What’s the best bit for my horse?
Well, I am glad you ask! It is a very important question that directly affects your horse’s well-being, but finding the answer involves considering and balancing many aspects, from the horse’s history, individual anatomy, conformation and training, to the rider’s skill and how the rein aids are applied.
Fortunately, independent bit and bridle fitting services are growing, and horse owners are beginning to understand that professional advice in this area is an essential part of management.
In this article, Natascha van Eijk, the founder of the International College for Professional Bitfit Consultants (ICPBC) reveals the process followed during a Bitfit consultation, so you know what to expect from an independent and properly trained Bitfit consultant.
A properly fitted bit can make a big difference to your horse’s comfort and also their ‘rideability’, and this is why Bitfit consultations are essential for any horse participating in any discipline, competitive or not.
There are numerous types and variations of horse bits available and choosing the right one is not always simple. This is because there are many factors that should be taken into consideration.
A good example is the tongue’s anatomy. Did you know that the shape, size and muscularity of the tongue differs greatly from horse to horse? This means that the position of the bit – where and how the mouthpiece lies on the horse’s tongue – will depend on the horse’s tongue itself (how your horse moves the tongue and how the tongue is anatomically shaped), but is also influenced by how the rider handles the reins. One affects the other and vice versa.
If there is too much pressure on the tongue, it may affect circulation, resulting in the horse pulling up the tongue or bringing it to one side or the other, which will affect the initial measurements and observations you made while having an initial look inside the mouth.
Bits that are poorly fitted will encourage the horse to move the tongue away from the bit’s peak pressure points, mostly resulting in damage to other structures like the bars that now lack protection from the tongue.
It is a misconception to think that bits place direct pressure on the bars. This should not be the case when the tongue is resting between the bars and the bit, but this does happen when too much pressure is applied, or the wrong shape of mouthpiece is used and the horse retracts the tongue in an effort to relieve the discomfort.
And it is not just the tongue that is important in the horse’s mouth.
It takes experience comparing a lot of horses to know if, for example, a palate is quite low or normal, and more importantly, whether a particular horse finds the palate an extremely sensitive area or not. Each horse is an individual, one size fits one.
Different bits and mouthpieces apply pressure differently on different areas and every horse has different sensitivities. If your horse is sensitive on the tongue and has a very low palate, the correct choice might be a thin bit that stays away from the palate as much as possible and doesn’t take up much space on the tongue and in the mouth.
However, a thin bit may not be a good choice if the rider is not a sensitive rider and uses strong rein tensions. Despite the original intention of making the horse more comfortable, the thin mouthpiece may not work in the wrong hands. When I come across such cases, I may choose a bit that has a wider bearing surface on the tongue but still isn’t too thick in height so as to avoid pressure on the palate.
A bit should be fitted to both, the horse and the rider!
This is why ICPBC Bitfit consultants are trained to assess not only the horses’ anatomy, but also the rider, and why a consultation is more complex than simply looking inside the mouth and trialling mouthpieces.
Even riders who prioritise self-carriage and use light rein pressures can have different riding styles that affect how the bit acts inside the horse’s mouth.
For example, some ride with their hands held higher up, others lower down. Some ask for greater degrees of lateral flexion of the horse’s neck, others don’t. Some ride their horses in a lower or rounder frame while others don’t.
The way you apply rein aids (the direction of the force in relation to the horse’s mouth, and the amount of pressure you use), and the frame you ride your horse in are important for determining the right choice of bit because it affects the tongue’s position, the bit and therefore, the entire body.
Tension and discomfort in the mouth transfers directly to the temporomandibular joint TMJ (see previous article), as well as the muscles of the neck and shoulder, which will end up restricting the movement all the way to the hind legs – because muscle and fascia chains are interconnected and run along the entire body.
In the long term, horses who have poorly fitted tack and bits that hurt more than they should, will develop muscle spasms and other restrictions on the musculoskeletal system. And, importantly, these restrictions can only be assessed in movement. In a similar way, long-term muscle spasms and musculoskeletal restrictions will affect the rider’s ability to establish a sensitive contact with the horse’s mouth.
If your horse has trouble relaxing on the bit, everything needs to be taken in account.
This is what I call the whole-of-body approach and it is the reason the ICPBC only trains Bitfit Consultants with an already established professional background, such as veterinarians, qualified equine dentists, physiotherapists and osteopaths.
This requirement is great news for you and your horse.
