What bit should I use with my horse? Why don’t you always use a snaffle bit? Doesn’t a bit hurt a horse?

A bit is a tool used for motivation.

A motivator is something that encourages your horse to make a change in his behavior. Most tools used in horse training are some form of a motivator; halter, your hand pressing on the horse, leg cue, bits and spurs are all examples of tools used to motivate a horse.

For instance, when you’re leading your horse and you want it to stop; you could put some backward pressure on the halter.  When the horse stops moving, you would then release the pressure. In this case,the halter is the motivator that delivers the cue to the horse. The release indicates to your horse that it has done the right thing.

How much motivation does a horse need? That largely depends on the horses commitment or outlook on his job. Consider the horse as an employee for a moment;

Employee One arrives at work early every day, happy to be there and ready to perform a good day’s work.

Employee Two goes to work every day, but is often the last one in the door.  Although slow to get going, once on the job their work can be generally good.

Employee Three gets to work late and misses entire days regularly.  On the job, this employee performs poorly.  Repeated reprimands have little or no effect. As time goes on, this employee does less and less each day in an effort to find out how little he can do and still pick up a paycheck.

Figure out what type of “employee” your horse is, and then find an appropriate motivator.  Horses don’t connect taking away their food or water (a form of paycheck) but you can take steps that an employer or a parent might take in setting consequences for inaction.

A correction, for a human child walking toward a busy street might be a verbal warning, followed by the parent physically touching the child and if still ignored some parents would spank as a consequence for disobedience.

When asking a horse to stop you could take the slack out of the reins as a first request. If the horse didn’t stop with this subtle cue, you could apply mild pressure with the reins. If the horse still chose to ignore the cue you could continue to increase the pressure.

Both Employees Two and Three need to be reminded the basics of their job. If your horse falls into either of these categories, it has somehow learned that ignoring your cues is an acceptable answer.  Possibly they were never properly trained for their jobs; in that case retraining is in order.

Consider the following example:

“Stacy, This past weekend my niece and I were trail riding and both if our horses bolted. Specifically the horse I was riding is a “follower” and wanted to run too. I have heard and read a lot about what you should and shouldn’t do in a situation like this but nothing seems to work once they are up to full speed, and you have lost their attention. I had a good seat while he was running, And reached to grab the rein on the right side to try and pull him around hoping he would slow down. Instead he turned a little and I fell off. … do you have any advice for pulling them back once they have gotten so out of control? I have always been told to use the “emergency brake” which is just grabbing one rein close to the mouth and pulling them around, but it seems to me this doesn’t always work. I also don’t want him to think he can continue to get away with that…”

A horse that doesn’t know how to properly respond to the bit will often become worse if you switch to a ‘bigger’ bit.  These horses need to go through some of the same steps that a young horse goes through to learn how to properly respond to bit pressure.  This includes everything that must happen before a horse’s first ride such as ground work (without a rider) bending while standing still and bending while moving (see Episode 16 & 18),  ground driving (see Episode 17), as well as mounted work. Once mounted up the horse should learn to bend, spiral out and counter bend before you consider moving up in bit.

A few horses in the Employee Two category are clear about what you want but they’re slow in responding.  If you find your horse ignoring you, you’ll want to make sure you review the basics and then consider a more motivating tool.  Make sure the problem is their laziness or inattentiveness and not their confusion about what it is you’re asking.

So when is it appropriate to move to a more motivating bit?  One reason would be when it is clear that the horse understands the basic lessons but at times chooses to ignore them. In the example above, the run-away horse may have lacked training but even with proper training many horses who get excited find a mild bit easy to ignore.

What is a mild bit? That depends on the horse. Watching a horses physical reaction is more indicative of the severity of the bit. Some horses actually prefer ‘solid’ mouth pieces over ‘broken’ mouth pieces; which is evident by less chomping or gaping of the mouth. Others are more relaxed in a bit that hinges and has a lot of movement.

Doesn’t a bit hurt a horse? Any bit it is only as harsh as the hands that use it. A snaffle bit can be misused. Bits, as well as the horses that wear them, respond best if they are understood.

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These are the most commonly used bits in my training program. Remember that shorter shanks are more mild. Also using a smooth leather chin strap vs a chain strap will change how the bit feels to the horse.

smooth snaffle

1) a smooth snaffle-built in a way that it will not pinch the horses cheeks

twisted snaffle

2) sometimes a twisted snaffle, if the horse is dull before it can counter bend. Mouth piece should be the same diameter as the regular snaffle, not thinner.

shank snaffle

3) shanked snaffle, also known as a ‘Tom Thumb’ sometimes, technically this is not a snaffle as it has shanks

wide port

4) wide port

low port

5) low port


6) hinge port