Story and photography by Ross Hecox
If the bit fits properly, the horse is likely to pack its head in a quiet, relaxed manner and respond positively to cues from the rider.
Ever pulled on a pair of ill-fitting boots? Maybe they were too small, cramming your toes together. Or they might have been so roomy that your foot sloshed around until you rubbed a blister on your heel. You probably started walking funny, your ankles got tired and your otherwise chipper attitude got stomped all over, too.
Poorly fitting apparel or accessories are annoying enough, but imagine that the area of discomfort is in your mouth. Even worse, imagine getting punished for trying to avoid the pain.
According to trainer Don Murphy, a respected horseman and member of the National Reined Cow Horse Association's Hall of Fame, this describes what too many horses must deal with each time they are ridden. Murphy says that many riders fail to notice whether a horse's bit fits properly in the animal's mouth, and that is a mistake. How a mouthpiece lies across a horse's tongue and bars greatly determines how well that horse performs and progresses through training. The best bit, he says, is not only comfortable for the horse, but also helps the rider give clear, subtle cues, which make training effective and less frustrating for the horse and the rider.
"If you get the response you like, you will have a nice horse in the long run," Murphy says. "You get different results from the bit not sitting properly in your horse's mouth. You'll find that your horse is going to say 'no' somehow-by opening his mouth, using [wringing] his tail, pinning his ears or flip ping his head.
"A lot of people just put a bit on a horse and try to force the horse to perform. The horse might do it, but there won't be a long-lasting effect."
Finding the right bit takes time. But before you begin evaluating your horse's mouth and examining bits, consider another factor that affects how well the bit performs-you.
An important part of working with your horse is recognizing your own abilities and riding style. For a bit to be effective, it must match both your horse's mouth and your hands.
"It's a two-way street," Murphy says. "The bit has to fit the horse, and it has to fit the person riding the horse, too."
For example, if you have quick hands, then a loose-jawed bit gives your horse a little more warning than does a bit with a solid connection between the shanks and the mouthpiece. If you are heavy-handed, avoid bits with severe leverage or small contact points. Instead, choose a bit with short shanks and a mouthpiece with more surface area.
"Everybody has a different feel in his hands," Murphy says. "You have to know what your hands are doing."
If the bit fits, the rider can communicate clearly with the horse and make positive strides in training.
LOOK YOUR HORSE IN THE MOUTH
Bit mouthpieces come in all shapes, weights and sizes. Whether using a snaffle, grazing bit, half-b reed or spade, the ideal approach is to find a bit that generally follows the contours of your horse's mouth. This keeps the pressure evenly dispersed so that one small area of the mouth doesn't bear all the weight of your hands.
A bit rests behind a horse's incisors and across the tongue and bars-the gums located behind its teeth. Most riders, including Murphy, adjust the bridle so that the bit creates a wrinkle or two at the corners of the horse's mouth. Farther back in the horse's mouth, the tongue is thicker and the bars are wider apart than they are toward the front.
To assess the contours of a horse's mouth, Murphy slips his finger across the horse's bars and tongue.
"Every horse is a little different in the mouth," he says. "You'll find horses with thicker tongues, narrower bars, sharper bars. So when you fit a bit to a horse, [inspecting his mouth] is the starting point.
"If you put your finger across the horse's tongue and your finger fits down on the bars pretty easily, that's a thin-tongued horse. If you have a thick-tongued horse, you have to go with more of a tongue-relief bit."
Tongue-relief bits are designed to fit over a thick tongue and still make contact with the bars. Bits with ports offer varying levels of tongue relief. Low ports offer a mild amount of relief to the tongue, while high ports apply no pressure on the tongue and also make contact with the roof of the mouth. Snaffles with a slight curve in the mouthpiece also offer some tongue-relief.
Murphy typically starts his 2-yearolds in a tongue-relief snaffle, whether they have thick or thin tongues. Despite their mouths' conformations, Murphy says that young horses are more likely to respond positively to curved snaffles before they accept straight ones.
In any case and with any type of bit, the trainer advises keeping a close eye on how the bit affects the horse, because one solution could create a new problem.
"If you have a tongue-relief bit, you have to make sure you don't get the bars sore, because that type of bit puts more pressure on those bars," he says.
To take pressure off the bars, consider using a leverage bit with a wider port, which gives relief to both the tongue and bars. At the same time, be sure the port doesn't make the roof of the horse's mouth sore.
Another option is to use a straight mouthpiece, which takes some weight off the bars by shifting a little more pressure onto the tongue than does a tongue-relief bit.
A horse with a thin tongue often works better with little or no tongue relief. In this case, a straight mouthpiece makes contact with the thin tongue and the bars. Bear in mind that it takes many horses a while to get used to a bit with no tongue relief.
Murphy stresses that evaluating a horse's mouth is just the first step in finding the right bit. Essentially, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule when selecting the right bit. The only rule that applies to every situation is "pay attention."