If you suspect your contact issue is a result of poor dentistry in combination with the bit, it is a good idea to choose a Bitfit consultant who combines these two professions. On the other hand, if you have already eliminated and treated any dental issues, and you are already quite happy with the bit you use, you might be better choosing a Bitfit consultant with a background in physiotherapy or other body therapy.
Ultimately, the more thorough the assessment, the better chance of the result matching your expectations. Nevertheless, do remember that the bit is only one piece of the puzzle and it is likely that you will need to find some more pieces before your problem is completely resolved.
Horse riding and training skills, together with knowing how to influence the biomechanics of the horse are very important. This realisation has led the ICPBC to launch an online education course especially for coaches/instructors to become more specialised in bitting and contact issues.
We will offer a webinar with Horses and People about rein tension and how to improve contact issues. Some of the areas we will cover will help you become aware of what happens in the horse’s mouth when you give a certain rein aid, and we will relate it all back to Bitfit consulting.
Just like a medical appointment, a Bitfit consultation starts with taking in a comprehensive history and learning the background information about horse and rider. I like to ask for the horse’s breeding as well, because most horses that share a bloodline also share certain temperament and physical characteristics, and this helps me narrow down the horse’s preferences.
The questions asked and the responses you give about your horse from the start will give the Bitfit Consultant and yourself a great deal of information. For example, a standard question when we talk about contact issues is: Since when has the horse been showing this behaviour? If the answer is ‘he has always done this’, I will ask the owner if anything changed around the time the behaviour started for the first time.
Often, owners will have an Aha! Moment. They may say; ‘Well, he did get his new saddle around that time’, or ‘well, he did have an incident on the trailer or the pasture’, ‘we did change to another bit/bridle’ or ‘we did change instructor’.
All these things and many others can have a huge influence on the contact. I once found a stitching needle that was left behind in the wool flocking of the saddle and it was thanks to me asking such questions that I had the idea to check the saddle panels. I found a hard item inside them which turned out to be a stitching needle and it was causing what looked like a ‘tongue problem’. In reality, the horse couldn’t loosen his back muscles and the tension was travelling through the rest of the body and showed up as a tongue issue.
When a horse contracts and holds a single muscle, slowly but surely, the rest of the musculoskeletal system will compensate and adjust – not always in a beneficial way. The detailed history (anamnesis), will provide some clear direction for the Bitfit consultant.
Check of the head and mouth
After the anamnesis the first check is an examination of the head and mouth. No two horses are the same and there are also many differences between breeds and countries. In the Netherlands especially, you will see that horses are bred with very fine and relatively small heads, but their tongues are not always as small. With a thick tongue that takes up most of the horse’s mouth, there isn’t much room left for the bit.
The idea that a thicker bit is kinder just simply doesn’t work for these horses. They need mostly a thinner bit or a more curved mouthpiece to be comfortable, but you have to pay attention to the rider! If the rider is not sensitive, I still recommend a thicker bit with the right shaped mouthpiece.
You can check if your horse has a thick tongue yourself. To do this, lift your horse’s lips when the jaws are closed. If the tongue is bulging out of the diastema (the space between the incisors and the molars), and there is no free space between the tongue and palate, you could say the horse has a thick tongue.
This is actually quite normal, so there’s no need to become distressed. I get many calls from horse owners alarmed because their horse has such a thick tongue that it fills up the whole dental cavity. Most of these horses will still be able to accommodate a bit and I have only ever seen a handful of extremes that could not. The question will be finding the right mouthpiece.
The roof of the horse’s mouth is what we call the palate. Some horses have low palates and almost no arch, while others have a fair arch. When it comes to bit-fitting, the more space the better!
The space that is left between the tongue and the palate determines how thick a mouthpiece can be accommodated comfortably. Of course, the ‘density’ (muscularity) of the tongue also plays a role in determining the space available. A tongue with quite a hard feel, a fleshy tongue, is different from a softer tongue.
A common mistake made when presented with a thick fleshy tongue is choosing a bit with a high port in an effort to ‘keep pressure off the tongue’. It’s all very good trying to relieve pressure from the tongue, but does the horse actually have the extra space between the tongue and the palate for a high port? Otherwise, the horse will start ‘stargazing’ as he tries to relieve himself of the bit pressing against the palate.
When I’m bit-fit consulting for a client, the sensitivity (and unfortunately sometimes bruising) of the palate usually tells me which bit the rider uses. Another major drawback with using unarticulated mouthpieces with high ports is that you can’t keep the port in the centre of the mouth when you pull on one rein. In such a case, the bit will always slide towards the side that is being pulled and will take the tongue along with it, leaving the bars on the opposite site without protection of the tongue and exposing them to being damaged.
