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Three brothers have transformed the way many people view the art of correctly bitting a horse. If you've not seen the demo, bought a bit or even the book, that's bad enough but you have at least heard of them? Of course we are talking about the Myler bits.
With these bits being all the rage, I thought it appropriate to say a little about the horse's mouth and bits in this edition of Horsetalk, although it is such a vast subject that I can really only touch the surface.
This article is intended to provide practical advice on the correct fitting and usage of bits so I do not propose to go through what bits to use in different situations or how to cure various problems as each horse and situation is different and needs individual study.
"No foot no horse" is of course absolutely true, but so is "No mouth, no brakes, no steerage, etc. etc."
The factors to be considered in relation to bitting are:
A horse must be comfortable in his mouth if he is to be expected to work to the best of his ability, so firstly we'll take a look at the mouth and what aspects have to be taken into consideration regarding the fitting of a bit, regardless of what type of bit your horse actually needs or what you consider he needs and then we'll consider the different actions of bits and the basics types.
2 of, one on each side of the mouth, skin covered, i.e. gums (the gap between the front and back teeth). The bit sits on these.
They vary in type, something which is usually overlooked; they can be broad, flat, v-shaped, sharp, thin or thick skinned.
The type of bar affects how the bit fits and how sensitive the horse is to its action.
Varies in thickness and width. The larger the tongue, obviously the less room for the bit. All bits rest on the tongue to some degree. The tongue is where horses first start to develop resistances.
i.e. the roof of the mouth. Although this curves slightly upwards, it is important to know palate height. Also, if your horse has a shallow jaw, the tongue will be pushed higher up in the mouth thus reducing bit space.
When a bit is correctly there should be a small wrinkle in the lips. The lips are extremely sensitive and damage over a sustained period will result in a loss of that sensitivity.
Incisors (those at the front of the mouth), canines/tushes (which sit just behind the incisors but in front of the bars - usually only present in the male) and the molars or cheek teeth. The wear on teeth is often uneven leaving sharp edges which can cut into the sides of the horse's mouth. Problems with the first of these teeth (premolars) will accentuate any bitting difficulties as the bit rests against these.
Wolf teeth are small teeth which sit directly in front of the first teeth or premolars - just were the bit sits. They can be a source of great aggravation and when sufficiently through the gum need removal.
Also called the chin groove is where a curb chain fits.
The length of the mouth has also to be taken into consideration, particularly if considering using a bit with a lever action, as does the width - bits do not want to be pressing too hard against the sides of the horse's mouth nor do they want to be hanging out at the sides.
Some bits also act on the poll. This can be a strong pressure and care should be exercised in the use of these. The choice of noseband also comes into play, different styles of noseband altering the action of bits. For example, the use of a dropped noseband with a snaffle bit increases the pressure on the bars creating a more downward pressure whereas the bit used alone creates an upward pressure on the mouth corners. Be mindful though not to resort to using a noseband as a means of resolving bitting problems without first ensuring there are no other causes. A horse that is fussy in the mouth (chewing chomping, etc) does not necessarily need a noseband to keep his mouth closed; more likely that the bit in use is not allowing enough tongue room.
Basically bits come in three designs of mouthpiece - straight, jointed and mullen (or curved). Then of course there are ported mouthpieces (curbs), all the variations of links and joints, rollers and chains, pelhams, gags, double bridles, hackamores - there's quite a list!
So often bits are used without a proper understanding of how they work and what can be achieved by using them. Very briefly:-
Straight mouthpieces act on the tongue, bars and lips. If the rider's hands are held too high or once the horse throws his head up, the bit slides up in the mouth and acts on the corners of the mouth as well.
Jointed mouthpieces work with a nutcracker action and act on the corners the mouth as well as the bars, tongue and lips. Action on the corners has a head-raising effect.
Mullen mouthpieces, being curved, puts more pressure on the tongue but eases bar pressure and so are milder in their action.
Ported mouthpieces create additional pressure on the roof of the mouth as a lever action is applied which raises the mouthpiece as well as acting on the poll.
Double bridles create poll and curb pressure through the inclusion of a curb bit which is used in conjunction with a jointed snaffle or "bridoon". The action of the rein of a curb bit is a pincher effect; the bit squeezes against the bars of the mouth and the curb chain acts on the chin groove. The upper cheeks of the curb bit bring pressure to bear on the poll. Wherever the head is positioned or wherever the rider's hands are, this action is not released unless the rider relaxes the hands.
