who took my bridle away, dressage riders use simple snaffles. All breeds, all ages, all snaffles, as they try to figure out what “elastic” means where elbows are concerned.

I have no sense of humor about bits. I stopped going to the local donkey and mule show years ago because I couldn’t stand to see the gaping mouths and pained eyes. Somehow it was harder to watch on longears. Western rope reins and slobber straps are heavy, never releasing pressure on the horse’s jaw. Bitless riders can end up pulling twice as hard. Others ride on a really long rein so they won’t bump our horse’s mouth, but then panic and grab the reins hard and fast, ending up being twice as brutal as riding on contact would have been in the first place. And some just try way too hard and wind up with a mental/physical death grip, like I did.

It’s mainly the western world where people think that horses grow out of snaffles. Silly notion. It isn’t true. I think what happens is about the time a horse gets tired of having his face banged on, like my gelding was, and starts tossing his head, all the “experts” standing around recommend a stronger bit. Then the pain gets ratcheted up until the horse shuts down. Some horses blow up instead, reacting to the pain with anxiety, and they “graduate” to an even more severe bit. Metal on bone.

Using a stronger bit is like winning an argument, not because you’re right, but because you’re holding a gun.

Now I’m the trainer, and listening to me, you’d think bits were my biggest complaint but that’s ridiculous. I know a snaffle can be as much of a weapon as a leverage bit depending on the brutality of the rider.

In my fantasy world, we would all agree that bits are not the problem. We’d stop blaming our tack. We’d especially stop blaming our horses for their response to pain. Once and for all, we’d take responsibility for our hands. I believe hands are the biggest roadblock keeping long-time riders from becoming advanced riders. Poor contact is a double message, like having your foot on the gas pedal and the brake at the same time. Crazy-making.

In defense, most riders can barely feel it happening. We hold our reins, threaded through our grasp from the pinky side of our hands, up through our palm, to the top or thumb side. As we start, our hands are slightly above the horse’s withers and about shoulder’s distance apart. Dandy. If they stayed there your horse wouldn’t complain.

Maybe it’s gravity or insecurity or frustration, but it starts with just a few ounces of pressure as the bottom, or pinky side, of our hands drops to rest on the rein. The horse feels it immediately and tightens a little to protect his mouth. The rider feels that tightness and adds a bit more weight to her hand, trying to control his initial anxiety.  Now the horse has lost some of his forward movement and all he knows is that it’s more pressure on his mouth. The rider is getting more nervous, so the reins are actually being pulled, down and back. The horse receives the cue to brace from his rider and starts to feel claustrophobic. Doesn’t his rider know that if his feet are moving, he has to move his head, too? He tosses his head to remind her. Now that the horse is tossing his head, the rider, well, you know…

If you horse asks you, either politely or not, to reconsider your hands, take the cue. I have a few suggestions.

First, and I know this for a fact, you have a clenched jaw. Your horse does, too. Take a breath and release your jaw. Repeat. Then repeat again. Forever, until both of you forget there was ever tension between you.

Next, ride in a neck ring. I described it in my last blog about contact. If your experience with a neck ring leaves you frustrated, feeling out of control, and screaming in exasperation, it’s a sure sign your hands are too hard. Take a break for your heart rate to return to normal and remember you have seat and legs for a reason.

Or try reversing the direction the reins thread through your hands, like in this photo. It will feel incredibly awkward, but better you than your horse, so stick with it. The first thing you’ll notice is that you can’t push down on the rein, and as you feel vulnerable -like you’ve been disarmed- notice that your horse is quieter in his head.

It’s impossible to forget that riding is an art. ART. Our legs and spine work like shock absorbers, so the horse’s motion moves through us instead of bouncing us like cinder blocks in the saddle. That same elasticity must continue through our shoulders, down past our elbows and wrists, and through sensitive reins to his fragile mouth. We must surrender our bodies to the horse’s rhythm and learn the difference between control and cooperation. The thing that makes us feel vulnerable is the same thing that makes us feel free, even at the walk.

