Choose the right bit for optimal on-trail communication and control with this expert guide from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
YYour horse’s bit (or bit-free headgear) is a critical tool for communication and control on the trail. Your equine trail partner may be wearing the wrong bit if he’s spooky, constantly pulls on the reins, moves in a high-headed “stargazing” frame, is prone to meltdowns, or powers forward too fast.
Here, top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight will explain how a bit may give you more or less control of your horse and how to identify signs of bit discomfort — and comfort.
Then Goodnight will give you the steps to find a new bit that will allow your horse to be comfortable, relaxed, and in control on the trail. (For a fun bit-and-bridle activity just for kids, see “The Bridle Puzzle” on page 38.)
A Bit on Bits
On the trail, you use your horse’s headgear to steer, stop, and redirect his attention to the path ahead if his attention wanders.
You ride your horse in a bit, or you can ride in bit-free headgear, such as a hackamore, sidepull, a bridle designed without a bit, or even a rope halter. Such headgear controls your horse with nose pressure, (and sometimes chin and poll pressure) rather than mouth pressure.
However, a bit gives you more control and helps you to motivate your horse to perform on a higher level.
For instance, on the trail, you may need to motivate your horse to move precisely around obstacles or steer clear of danger. Or, you may need to motivate him to stay put and face what he’s afraid of instead of bolting away from what he perceives as danger.
The ideal bit is comfortable in your horse’s mouth, thereby allowing him to relax enough to think about your cues. Your riding ability also impacts what bit your horse should wear.
A horse may work perfectly for a seasoned professional with light hands, but the same bit in the hands of a new rider (who may be heavier handed) may be totally inappropriate.
Your horse is a flight animal, so if he’s uncomfortable and worried every time he feels bit pressure, he’s thinking about how to get away from that uncomfortable pressure.
As a result, your horse may develop behaviors and postures that help him momentarily avoid bit pressure. He may even run right through the bit pressure.
Note that changing your horse’s bit won’t fix a training issue. If he doesn’t understand a cue to stop, adding a bigger, more severe bit isn’t the answer; instead, train him to respond to a stop cue.
If your horse doesn’t stop well, doesn’t turn easily, tosses his head, carries his head high with his back arched, or if he’s opening his mouth often, there’s may be a bit problem. He might need a bit that’s more stress-reducing, instead of a bit with more power.
Discomfort vs. Comfort
Your horse will tell you if the bit is uncomfortable through his behavior.
These signs include: moving in an inverted posture (sometimes called stargazing or being hollowed out); stiffening his neck or leaning down and rooting the reins out of the rider’s hands; gaping his mouth; sticking out his tongue or tossing his head.
Your horse may also feel discomfort if he chomps angrily on the bit. This is different from simply playing with the bit or moving a roller.
If you have the right bit, your trained horse should be relaxed, compliant, and responsive to your aids. He’ll be soft in your hands, easily turning right and left and stopping without a lot of rein pressure.
If your horse is comfortable, he’ll have a soft, relaxed eye. His mouth will be closed. His lips will be relaxed whether or not you’re applying rein pressure.
If you can say all these things about your
Top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight rides her finished horse, Dually, in a bit that has a low and wide port mouthpiece and five-inch shanks. With this bit, her goal is to ride with a relaxed hand and draped reins.