Bit makers and world champions discuss design and functionality of the bits that have made the biggest difference. by Julie Mankin
“Most people think ‘purchase’ is what you do when you buy the bit,” cracked ProRodeo Hall of Famer Mike Beers, who has a gold buckle and 23 NFRs to his credit.
For the record, the amount of purchase (the part of the cheek piece above the mouthpiece, on either side) affects a bit’s leverage, which affects your horse’s lift or drop, flexion, head carriage, and body control. Beers should know. He’s had his own line of bits for three decades now, and has been teaching students at clinics for 30 years.
In 1987, Paul Petska gave Beers his first chain bit. It was the design that soon swept the industry and became a go-to item for thousands of team ropers for two reasons: Most horses liked it, and most guys could pull too hard and the chain mouthpiece was so forgiving that their horses didn’t over-react. (Petska’s original chain bit is available online and from virtually every Western retailer across the country.)
Beers began designing bits for Reinsman in 1989, and says he was the first to come up with the ported chain. He’d set out to have the forgiveness of the chain without the constant tongue pressure. A wide port was his answer.
“I remember one guy, I gave him that bit after his horse had been running through his hand and opening his mouth, and his horse loved it,” said Beers, 60. “Everyone who got that bit from me could not believe the difference a bit could make.”
In fact, Beers’ line at Reinsman today (reinsman.com) is still comprised of variations of the chain with a port.
“Horses love that bit,” Beers said. “Most every correction bit, when you pull on the shanks, bends in the middle and pinches the horse’s bars, causing the horse to open its mouth. The chain doesn’t pinch, and the wide port offers a lot of tongue relief.”
Reinsman’s goal with bits is to let you communicate what you want from your horse in the clearest way possible. They classify their bits in six stages depending on the bit’s complexity and the rider’s and horse’s experience level.
Tommy Blessing of Texas also started out making ported chains, and thinks the idea likely was an off-shoot of the old Jimmie Cooper Correction bit made by Sims. Today, the chained port is still Blessing’s best-seller, through his line exclusively at NRS (nrsworld.com), which also features Jim Edwards bits.
“Head horses can have a tendency to get a little pushy, and this can back them off,” Blessing said. “We have one with a 9-inch shank that’s pretty severe, and people can use it to tune on their horse at home, then put the 6-inch shank on to go compete. It depends on what your horse is and how heavy your hands are.”
Blessing says people commonly think their horse is too broke to need a big bit.
“I say carry more bit than you need and use it less,” he said. “If you don’t have enough bit, then you have to go to pulling, and I’ll tell you one thing: Nobody can pull with their left hand and rope with their right hand. That’s my theory. Just overbit a little, and be real soft with it. If you underbit, then you go to pulling and that causes a problem no matter how good you rope.”
One of the biggest fans of the chained port is three-time NFR average champion Luke Brown.
“I’ll always have a Blessing chain port,” Brown said. “It’s the fix-all for everything—a great bit. I won’t leave home without one in the trailer.”
But Brown, like every other veteran of the game, knows each horse decides what’s best. On Slim Shady, who made Brown’s career, he used a Myler bit with a medium square-shaped port ( mylerbitsusa.com).
“He was real light-mouthed,” Brown said of the horse known for running too free. “It would almost make it worse if you tried to put a bigger bit on him—he’d get to climbing and working more jerky. I think that nice Myler kept him leaving flatter and you could hold him some. If he wanted to run off, he was going to run off regardless. He had his own little deal, and you just roped around it.”
OLD-SCHOOL SOLID MOUTHPIECES
More recently, Brown worked with bit-maker Rocky Staples of Washington on some options that are less forgiving than the simple chain, but more forgiving than the ported chain. Brown now has two or three different solid mouthpieces that he’s ridden on every horse, all year. Each mouthpiece, however, hinges where it meets the shanks, offering some movement that way.
“I’ve tried to ride really nice hand-made, solid bits like real cowboys can ride,” Brown admitted. “I can’t. I’m too jerky and panicky about everything I do; I’m not good with them. When I rode this first medium-port Rocky Staples bit on my horse, it’s a pretty light bit that worked real good on him. The bars have a lot of forgiveness when my left hand wants to be bad, but if I ride well, it has enough port to where I can try to use my bridle a little bit.”
