horse bit and bridle fit
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Horse Bit and Bridle – As horse owners, we have a responsibility to ensure the well being of our horses. Every time you ride, your position, posture and aids have a direct impact on your horse. But, how can you successfully communicate with your horse if your tack is creating discomfort or, at worst, causing your horse severe pain?

Often, we’re confronted with behavioural difficulties that can be fixed by routinely checking our tack for wear and correct fit. Does your horse lug? Do they chew the bit? Do they open the mouth or try to get the tongue over the bit? Do they tip their head? Do they try to get above or below the contact?

The answer may be more simple than you think.

Today, we take a closer look at bits and bitting from the perspective of creating a more comfortable experience for your horse when under saddle. Before we delve into the topic of bits and bitting, it’s crucial we begin with your horse’s future in mind. Throughout your horse’s life, they will change shape – and the same can be said of the horse’s mouth from birth to old age.

Horses have hypsodont teeth, which means the horse’s teeth continue to erupt during its lifetime. Unlike humans, horse teeth do not grow – they are fully formed from a young age and they erupt as they wear through the horse’s life. This means that dental management is ever important and markedly different.

Having hypsodont teeth means, at different ages, there will be less or more space in the diastema (the space between the front teeth and the cheek teeth where the bit sits). This aspect has a significant impact on the thickness of the bit that can comfortably fit in your horse’s mouth at different stages of their life.

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Flip the lip!

When fitting or checking a bit, you can only gain so much information from the outside. The number of wrinkles in the corner of the lips is not an accurate indicator of proper bit fit. They simply can’t show you the length, width and height between the bars of the bit and the palate, which is different in every horse. That’s why it’s crucial you safely ‘flip the lip’ and look at what’s going on inside your horse’s mouth.

Communicating with your horse

The physics behind how we train with bits and bridles, reins and ropes is pretty simple. We communicate with our horses by applying pressure signals. Pressure is the signal that motivates the horse to move, yield, bend, or alter their course or pace, and the release of that pressure is the affirmation they responded correctly.

However, incorrectly fitted bits and nosebands, especially those that don’t fit and/or exert a stronger pressure, can cause pain and damage in your horse’s mouth. Indeed, an incorrectly fitted bit and a tight noseband also make our job of communicating and delivering clear aids that much harder.

Communication between horse and rider is possible when the horse is comfortable, their bit and bridle fit well, and you, as the rider, can communicate with your horse using light and deliberate, consistent signals, and by releasing the pressure at the right time.

So, how do you know if the bit is right for your horse?

Fitting the bit

If your horse is exhibiting behavioural problems, is evading or resisting your aids, then one of the first things you should check is your tack. It may be a training or behaviour issue but it may well be that your horse is trying to communicate they’re experiencing pain or discomfort.

Does your tack fit correctly? Is it rubbing or pinching? Is it in the correct position? If your horse is regularly tossing their head, playing with their bit or showing some other sign of unease, then it’s important to check for correct fit of the bit.

Here’s what you need to look for…

1. Check for a small gap

When the bit is correctly fitted, there should be approximately 0.5-1 inch either side of the corner of the lips (the commissures). Any wider and the bit will rub as it slides from one side to the other of the horse’s mouth.

2. Check for a comfortable bit thickness

You can check this one of three ways – either by (1) fitting the bit, (2) flipping the lip and (3) looking at the amount of pressure on the tongue and palate without rein contact, or by carefully sliding your finger through the diastema over the tongue, and using it as a guide to how much space exists between the tongue and the roof of the mouth.

The thickness of the cannons (the mouthpieces either side of the joint) should also be the right fit for the horse’s mouth.

3. Check for any contact

As you can imagine, metal in contact with teeth can hurt. Ouch! Flip the lip and check the bit isn’t sitting too low, i.e. touching the canine teeth in males, or too high, i.e. the horse has a permanent smile and the bit is too close to the molars. Look carefully, sometimes contact with upper canines is not very obvious.

4. Check the bridle

When buying or trying out a new bridle, start with a quick check of the cheek pieces. Ensure the bit is adjusted to have an equal number of holes from the top on both sides. Make sure the cheek pieces are the right length for the horse and the noseband is adjusted so that two fingers fit between the strap and the nasal bone.

5. Take responsibility for every ride

Examine the commissures before and after every ride. For example, when putting on and taking off the bridle. Cutting, bruising or chaffing are sure signs of incorrect bit fit and mean it’s time to review the bit fit and your training techniques.

6. Talk to your equine dental veterinarian

If your horse hasn’t had appropriate dental care for some time, get your equine dental veterinarian to examine them before using a bit. Go to www.equinedentalvets.com.au to find one in your local area.

Just like you can’t know the ins and outs of every aspect of dental care, we, as equine dental veterinarians, don’t know your horse as well as you do. The best thing you can do for your horse if you encounter behavioural changes or notice signs of poor bit fit is to talk it through with your equine dental veterinarian.

Further, it’s imperative you don’t try to mask contact or behavioural issues by simply tightening noseband straps, using harsher bits or other artificial aids, like tongue ties and tongue surpressors.

The smallest signs from your horse could well be evidence of a looming issue and should be investigated carefully. Sometimes, as horse owners, we make the mistake of thinking our horse is being disobedient, stubborn or just ‘having a bad day’, but often, your horse is trying to communicate there could be a larger problem.

Making time for a quick check of your tack when putting on and taking off the bridle can not only potentially save you time, money and energy, but can have lasting positive consequences for your horse – ultimately, helping to improve your horse’s performance, increase their level of comfort and make riding more enjoyable for both of you.

Dr Shannon Lee - Equine Dental Vets
Dr Shannon Lee

Dr Shannon Lee BVSc MANZCVSc DICEVO, obtained his veterinary degree from the prestigious University of Queensland. He has been responsible over the last decade for a large number of innovations in both the practice of and the teaching of equine dentistry. Dr Lee travels widely and is in demand as an international lecturer and educator, but Shannon is also a researcher and a practitioner. Shannon has served as a Subject Examiner in Equine Dentistry for the College (Australia and New Zealand's peak post graduate Veterinary body) and is the current President of the Dentistry chapter.

Shannon is a consultant equine dental veterinarian at Advanced Equine Dentistry and is available by appointment.

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