So, are back to back long-winded blogs about contact too much? The horses won’t mind and I’m whittling away at my grudge. It isn’t surprising, my horse was always the kinder and more forgiving half of our partnership.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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56 thoughts on “Touchy About Bits.

  1. jenn wallace

    Thank you for putting in print what i have told friends I ride with who are Brannaman followers. Slobber straps and the rope machate give no release because of the weight. You are so inspiring and insightful. Love my morning reads from you!

  2. Sharon Bowen

    What a wonderful explanation! I had gone from snaffles to shanked (admittedly shortish) bits with solid mouthpieces because my horses liked that better. Then I educated my hands and went back to a snaffle with success. Now I ride trail only and I do it in a hackamore with shanks and a leather nosepiece. Why? Because my formerly horse-only bridle paths are heavily used multi-use trails now and people freak out if you don’t have a bridle on your horse! I touch the reins occasionally if my guy and I have been tweeted out and something comes up suddenly. Otherwise, it’s voice and seat and leg and mostly him knowing where he’s going and what he’s supposed to do. It’s the most pleasurable riding I’ve ever done.

    1. Ah, the journey of partners… and the other name for Mullen mouth bits is a one-piece snaffle. Weird, no? And escalating is easy, thanks for coming back to less as the two of you grew. Great comment, Sharon.

      1. Robin McGee

        Why is it weird to call a Mullen mouth a one-piece snaffle? Many western riders and catalogs think the definition of snaffle is “jointed mouthpiece”, so you’ll see advertisements for “a long-shanked snaffle” (aka torture device) – but that’s not you.

        I just wonder why you think it’s weird. Thank you for clarification.

      2. “One piece snaffle” is just counter intuitive to my ear. Yet I notice some horses really like these bits, so I do, too. Like you, I agree that there are torture devices called snaffles, but this name struck me as weird-funny. Kind of like other riding phrases that deserve a different name. Like sitting trot. (Not much sitting there!) Simple change. (Not very simple if it’s done well.) Hope this makes sense. Thanks for asking, Robin.

  3. Preachin’ to the choir here. Makes me think of the World Cup, where I wanted to yank some “world-class” riders out of the saddle and give their horses some relief. Reminded me all over again how gracious and giving horses in general are, to allow us on their backs, in their faces. The few who aren’t suffering saints are labeled “difficult” at best, “outlaws” at worst.

    As an aside, a tip I learned demonstrating in a Jec Ballou clinic, was to ride a square at the walk, turning on the forehand at each corner. The hind legs crossing over engage the muscle(s) clear up to the jaw so a horse can truly relax and soften. It’s great for Lance!

  4. I’ve seen far too many riders use their hands for balance, or for security. Are the days of lunging or riding the area with no stirrups/no reins over?

  5. Karen Gartside

    Wow… do I have some apologizing to do to my previous horsey partners… thanks for a brilliant explanation of the “tension cycle”

  6. Kathy

    Great commentary! I see this more in the western disciplines, but even in dressage, w/”softer” bits (still metal on bone, right?), you’ll see folks with death grips on their horses’ mouths. But, they’re using spurs! What are they trying to communicate to their always-forgiving partners?

    1. I don’t know that the forgiveness is infinite… maybe the reason to take lessons and improve contact, is so that the horse doesn’t have to be always-forgiving. Thank you, great comment, Kathy.

    1. Please read again; this is an alternate way to hold the reins in an effort to recognize the weight of hand the rider is applying to the reins. I am not advocating it ongoing. Thanks, Laurie, for giving me a chance to clarify.