The area on the lower jaw between the incisors and the molars is what we call the bars. This toothless (apart from canines) area is often injured or bruised as a result of choosing the wrong bit or by bad riding and training.
Check the bars by running your finger over them. I use my thumbs for this. If you want to try this yourself, keep your thumbs low, to avoid getting them caught between the first molars – that really hurts!
The bars should feel smooth and flat and should not be painful. The bars can be thick or thin, which may affect sensitivity. Bone spurs can be found on the bars and are almost always a result of poor bit use or riding with the wrong bit for quite a while.
The examination of the mouth includes teeth, first molars, gums, inside of the cheeks, structure, blind wolf teeth etc.
The head is checked for asymmetry in conformation and/or muscling, sensitivity of certain nerves on the head but also the skin. Often, you may find sensitivity of the nasal area or around the ears. In this case, the bridle and nosebands are often to blame. Poor fitted headpieces, small browbands and over-tight nosebands cause the headpiece to press against the ears and over the many nerves in this area. The nasal bone and lower jaw bones, of course, can be damaged by tight nosebands.
Checking the back
The anatomy of the head and mouth, particularly the asymmetry of muscles, can signpost to the stronger side of horse or rider and sometimes, even what kind of bit you use. In any case, to gather more information and get a complete picture, the whole body is checked as well.
Depending on the additional training of your ICPBC Bitfit consultant, the body check will be a longer or shorter examination, but all consultants will check the neck vertebrae for blockages and focus especially on the atlas and axis (which gives information about flexion (C0-C1) and rotation (C1-C2), as well as the junction between the cervical spine and the thoracic spine, including first rib.
The lower neck provides really accurate information on which side the horse leans on and is the start to making even more connections as one follows the fasciae lines and muscle chains. Just like people, horses compensate in patterns.
To fix a severe contact issue, you need to figure out which pattern your horse’s posture is in and what can be done to get him back to a more advantageous way of moving resolving the contact issue.
Personally, since my background is in a variety of bodywork therapies and riding instruction, I like to sometimes combine manipulations of the spine with changing the bit and adding some instruction.
If you have read to this point, you should now understand that the bit and bridle are links in a long chain.
Nevertheless, they are very important and I’m glad that interest in bit-fitting is growing around the world. I have witnessed amazing results with horses whereby neither the physiotherapist, the dentist, the trainer or the combination of all three could get good results, and all it took was changing the bit to a proper fit and immediately you could see the whole horse change.
When you relieve the tension in the mouth, the whole body has a chance to relax which immediately meant the rider was relying less on rein tension. This is why the riding style and practice should always be a part of the bit-fit consultation.
Once the Bitfit consultant has enough information from the history and assessment of the horse, they will offer a few options of bits that will fit the anatomy of the individual mouth.
From those options, the next thing is to test how the horse responds to the rider’s rein aids and find which of those options the horse prefers. The horse should be the one who decides. Yes, it is important that the rider is comfortable with a certain bit, but the horse should be leading the discussion.
A note about lightness…
Sometimes, a horse can feel really light in the rider’s hand, but this feeling is actually created by the horse moving away from discomfort and pulling the tongue up, exposing the bars. When another bit is tried and the tongue is more relaxed, the horse may feel a bit heavier for the rider but if the horse’s body improves in motion, it can be the sign that this is a better bit for this horse.
Your Bitfit consultant needs to watch the horse and rider and find a bit that will achieve the biggest improvement over the long-term. The ‘light in the hand’ bit mentioned in the example above might seem like a good solution to the rider, but if the lightness is the result of the shortening and tensing of muscles (which you can see when you know where to pay attention), this lightness will not last and after a couple of days your horse will deteriorate or feel just as bad as before.
Ultimately, Bitfit consultants assess and advise on the contact.
When dealing with an ICPBC consultant you will be able to purchase a bit, but sales should not be their main goal because you are paying for their advice. If your own bit is the correct fit, they will tell you. At least this is what the ICPBC is aiming for, shifting the paradigm from a sales-oriented consultation to a welfare-oriented one.
If you buy a bit from your ICPBC consultant and it turns out not to work as expected within a certain time frame, the consultant will help you find another alternative, either swap the bit or take it back, charging a small fee for polishing the bit again.
All these services combined should make it easier to find the correct bit. A consultation with an ICPBC consultant should provide many insights and ultimately will help you develop your communication and relationship with your horse. I have seen it work time and time again, and I know it can!