Choosing the Correct Dressage Bit
Once upon a time, bits suited a “one size fits all” mentality. Today, as we learn more about the anatomy and reactions in the horse’s mouth, we are adapting bits to suit every type of mouth out there, from narrow to large, sensitive to tricky.
As with any discipline, succeeding in Dressage relies on a horse’s ability to perform. Without comfort in its body and equipment, a horse is unable to showcase its natural athleticism, stubbing it’s potential to perform. In this article, we are going to discuss the anatomy of a horse’s mouth, the different types of legal Dressage bits, a bit’s suitability to a horse’s mouth and how an incorrect or correct bit can affect a horse’s performance.
The Anatomy of a Horse’s Mouth
Beneath the horse’s lips are many different structures that a bit must work with and around. A mature horse has between thirty-six and forty-four teeth including four incisors, zero to four canines, zero to four wolf teeth and twenty-four cheek teeth. At the very front of the mouth are the incisors—teeth designed for tearing grass. Behind these may be wolf teeth, which tend to be removed at around two years of age as they can interfere with the bit. Between the front incisors and the back molars is the space where the bit rests—on a pressure sensitive cartilage known as ‘the bars’. Behind these are the molars or grinding teeth.
Depending on the type of bit, pressure may be applied on the roof of the horse’s mouth, the tongue, the bars of the mouth and the corners of the lips. It is important that as owners and riders we find the bit that applies pressure where each particular horse prefers it. Some horses prefer mainly tongue pressure while others only prefer bar pressure.
Legal Dressage Bits
Despite the numerous types of bits present today, there are only a select few categories legal in Dressage. These include:
- Eggbutt, Loose Ring, D-Ring and Full Mouth. This includes rings that sit on the outside of the horse’s mouth. Loose Ring Snaffles tend to have the most movement and are the most sensitive, requiring a rider with a steady hand. Eggbutt and D-ring Snaffles are more forgiving of a rider’s hands, muting more movement. This means they may also be more suitable for a horse that can be quite reactive off the bit. Full Mouth Snaffles are designed to stop a bit from sliding through a horse’s mouth and can help teach a horse to turn.
- Single Joint Snaffles. These are bits that only have a single join in the centre of the bit, mainly applying pressure to the corners of the mouth and the bars of the mouth. If the bit is too wide, there may be a “nutcracker” action on the horse’s tongue or the roof of the mouth, causing uncomfortable pressure. If the bit is the correct size, this should not come into play. If you find a bit with a slight curve, this allows more comfort and a more forgiving feel.
- Double Jointed Snaffles. These refer to bits with two joins in the centre of the bit, creating a lozenge in the middle. The lozenge can come in lots of different shapes to apply different pressure or to create a different feel. These tend to apply pressure mostly to the tongue but can also apply pressure to the corners of the mouth and the bars of the mouth.
- Straight Bar Snaffles. This is a bit that has no join and is completely straight. Depending on their type, they tend to apply pressure to the tongue, bars of the mouth and corners of the mouth. Their downside is that they do not have the ability to separate, meaning that if a rider takes pressure on one side of the bit, there is pressure and movement throughout the whole bit.
A Bit’s Suitability to A Horse’s Mouth
A bit’s suitability comes down to its size, shape and where it applies pressure. Though it can vary, the arms of the bit (not including the ring) should only be visible 0.6cm on either side of the horse’s mouth, to ensure it is not too big or small. Shape and pressure can be a little more difficult to determine. Some horses prefer bar pressure while others are more suited to tongue pressure. A good way to check the sensitivity of your horse’s tongue is to carefully place two fingers in the side of your horse’s mouth, touching their tongue. If they don’t react, this may mean they have a less sensitive mouth and could be quite comfortable with tongue pressure. A horse that reacts sharply could be very quick to react off a tongue pressure bit and may be more suited to a bit with bar pressure.
Increasing the severity of a bit may not improve the reaction from a dull-mouthed horse but finding the type of pressure that a horse prefers can achieve a more responsive and lighter horse.
How Can An Ill-Fitted Bit Affect A Horse’s Performance?
The problems that arise from ill-fitting bits are numerous, but some long-term issues that may ensue can include head-tossing, mouth sores and a dull tongue. A bit is the rider’s main form of communication with the horse and in Dressage this is particularly important. A good “contact”, the connection between a rider’s hands and a horse’s mouth, can mean the difference between a stiff, uncooperative horse, and a soft, easy horse. As the bit is the point of pressure, its suitability means everything to the contact’s quality. With a bit that is too big, the bit may slide through the horse’s mouth, creating ulcers or bad turning. A bit that has the wrong pressure may cause a horse to become very reactive and ill tempered, not just when the rider uses the hand. The horse can be affected from how they hold their head to how they carry their body, many becoming hollow to escape the bit’s pressure.
How A CORRECT Fitting Bit can Influence Performance
When a horse is ridden with the bit that is most comfortable or suited to them, they can transform drastically. In Dressage, some of the more common reactions include a softer contact, a more responsive horse, a positive change in attitude and an adjustment in the way a horse carries their body overall. If a horse is carrying tension in their head and jaw, this can affect how well they use their entire body. Many horses find a more expressive way of moving when ridden in the correct bit for them—suddenly working more correctly in the back, ribs and joints as well as in their neck.
There is no “wrong” Dressage bit. As long as it is legal there is no reason why you shouldn’t investigate different avenues to find the most comfortable option for your horse. Finding the most suitable bit for your equestrian partner is another step towards achieving harmony between yourself and your horse.
Written by Tanisha Ryan
Experts in Equine Nutrition
Every product in the Ranvet range has been developed to meet a horse’s most specific need at any given time, be it in a training environment or on a breeding farm. Having pioneered the formulation of specific medications and dietary supplements for horses, the company is now recognised as a leader in the areas of equine health and nutrition.