Gags have a rein which is attached to the cheek pieces of the bridle, passes through the ring of the bit and is attached to the reins. They act on the corners of the mouth and on the poll when increased pressure is applied to the reins. A correctly used gag has the effect of raising the horse's head and encouraging flexion.
Pelhams are really two bits in one; the top rein being the snaffle rein the bottom the curb. Working the reins independently, the action is of each bit of a double bridle but many people use "D's" so that they only have one set of reins, so from a schooling point of view nothing can really be achieved but having said that some horses are very happy in them.
Hackamores although having no mouthpiece create a pressure on the horse's nose. Depending on the style, this pressure can be very extreme so care must be taken - your seat needs to be completely secure and independent of your hands, which must be "soft" in order to achieve the correct outline and way of going.
Incorrect use of bits in conjunction with rough hands can result in damage to the mouth which is irrepairable. Cuts and sores will heal but nerves do not recover their sensitivity; mental scares are another issue altogether.
The thickness of the mouthpiece is a very important factor
The thicker the mouthpiece, the milder the bit because of the greater bearing surface, but it's all very well using a thick mouthpiece if your horse has a thick tongue or a small mouth.
Common sense must prevail.
Rubber is obviously the softest and cushions the mouth but mouthpieces tend to be quite thick, again not suitable for a small mouth; Nathe bits are harder than rubber but are very flexible and of a thickness which is ideal in most situations but unfortunately they can be chewed through; vulcanite, which is a very hard rubber, tends to be rather bulky and horses will readily lean on them; metals used are stainless steel (the most common, hard wearing, rust-proof), copper and sweet iron, which are softer and encourage salivation.
A smooth finish creates less friction on the tongue but some bits have a twisted mouthpiece which "digs" into the tongue, bars and mouth corners. Others have rollers, the movement of which encourages the horse to salivate; wheels have a more severe effect. Links reduce the nutcracker action, allow more tongue room and encourage salivation; they can be curved/rounded (as in the French link) and so the action is milder than that of the Dr. Bristol where the link is flat and narrow therefore increasing it's severity. Then there are Waterfords.
A waterford bit which look like a chain and many people see them and think that they are a severe bit but in fact they are quite mild - there is no nutcracker action and being so flexible, encourage mouthing and help prevent a horse from "leaning" on the bit.
Available with as a Fulmer and in a variety of other bits e.g. Pelham, Dutch Gag
Bits with cheeks, apart from Fulmers which are to prevent the bit from sliding through the mouth and aid turning, particularly in the young horse, vary considerably. Some just have upper cheeks, some just lower, but most have both. The longer the length of the cheeks (upper or lower), the greater the leverage, therefore the more severe the bit.
There is the choice between loose and fixed rings, the former encouraging play and salivation whilst the latter keep the bit more still in the mouth.
Other factors to consider
Your horse may only require a rubber bit but if he is a chewer then you have no option but to use a steel bit unless you have the bit covered with something else, so a hollow mouthed bit is a good alternative as it lightweight and not heavy on the tongue. Some horses object to a jointed bit, whilst others are not happy with a straightbar; then you, or rather your horse has the choice of fixed or moveable mouthpieces. The actual internal structure of the mouth is the primary factor but you may have to think about such things as a parrot mouth, etc. too. Remember too that the horse has to be able to move its tongue in order to swallow properly and has to be able to do this effectively and comfortably whatever is in his mouth. You must act upon the signals your horse gives you to ensure you have him happily bitted - he can only react by resisting.
So what are riders trying to achieve?
The ultimate is a horse which goes in the correct outline with the right degree of flexion (remember that in order to flex at the poll the horse has to be able to move its lower jaw - it slides forward - so think about how tight your lip strap is - though preferably do not use one at all), not behind or over the bit, not over bent, hocks well engaged and going forward with impulsion, is light in the hand and is obedient to the aids. The mouth will be moist to varying degrees - ranging from little saliva on the lips to looking like someones's been let loose with a can of shaving foam - but never dry. A moist mouth is a soft mouth. The aim is to achieve this with mildest, simplest bit.
Of course, this 'ultimate' does not happen overnight - that's what training is all about. It takes several years to turn Anky Dobbin into Anky Bonfire. Sadly for most horses, they are often not broken or started correctly as youngsters, an unnecessarily severe bit is used too early in its educational (and usually without good reason at any stage), through incorrect or rough training evasions develop (which are then put down to bad habits and behaviour of the horse, not the rider) and too many people try to train their horses without enough knowledge and guidance from someone who has more experience. A good, effective rider, whilst extremely capable, is not necessarily good at training a horse in its early stages. Many people can drive a car but how good are they at teaching someone-else. The use of double bridles should not be seen as a short cut to achieving "schooling success" just because the horse can be forced to bend/flex by excessive use of the curb rein.