Brown says the biggest key with his Staples arsenal ( rockystaplesbitandspur.com) has been the forgiveness in those hinged shank attachments, since he sometimes gets “too carried away.” The same swivel motion at the shanks is available in roping bits offered by Texas maker Kerry Kelley. Ryan Motes uses Kelley’s correction bit, with ball-joint swivels at the shanks, on basically every horse.
“The design is forgiving and offers a lot of independence of the shank,” said Kelley, whose correction bits are popular with headers because their “feel” is spectacular. (For the record, “feel” in a bit is how much reaction you get without resistance.)
Kelley (kerrykelleyspurs.com) also just launched a line of barrel racing bits with veteran trainer and NFR barrel racer Danyelle Campbell, known for her knowledge of why different bits have different feels. Kelley has been selling them faster than he can make them.
“Cutters and ropers aren’t inclined to tell everybody their secrets,” he cracked. “Barrel racers put it out there and will tell everybody overnight.”
Kelley, whose bits will be available at the South Point this December during the WSTR Finale, has his own version of the chained port with tweaks that give it more feel.
“It stops instead of swiveling all the way around, so it gives you a little more hold on your horse than a free-swinging chain,” he said. “It works more like a hinged port but has that chain feel.”
Les Vogt calls himself a “passionate low-numbered heeler,” but he’s also a 15-time world champion trainer and National
Reined Cow Horse Association Hall of Famer. Forty years of experience competing and making bits are wrapped into his Fast Time, Performax, and Masters bits for ropers, available from lesvogt.com. The Masters line is designed in partnership with Classic Equine, and fellow Classic Equine designers Rickey Green and Joe Beaver also have distinctive perspectives on bits, and their own bit lines.
“Guys like these design bits for the way the horse thinks,” said Jeye Johnson of Classic Equine. “A lot of these designers are thinking outside of ported chains, and guys like Rickey Green have great perspectives on tie-downs and curb straps, too.”
Two things set Vogt’s line apart. He classifies his bits according to the leverage they offer, so it’s easy to know what you’re getting. And his bits work with “pre-signals,” meaning the rotation of the top of the bit is slower than the shanks, so the horse can feel your hand start to move before the curb strap bites.
“Horses know they can follow your hand and avoid the curb pressure, so they just start melting off the bit,” Vogt said.
Because horses hold their breath when they feel pain, it makes sense to educate them instead of hurt them, he says. For lower-numbered ropers, having his patented four inches of shank movement to one inch of mouthpiece rotation is like having four inches of brake pedal instead of only an on/off switch.
“A bit is a tool to maximize the performance of your horse,” Vogt said. “People from all over the world call me every day for advice on bits, and I ask them the same question—What do you want to change about your horse?—because my bits are calculated to shift a horse’s weight to the hindquarters, and they can help a horse break flatter from the box, help a head horse rate better, or get a horse’s head down lower.”
By visiting lesvogt.com, you can choose a couple of different bits and choose the “compare” option to get descriptions and notes about which functions each bit addresses and which kinds of horses they help the most.
Even though we’ve been using metal bits since 1200 BC, finding the best bit for your horse is still trial-and-error. Horses are individuals. Each has a different level of sensitivity, mouth structure, and demeanor; so no bit is right, and no bit is wrong. Your best bet is to find the one your horse likes the most. And that one, most of the time, will end up surprising you.
“There is no perfect head-horse bit, or perfect heel-horse bit,” said Staples, who has built bits for 34 years. “It just has to be right for that particular horse. Nobody can tell you a bit will work—you have to try it.”
A chained port can darned sure make a horse stop, he says, but he’s not a chain bit guy. They’re not his favorite—not “real” bits. That’s not to say he won’t make a chain mouthpiece for you, like he did for Kory Koontz. They’d tried everything on Remix but that horse loves the chain the most.
“Travis Graves and I are going through some things with his horse, and I think we have it figured out,” Staples said. “You just have to try different things. His little brown horse is really, really broke, but really strong. Once Travis comes around the corner, he could just about ride that horse with anything, but going down the arena and setting him up for the corner? That’s where he’s so strong.”
