Bit Up!

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.)

Julie Good­night

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.

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