Is your horse happy or hurting?
Text: Charlotte Bastiaanse
The truth is that bit and bridle combinations can cause a horse discomfort – particularly when they’re misused or not fitted properly. Bits and bridles exert pressure on the horse’s bars, lips, tongue, palate, nose, chin and poll, which means there are multiple points that must be considered when fitting.
It is critical that riders understand that bits are not there to punish the horse or to stabilise an unbalanced rider. Bits and bridles are intended for communication, and the key to clear communication is through the principle of slight pressure and release.
The horse will learn to seek the position of comfort, when the rider rewards him with release, in the exact moment that the horse complies with what the rider is asking. This is a complicated concept because it involves a combination of knowledge, timing and ‘feel’ that may not yet be established in a rider’s skill set. As a result, the rider may carry on exerting pressure on the horse’s mouth without any release, and the horse suffers further discomfort even after complying with the instruction. For obvious reasons, an ill-fitting bit will add to the equation since it may be causing discomfort even when the rider has mastered the art of good contact. HQ chatted to expert bit fitter, Dawn Mansfield, about bitting issues.
What could be wrong with my bit?
Many horse owners and riders are not aware of the different bit options available, and in some instances may also not understand the action that each bit has on the horse’s mouth. In some instances, bits are not designed for the anatomy of a particular horse’s mouth, which can result in pressure on sensitive areas. A qualified bit fitter can assess the horse’s mouth and advise the owner on which bits can and can’t be used for the individual horse.
How can I tell if my horse is uncomfortable?
Your horse will show you. A horse who is experiencing pain or discomfort in his mouth will try to open his mouth or shield sensitive areas with his tongue – which can lead to lacerations. Other signs of discomfort include head shaking, grinding on the bit, pinning his ears back and working behind the bit. Horses may refuse to be bridled by throwing their heads up or refusing to open their mouths.
It is essential to address the problem than to attempt to mask it, for example by tightening the noseband. Tightening the noseband will only obstruct the airway, making it more difficult for the horse to breathe, and damaging his facial nerves, which is evident when a horse rubs his head on his legs or on the stable door as soon as a bridle is removed. More severe signs of bitting problems are evident through lacerations of the tongue, the bars and the sides of the horse’s mouth.
Caption: Discomfort is evident when the horse opens his mouth or tries
to get his tongue over the bit – masking this symptom with a tighter noseband
is not an effective or humane solution.
The anatomy of the horse’s mouth
The mouth of the horse has multiple areas that are affected by the action of the bit. For example, single-jointed snaffles typically put pressure on the roof of the horse’s mouth when the rider pulls on the reins. Dawn explains that these bits have improved over time as bit makers have started curving the mouthpieces to reduce this problem. “It also depends on the shape of the palate as well as the cheekpiece attached to the single-jointed mouthpiece,” says Dawn. Undue pressure on the palate is evident when the horse tries to open his mouth or put his tongue over the bit. Single-jointed bits are regarded as putting more pressure on the bars, especially when the horse is working in a frame.
A horse’s lower jaw is in fact quite sharp. The bone itself is very sharp, with only a think layer of gum between the bit and the jawbone. Dawn explains that the sharpness of the jaw can vary from breed to breed, so it’s best to consult someone knowledgeable about the specific anatomy of your horse’s breed when selecting a bit. You may find that although double-jointed and straight-bar bits don’t affect your horse’s palate, they can still put excessive pressure on the lower jaw. Again, the horse will try to open his mouth to relieve this pressure.
Non-metal bits have become popular because they are not as hard on the mouth as metal bits. However, it is important to bear the horse’s mouth size in mind. Rubber and plastic coated bits can be very thick and are therefore generally not suitable for horses with smaller mouths, such as Arabians, Thoroughbreds and finely build breeds, because they put pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth, and even more additional pressure on the tongue.
Any bit with shanks uses leverage to create additional pressure on the poll, as well as on the mouth; they are mostly used on hot or strong horses with sensitive mouths. Gags need to be used with care, particularly in unskilled hands. However, Dawn says, “two-and-a-half or three-ring gags and Tom Thumb gags are not as strong.” These bits are therefore safer options for horses and riders trying a gag for the first time.