  7. Yet again, another brilliant and spot on blog post. When I was a young professional, it was a badge of honor to have a large ‘bit collection’. I took it to mean “look how much I’ve learned….I know how to use ALL these bits”. I even saved my money up to buy a bit trunk that holds over 30 bits so I could take my collection to the shows. Now, 25 years later, all of my training horses go in a snaffle. I even recently made a soft suede bit for the ones who a metal snaffle is too much. Unfortunately we can’t ride in a halter in the hunter ring….it’s ILLEGAL :/
    My two main mentors are Greg Best and Buck Brannaman. Greg came for a clinic shortly after I had ridden in my third clinic with Buck. I was scratching my head because I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile the lack of contact (Buck calls it ‘soft feel’) with the contact that we must have while jumping. Greg listened to me and we chatted about it, but get this….he really said nothing. I remember thinking, ‘wow I’ve even stumped Greg, and he’s an Olympian!’
    The next morning he came to me and said ‘I’ve been thinking about the contact question all night. What I think is this-in the Vaquero tradition, their ultimate goal is no contact……whereas with the hunters and jumpers, the ultimate goal is light contact 100% of the time.”
    Not only did I learn a lot about the two methods, I learned even more from his humility and thoughtfulness. Thanks again for writing about this issue and getting me to think about it even further.

    1. I think contact should be something that riders and trainers reflect on forever. In my mind, riding on contact should feel like a loose rein for the horse. We must refine out hands for that to be true and that is a life’s work as each horse wants slightly different contact. Thanks, Vicki, great comment about straddling disciplines.

  8. I enjoyed your article today. We are big on bitless riding. Everything should be communicated through seat, breath and leg. My daughter will jump up with just a halter and leadline, because they have worked on their relationship and have a bond built on trust. If she feels hes being naughty or practicing difficult patterns for a show she may throw on a snaffle. Otherwise the curbs are saved for preshow day practice and show day. It does stink that people are stuck on the “grow out of a snaffle” mentality.

    1. Thanks, Christina. I am hoping as your daughter grows in skill she will not need curbs ever, and also learn to help her horse’s balance with light contact while jumping. Good for her, sometimes kids are better at this than adults, and thanks for commenting.

      1. Ohhhh she doesn’t need a curb… we have to use one in the western show ring. Bleh. Lol
        I cant wait for the day that curbs are not required for horses over 5.

  9. Not to imply I have the contact thing figured out, because that will always be a work in progress, but when I had a trainer – our lessons started with an on the buckle warm-up – usually at least 10 – 15 minutes. Contact would be taken up super slowly and gently – politely would really be the word I guess. If you can’t steer and balance on a loose rein, then you have no business taking up contact was how she saw it. 😀

  10. It was good enough for Reiner Klimke and it’s good enough for me. (He goes longer than 15 min…) I’m with you! He also promotes only a few moments on contact during an hour. I love him as much as his horses did! Great comment!

  11. Sherry Walter

    All I know is that when I’m riding and feel like I’m a piston whose movement is being driven by the horse’s movement it’s a wonderful feeling! Wish I could say it always feels that way.

  12. ferlonda

    I am so glad to read this post. I’ve never liked “heavy” bits and as a kid dreamed of riding without any tack at all. I got close to this with my POA when, after several years of trail riding, Pony Club and just plain fooling around, I was able to ride him bareback and with virtually no use of the reins at all. It was all instinct and connection. I so wish I had the time and health to ride this much (and as well) now! But, I do ride some and the mare I ride has always used a bosal which is entirely unfamiliar to me. I hold the reins as though they were connected to a bit but with way less contact, only the lightest of “feel” and I get great responses from her. I have no idea if I’m doing it right or wrong and it’s “only” trail riding but she seems to be glad to see me and is very cooperative with leg and seat aids so… I guess I’m on the right track?

    I’d love to take a few lessons with her and a good trainer but lack of funds and access is an issue. I do almost all of my riding in my head these days but I’d love to know what you think of bosals and if you have any suggestions on their proper use. Or if anyone else could weigh in? That would be so appreciated!

    I so love your posts, Anna! I always get excited when I see the notification of a new one in my inbox.

    1. Well, there are lots of kinds of bosals and I don’t know anything about your horse or how you ride, so I’ll hold my opinion on your situation. Except to say, have fun and keep listening. Thanks for reading along, Ferlonda.

      1. ferlonda

        If you have any suggestions of where to go on the internet to look up correct use of a bosal and its correct fitting, that would be great!

        I’ll say this about my riding: the horse always, always, ALWAYS comes first.