Why are there so many varieties of bits?
In reality many bits work basically in the same way (because of the there being the three fundamental mouthpieces - straight, jointed, mullen) but because of the evasions horses develop (crossing the jaw, throwing of the head, leaning on the bit, actually grabbing the bit with its teeth, drawing its tongue over the bit, dropping the bit/going behind the vertical, dropping the shoulder, barging, opening the mouth etc.) for whatever reasons, riders chop and change bits as the means of overcoming something rather than trying to get to the cause of the evasion to start with. Obviously the development of certain types or styles seems logical progress in the world of bit evolution such as the curved mouthpieces of the JK bits (and the Myler bits) which provide more room for the horse's tongue and lessen the nutcracker effect, the use of sweet iron because it's texture encourages the horse to salivate.
The horse world is fashion conscious, whatever is seen being used at The HOYS, etc. is on half the nation's horses within a week regardless of the fact that people do not know why the bit was used or even how it works in the first place! If "Joe Bloggs uses it on Top Nag then it must be good for me and Dobbin".
Certain bits have become de rigeur, again, because of fashion - horse pulls hard, use a Pelham, horse does this so use that. Never mind about finding out why the horse pulls hard in the first place. Of course there are those individuals who will always break the rules and no amount of schooling will stop Dobbin wanting to overtake the Master out hunting, so, yes a bit that gives the rider control is absolutely necessary in the interests of safety and etiquette! And some horses are very enthusiastic when jumping and the rider needs to jump fence 5 after fence 4, not go straight to fence 7! But remember the more severe the bit, the more danger there is of the horse evading it and so the problem is exacerbated. Problems are resolved by reverting to a milder bit and plenty of schooling.
The design, action and smoothness.
The bits are designed to provide a "comfort zone; it is what the Mylers call "pinch and restrict with release" - the bits pinch the bars and restrict the tongue when pressure is applied via the reins.
As soon as the horse gives i.e relaxes at the poll to relieve that pressure, the bit ceases to exert any pressure thus creating what is called the "comfort zone". The bits are very, very smooth so there is no friction on the tongue and the mouthpieces are all curved to allow plenty of tongue room and therefore aid swallowing.
The unique feature of the bits is that many of them have an independent sideways movement allowing the rider to literally work on one side of the horse (brilliant if your horse has a tendency to drop a shoulder) without affecting the other. With traditionally designed bits, whatever you do with your left hand, the pressure is exerted on both sides of the mouth thus in reality sending a mixed, confusing message to the horse.
There are three different levels of Myler bit depending upon the stage of training of the horse. There is a huge range of mouthpieces all available with the cheek style of your choice - loose ring, eggbutt, fulmer, with or without hooks (i.e. slots for the reins to go in); the combination bits also come with a wide choice of mouthpieces and, as with the hackamores, come with the choice of short or long shanks.
As the range is so diverse, it is recommended that you study the Myler Bit Book* which explains in detail all the different bits and their application and then seek advice from a Bitting Clinician such as Hilary Vernon** who will provide you with invaluable advice and information regarding suitably bitting your horse; indeed she will be able to pay you a visit..
The art of bitting is a complex subject and you should think carefully about what you are using and why, and Dobbin's reactions, but hopefully I have enlightened you a little more about what you should be thinking about when deciding upon which bit to use. Ultimately it is the welfare of your horse which is parmount and he deserves to be happily bitted.
Remember, if you horse is misbehaving (as opposed to being over enthusiastic because he's being over-fed) he is trying to communicate to you in the only way he knows how that all is not well. If in doubt seek professional advice.
TO READ MORE ABOUT MYLER BITS AND THE SCIENCE BEHIND THEIR DESIGN AND ACTION PLEASE FOLLOW THIS LINK.
*A Whole Bit Better by Dale, Ron & Bob Myler
** Hilary Vernon is a Myler Bit Specialist as well as being a general bitting clinician.
Please visit her website www.equestrianknowledge.co.uk for more information.
But have you thought about not using a bit at all?
If so the following may prove to be very inspirational
The bit is to blame for numerous problems in the horse including headshaking and upper respiratory obstruction according to Dr Robert Cook, Surgery Professor Emeritus at Tuft`s University in Massachusetts.
Dr Cook is widely respected for his research into the upper respiratory tract of the horse for over 30 years. For the past five years he has been concentrating on the adverse effects of the bit and the advantages of controlling the horse without using a bit. He has developed a new type of bitless bridle that differs from hackamores and other existing bitless bridles. The bridle (marketed as “the Bitless Bridle”) works by applying mild pressure at the poll, along the side of the cheek, under the chin and across the bridge of the nose. “Its action can best be described as a benevolent headlock or whole head hug” he explains.
