Fitting the Horse Bit
How to Fit Your Horse's Bit
An ill-fitting bit can cause a horse much frustration and pain.
How awful might you feel if you learned that a horse you assumed to be disobedient and willful under-saddle was actually crying out for relief from the pain of his bit? An ill-fitting bit can cause a horse suffering in the very sensitive mouth area that often goes unnoticed, and then his daily ride quickly turns into a maddening experience. Too many horses are labeled as uncooperative, severely punished and ridden under a hard hand because of this simple oversight.
Things You’ll Need:
A measuring tape or ruler
A bit of string OR
Soft rubber tubing
It is very easy for equestrians at any skill level to fall into a one-size-fits-all mentality when it comes to finding the right fit for your horse’s mouth. Many bit styles are mass-manufactured in sizes of whole or half-inch increments, and the temptation is to take one's best guess and "make it work". Bit designs for every discipline range from very mild to brutal, depending on the manner in which they apply to the bars, tongue and roof of the mouth with even the slightest touch of the rider's rein. The first rule here is to actually measure your horse's mouth before you ever set foot into a store or open a catalog.
The bit should sit over the bars of the mouth, the soft tissue area located behind the front teeth that you can readily see. When properly placed, it should appear that the corners of the horse's lips are being slightly lifted - many people use the rule of "one wrinkle" at the corner of the mouth to determine placement. Adjusting the length of the headstall which attaches the bit to the bridle will raise or lower where the bit rests on the bars of his mouth. Too low, and the bit will knock against the horse's teeth, which is both uncomfortable for him and ineffective for the rider. Too high, and your horse will be strained, pinched at the corners of his mouth and uncomfortable, and he won't receive your signals well. So you will need to measure across the area where you expect the bit will sit comfortably.
Choose a strip of a soft, safe material such as a strand of yarn, a string or shoelace. One of the best ideas I have seen is to use a length of soft rubber tubing or an extra piece of garden-hose material to get some idea of the dimension the bit will add. Run this piece horizontally across the horse's mouth, over the tongue and behind his teeth, or coax him into accepting it as you would when bridling.
Once you've established the correct position, use your marker to mark the edges of your faux-bit where it meets the edge of the horse's lips. Remove the strand from his mouth and use your measuring tape to determine the length between markings in inches. As a general rule, the bit size will need to be 1/4 of an inch longer than this measurement to allow enough room so that extra width of the bit rings or shanks do not squeeze inward on the horse's mouth. You may find that the span of his mouth plus your 1/4" allowance is not a nice round number, and you can focus on finding a manufacturer who carries your bit in the correct size or is capable of custom-making one for your horse. It may take a little longer, but it is an investment that will save yours and your horse's sanity throughout your career together.
Keep Your Eyes Open:
While you are considering which bit style will best suit your horse in his training, you will also need to notice which elements of its design could potentially pinch, chafe or otherwise irritate him. Any bit that has a hinged attachment at the corners of the mouth presents a prime opportunity for pinching and sores to occur, especially if the bit is not the right size for your horse.
With bits that have hinged mouthpieces that swing or move freely, pinching is a problem. The loose-ring snaffle, tom thumb, "wonder" bit, or any bit with gag action (bits that allow the mouthpieces to slide) can pinch the corners of the horse's mouth or rub the skin raw. If your horse is having this problem, you'll often notice a small sore in the corner of his mouth, much like a sore you might get from walking in shoes that are a size too small. If this occurs, you'll need to switch bits or use round rubber bit guards that can be placed on each side of the bit. Once a sore has formed, your horse will need a few days to recover without use of the bit. Apply Vaseline or an antibiotic ointment to keep the wound from becoming dry, chapped or infected.
Keep an eye out for common clues that your horse might be reacting to a painful bit, rather than just resisting the rider. Behavioral symptoms: - Frequent bit chomping, persistently open mouth, or hanging out of the tongue. - Repeated head shaking or tossing. Carrying the head stiffly and high with nose in the air, often with his jaw stretched open or chomping almost compulsively. - Running away with his rider or leaning on his forehand against pressure on the reins. - Staying behind the bit, creating an unnatural and stiff bend in the neck which he achieves by putting his nose to his chest. The commonality among these behaviors is that each is a horse's attempt to escape or avoid the pain which he has been conditioned to expect during his rides. While our focus here is on the bit, there are other possible causes that should be considered, including the riding habits of a heavy-handed rider.