BIT LOGIC

Spin to Win Rodeo - - Features - B< -8/,( 0$1.,1

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.”

SPE­CIFIC EN­GI­NEER­ING

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.

IN­DI­VID­UAL TASTES

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.

WIN­NING TWEAKS

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.”

FI­NAL THOUGHTS

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.

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