The Bitless Bridle has received an enthusiastic welcome in the USA, where it received the Equitana Enterprise Award for the most innovative equine tack product in 2000. Dr Cook points out that, although the award was for the period from 1999, “realistically the new bridle is the first major innovation in tack since the curb bit was introduced in the fourth century BC.”
So why after a distinguished academic career has Dr. Cook turned to promoting an item of tack? “In recommending the Bitless Bridle I can help more horses and riders than I ever did during my years at the University” he declares.
Apparently horses, and riders, adapt quickly to the bridle. Feedback from owners who have used it suggests that the benefits are more wide ranging than had been expected. Horses with problems as diverse as headshaking, dorsal displacement of the soft palate and pulmonary haemorrhage have improved with the use of the Bitless Bridle. In fact, Cook now recognises 95 problems related to the bit that affect the horse and at least 10 more that affect the rider.
“The ease with which a horse can be switched, overnight, from its regular bit to the new bitless bridle has served to highlight many problems that had not previously been recognised as being caused by the bit” he says.
Cook's research suggests that the most common cause of headshaking is trigeminal neuralgia caused by the bit. The trigeminal nerve supplies sensory nerves to most of the head. It has three branches. One supplies the lower jaw, its teeth, and the related soft tissues such as the tongue, gums and salivary glands. The second branch supplies the bone, teeth and soft tissues of the upper jaw and palate. The third branch supplies the eye and surrounding soft tissues.
Dr Cook suggests that the bit triggers a pain response along the trigeminal nerve. The signal may be transmitted directly to the brain, producing pain at the bars of the mouth. Or a phenomenon known as referred pain may come into play, in which case the pain may appear to originate from anywhere that is supplied by branches of the trigeminal nerve.
As further evidence for the potential of the bit to cause damage, Cook quotes the findings of his survey of jawbones from 65 horses five years old or older. He found bone spurs at the bars of the mouth in 49 (75%). Feral horse had no bone spurs; neither did he find any bone spurs in 35 zebra skulls. “It is easy to imagine how excruciatingly painful it must be for a horse with bone spurs on the bars of its mouth to be `controlled` by a steel bit” he adds.
He points out that not only does the bit cause pain, it also interferes with the horse's ability to breathe at exercise. “As in all mammals the horse has evolved to eat or exercise. It cannot carry out both activities simultaneously. Yet by placing a bit in its mouth this is precisely what man expects it to do.”
“In a horse running free, the lips are closed. There is no air in the mouth; the immobile tongue occupies the entire space within the cavity of the mouth and the digestive part of the throat under the soft palate; and salivation is in abeyance.”In contrast, in the horse exercising with a bit in its mouth, “the seal of the lips is broken; the jaw may be frankly open; air enters the mouth and the digestive part of the throat; the tongue is constantly on the move; and salivation is stimulated.”
The presence of air below the soft palate can have a significant effect on breathing, It lifts the soft palate, which may billow upwards and restrict the airway. The soft palate may even become displaced from its position around the larynx. Cook suggests that obstruction of the upper airway have knock-on effects on the lower airway, leading to problems such as small airway disease and pulmonary bleeding.
He has produced a questionnaire for owners that highlights the problems that can be caused by the bit. A sample of twelve completed questionnaires revealed that each horse displayed an average of 23 problems. After using the new bridle for periods ranging from 4 days to six months (average 42 days) 38% to 94% of the problems disappeared. On average 67% of the problems were solved by the Bitless Bridle. “When more than two-thirds of a horse's problems can be eliminated in 42 days, simply by removing one or more steel rods from its mouth, it serves to emphasize the merit of the whole-head-hug method of communication.”
“Riders who banish the bit have found they own a much better horse than they thought” he concludes. “Elimination of bit-induced problems enhances the welfare and performance of their horse and makes riding simpler, safer and much more satisfying.”
"Pressure on one rein (yellow arrow) pushes inoffensively but persuasively on the opposite half of the head (red arrows).
Horses respond better to being pushed than pulled and where the head goes the horse follows. "
More details can be found at: www.bitlessbridle.com
This article has been reproduced by the kind permission of Mark Andrews, Equine Science Update and the photos are courtesy of Dr. Cook.
These articles will cover all aspects of equine management and training but is only intended to provide a guideline and is not to be construed as a substitute to seeking professional advice for individual situations.
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