        The mare I ride is standoffish but an otherwise extremely sensible Arabian (half Polish, half Egyptian) who is the real “anyone can ride her” horse. She is a tolerant but not easily emotionally accessible creature but, when I figured out how she preferred to be brushed (SOFTLY, damnit!), we had a real breakthrough in our friendship. Now it can be months between rides but she always comes right to me and seems to be genuinely glad to see me. She has even put her head into my hands and just breathed with me. That was an amazing moment which I will treasure forever.

        The owner is also a “horse first” person who does everything in her power to make sure her three horses are happy, safe and well fed. All three of them adore and respect her and will do anything for her.

        I am so grateful to be able to ride at all but to be able to ride with such a good human and such lovely horses is a wonderful thing. Reading your blog posts has really added to my horse experience and I so appreciate your writing!

      2. You should do as the owner asks for this mare. I won’t make recommendations for horses and riders that I’m not familiar with. Sorry.

    1. ferlonda

      Looking over my posts to you I’m confused as to why you thought I wanted a lesson? Mostly I was interested in your take on bosals and explaining my situation for context. I’m not even sure how I’d get a riding lesson from anyone over the net. Also, I wouldn’t do anything against my friend’s wishes for any reason let alone about her horses. Did it seem like I was suggesting I would do such a thing? If what I wrote did suggest this it was not my intention. Anyway, no matter. Miscommunications are easy in text.

  13. Oh i love your descriptions, i have witnessed ( & mistakenly done) so many of the things you describe in my quest for connection! As a working cowgirl following the vaquero tradition, I am in awe of the two-rein & different spade bits! When a horse is light in my hands & prepared properly a properly fit spade is a magical thing! It enables a horse to balance through the poll & lift the back without the rider’s contact, but they need to be taught what that expectation is & exercised slowly until they are able to muscularly carry a rider in addition to their own body.
    When a rider picks up a ‘soft feel’ in a loose ring snaffle they are holding the weight of the reins & the slobber straps to create a soft feel or connection before contact, it’s that precue that we are asking our horses to recognize. I’m so sorry that it doesn’t come across more clear in some of the teachings. Ray always said ‘get to the feet’ maybe his protégé have taken that too much to heart!?!
    Spades aren’t for your average horsemen, but they shouldn’t be feared either. Still, that common goal of happy soft horses & confident enjoyable rides is a dream accomplishment!!
    May those moments of bliss come regularly & last longer for all of us seeking them!!

    1. Thank you for commenting, Christina, and you opinion is heard. I hope that you will continue learning, that you will listen with a discerning ear, and that you will study biomechanics as described in other disciplines. That said, I respectfully disagree with your conclusions.

  14. a great post on so many levels. For me it uncovered a vein of rage and judgement toward “sacred cows” such as people who wear the buckaroo costumes and people who can speak so eloquently on the bridle horse and the spade bit. I honor those folk’s talent and skill and natural ability if they are good, but I do feel there is much human ego in dressing a certain (very cool and sexy, granted!) way and elevating and evolving to a certain very ornate bit. Just some thoughts from my inner critic. I am sure there is some “thin ice” in there for me!

    1. I’m on that hunk of thin ice with you and I got some critical comments on this piece. My priority is clear; I put the horse first. Thanks for this comment.

  15. Thank you for this. Bits are not for the horse, they’re for the rider. Rudd didn’t like bits, which I didn’t understand at first. He used his own contraption instead of a bridle, no bit. It took a little figuring out to get it on but it was wonderful to learn with. He always left a nice hank of mane to grab on if you felt a bit insecure. “Do NOT yank on those reins!!” He said those were for touching the neck not to pull the head in whatever direction you wanted to go. I wish I could remember how that headgear was made, there wasn’t much of it, but if I could make a couple I’d send them to you. I think it was similar to the ones Joe Camp uses (he writes The Soul of A Horse blog http://thesoulofahorse.com/blog/why-bitless-2/), but Rudd made his own and that was a long time ago.

    1. I do think it’s easy to get complacent with bits of any kind, and us humans have busy hands by design. Not a great combination. I have a small collection of bitless bridles and it’s interesting the range of opinions horses have on them. Gotta love that about horses. Thanks, Aquila.