"A horse will, most times, respond to pressure on the tongue," he explains. "But some horses don't like any pressure on the tongue. So, looking at the horse's mouth just gives you a starting point [for evaluation].”
Murphy also keeps an eye on his horses' teeth, especially young horses that might be growing wolf teeth or shedding caps, which can make carrying a bit quite painful.
As a young man, Murphy followed the vaquero tradition of training, which uses mild snaffle bits and hackamores during a horse's first two or three years of training, thus mostly avoiding problems with teeth. Today, his young horses benefit from the services of an equine dentist or veterinarian.
"The way I was raised, we didn't put a 'big' bit in a horse's mouth until its 4-year old year," Murphy says. "But now we have dentists and veterinarians. We're farther along in taking care of a horse's teeth, so there aren't so many problems."
Time to Adjust
The true test of how well a bit fits starts when the rider begins using it. But Murphy doesn't just slip it into the horse's mouth and immediately go to work. He gives the horse time to get accustomed to the new mouthpiece. That way, the horse isn't distracted by the bit and focuses instead on the rider's cues.
"I put it on a horse in a stall, let him eat and drink with it," Murphy says. "A horse wasn't born with a bit in his mouth. It's very important to let that horse relax and eat with that bridle for two to three days."
During those few days, Murphy makes sure the bit doesn't hang so low that the horse's tongue slides on top of the mouthpiece while eating.
Also, before he begins riding with the new bit, Murphy often longes his horses while they pack their new mouthpiece. When he begins riding with the bit, Murphy makes sure the horse is comfortable and does not pin its ears or stiffen its neck. He also wants the horse's performance to improve.
"I see if I get the results I want," Murphy says. "If the horse doesn't have a positive attitude, I might drop the bit so it's just against his lips, with no wrinkles, just to see if that gets a better feel. If he doesn't like that, then I'll get another bridle. A lot of it is the process of elimination.''
Murphy starts his young horses in snaffle bits. He usually begins with a tongue-relief snaffle, then goes to a straighter snaffle if it's more effective.
Just because the horse is comfortable and responds positively to the bit doesn't mean your work is finished. Young horses progressing through training typically upgrade from a snaffle to a shanked bit with snaffle mouthpiece, mild curb or a correction bit. Murphy often advances his horses from a snaffle to a hackamore, then to the two-rein and later to a leverage bit, such as a half-breed or a spade.
But evaluation does not stop. Sometimes, older horses need a change.
"Horses do outgrow their bits," Murphy says. "Sometimes a bit works for a year or two, but then gradually the horse needs a heavier bit or one that has different pressure points."
Sometimes, training resistance might be related to the bit, even if the horse has been carrying it for months. Don't assume that pinned ears, a swishing tail or a stiff neck always stems from belligerence or laziness.
"If I feel my horse leaning on one side, I'll check his mouth before I train harder," Murphy says. "That's respect. It might have nothing to do with the bit; it might have to do with his body.
"But you have to make sure that bit fits right. If it fits wrong and you start training the horse, punishing him for something the bit's doing, it's not a good deal for the horse."
With a leverage bit, sometimes the curb strap can be adjusted too tightly, putting too much pressure on the horse's chin. There should be enough slack in the strap so the port can rotate upward and make contact with the roof of the horse's mouth.
Murphy continually checks his horses' mouths, looking for bad teeth or sore spots. He also inspects the mouthpiece for any sharp edges or loose, pinching joints, and says to avoid purchasing poorly balanced, asymmetrical or crooked bits.
Murphy doesn't mind trying several bits to find the right one. Sometimes a horse works best with a particular bit simply due to personal preference. This persistence pays off, says the trainer, because helping the horse do its job comfortably has far-reaching results.
"The horse has to be happy with a bit in his mouth," Murphy says. "If you watch a lot of horses at a show, they show signs that they don't like the bits in their mouths. But they're still doing the routine. Most of them don't last very long."
Finally, Murphy emphasizes that the horse cannot benefit from a properly fitted bit if it is used improperly.
"You want to make the horse comfortable, but then it's up to you to use your hands right and train the horse at the proper rate," Murphy says. "The severity of the bit is in the rider's hands. Always remember that. If you jerk on the bit, then all bits are severe.
About Don Murphy
Raised on a cattle ranch in California, Don Murphy was taught to train horse with patient, traditional vaquero mathods. Applying thos principles to his training, he became a respected and accomplished showman in reined cow horse events. In 2005, Murphy was inducted into the National Reined Cow Horse Association's Hall of Fame. Last year, the 63 year old trainer helped RS Lilly Starlight with the Superhorse award at the American Quarter Horse Association World Show Championship Show. Murphy now lives in Marietta, Oklahoma.
This article was originally published in May 2007 of Western Horseman Magazine.