Wyoming bit maker Tom Balding who, like Staples, knew how to weld before he fell into bit-making, says his Double Cross Mouthpiece is the most popular he’s made in 30 years. It looks like a small spade with a couple of copper rollers in the center, giving the mouthpiece three parts. The small spade-like pieces in the bit are ergonomically
“There is no perfect headhorse bit, or perfect heel-horse bit. It just has to be right for that particular horse.” —ROCKY STAPLES
built to conform in a horse’s mouth, and are even more easily accepted, he says, because they feature sweet iron materials inlaid with copper, and ball hinge designs to prevent pinching at the corners of the mouth.
In general, the hinged-port correction bits Beers referenced earlier do have their merits, as well, and are designed to let you get collection on one side or the other. Staples says Brady Minor used a hinged port on one of his horses because it let Minor take his left rein a little shorter. Since the bit has movement in the mouthpiece, he could bring his horse’s nose around to the left as he was running down the arena, and make the corner a little faster and a little better.
Basically, mouthpieces with movement—like the hinged port or swivel attachment at the shanks—help you get a little more flexion.
World champion header Chad Masters has used every bit on the market at one point or another. But at Pendleton in September to win the Roundup with Tyler Worley, he was using his three-piece Perfect Bit ( theperfectbit.com) on Clint, with a loose curb strap.
“That horse is really light-mouthed,” said Masters. “When you pull with any kind of bit on Clint, he sits on his butt immediately. So the less grab you have on him, the better.”
Going back to the concept that made the chain popular, Masters says the milder bit allows him to pull on Clint a little bit, whereas, if he had too much bit, the horse wouldn’t want any pulling at all.
“Keep in mind, we all want to ride lighter-mouthed horses,” Masters said. “When I was younger, I had those good horses. Then I went to trying a lot of horses, trying to find them again. But they don’t make that many, so sometimes you have to learn to get along with a horse. You’ve got to get a bit that fits that horse.”
Masters points out that, while it’s nice to use a light chain or Perfect Bit on horses, you can actually be lighter-handed sometimes with a bigger bit.
“You know, you can put a heavy bit on a horse, and he won’t mess with you then,” Masters explained. “He’ll stay off the bit. You want to do whatever it takes to keep the horse off the bit. Clint doesn’t mess with the Perfect Bit. Sometimes it’s not enough for other horses.”
Masters says solid mouthpieces like the ones favored by Brown can—on a head horse that already has a natural lateral move— make a horse feel sharper in that move. Beers, in fact, used a solid mouthpiece with a roller on his mare at the Pendleton Roundup, simply because she likes it and works well with it.
“When you’re heading, it’s real important in the box to hold your horse in that corner without really holding him too much, because you don’t want him to lift his front feet off the ground when he leaves,” Staples said. “You want him to leave flat. You can do that with these solid mouthpieces. As far as flexion, a good head horse is going to turn off and face no matter what.”
On a lighter-mouthed horse, don’t forget you can try a leather curb strap before you go to a milder bit.
“People don’t realize that with a chain mouthpiece, it’s the curb strap tension that determines how much heat you put on a horse,” Beers said. “And if a horse is running through your hand, try a smaller diameter curb and you’ll get quite a bit more bite.”
Regardless of where you are in the trial-and-error stages of trying different bits on your favorite horse, you should never use just one, according to the experts.
“Horses get dull about commonly used pressure points and at some point become less responsive,” said Vogt. “When you change the pressure points, they feel fresh again. Don’t use a bit daily and take that same one to the roping.”
Staples says the same thing.
“You want to switch it up,” he explained. “Use one bit when you’re practicing, and another that you know works well at the roping or rodeo. It keeps them thinking. They’ll get stale to the same bit day in and day out. They’ll get numb to it and won’t be working as snappy as you want them to work. Kory Koontz changes his up in the practice pen, then goes back to the one he knows works best at the rodeos.”
Bit shopping, it seems, is more art than science. Yes, we’ve come a long way since bits were made of rope, bone, and horn; but it still pays to know that “purchase” is not just what you do when you buy the bit.