  16. virginianewnham

    Heavy hands are always worse in a bit, but I’m guessing our horses hate heavy hands in bitless as well…thanks Anna, love your blogs and you write beautifully😄

    1. Bitless bridles apply pressure, too. I know a few horses who prefer bits… but you’re right. They care more about hands. Thank you, and thanks for reading.

  17. Lynell Abbott

    I fancy myself pretty stoic when it comes to sitting in a dentist’s chair. But when a new, inexperienced dental assistant clamped down on the suction tube, jamming it inside my mouth, it was more than I could bear. Not being able to talk, but needing her to “release” immediately, I grabbed her wrist and thrust her hand out of my mouth. I liken this, my friends, to what a horse must feel when faced with a similar situation when some foreign object is thrust inside their mouth and being manipulated by inexperienced hands. Lord, please don’t let me ever do that to my horse!

  18. Playing devil’s advocate: Perhaps there are readers who would say flawless technique and a slow plan make harsh bits okay… or in your case, that a person (or horse) can learn to tolerate what’s uncomfortable. Okay. Health might be a good reason to learn tolerance, but that isn’t why we do it to horses.

    Thank you, Lynell, It’s a good analogy.

  19. Lyn Chambers

    I love this piece. I cringe when I see people instantly jump on the reins as soon as a horse ‘disobeys’ or makes the rider in the least bit nervous. I hate to see it. I do ride in a bitless. I rode my OTTB in one for the entire 17 years I owned him. When I first got him he was very ‘busy’ from the shoulder on up. The day I put the bitless on him his neck and head were as calm as can be. My current horse Dooley had a pretty bad head tossing issue when I got him. I rode him one time in a bit, but when I experienced the head tossing I put the bitless on him and it stopped and has never returned. I do try very hard to use my seat and legs first………..hands last, and light. I agree with everything you have said here and certainly don’t assume that bitless always means painless, it most certainly does not. Light hands are still a must. I don’t ask for contact very often on my trail rides, even though I know I probably should, but when I do I usually get it and I love the feeling. I like to try and ride with no reins at all sometimes, just to see how we are both doing. I think I might have to try the neck ring. It’ll be fun………..and humbling I’m sure, to see how Dooley responds. All of my riding lessons were in my childhood, I trail ride purely for pleasure now, but that doesn’t mean we should just get to plod along mindlessly either. You always write something that makes me just want to do better by my horse. Always.

    1. Oh, Lyn, that’s always my goal. To do better! It’s funny, I’ve worked with a few horses who don’t like bitless; one mare acted so offended. Of course, she was offended by the bit, too.

      I made the commitment to work until my hands were invisible; until contact felt like a long rein to my horse. It was a process that I benefited from in so many ways. Most of all patience.
      Thanks, Lyn.

  20. joepote01

    A few months ago I switched from a D-ring snaffle to a one-piece curb bit with a deep tongue relief with my 5-yo AQHA gelding. I tried the new bit based on a recommendation from an experienced trainer. I stayed with the new bit because my horse seemed to really appreciate it. For whatever reason, he is much more relaxed with the new bit than he was with the snaffle.

    Either way, though, you hit the nail on the head about the hands. I’m pretty new to the world of horsemanship, but it seems to me that light hands and good rein management are a must regardless of what bit is used…and the bit should be selected based on what makes the horse the most comfortable.

    I have really enjoyed your writing, Anna. You do a good job of helping the reader see things from the horse’s perspective.

    Thanks for all you do.

    1. Thanks, Joe. I had a horse who was half-killed by a two piece snaffle… and a mullen mouth was a good solution. If your bit has shanks, be very careful. Thanks for your comment.

  21. Lyn Chambers

    I have a ways to go. Hahaha! I rode last night………reins yes, neck ring no. I tried initially not to use my reins at all but Dooley spent the entire first half of the ride determined to turn right back towards home. But I could feeeeeeeel it. I really could, when I wasn’t having to turn him back on track, just for a second, every now and then, the lightest of breath having a reaction, a lighter step, a freer back, an easy stop. I want MORE!!!

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