Dutch gag bit
Eggbut snaffle bit
Snaffle bit
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Bits and Bitting

History of the Bit

Although early riders could jump onto a pony and happily ride it without a saddle, not having any kind of steering or control very soon was seen as a huge disadvantage.  The earliest method of controlling a horse was to put a rope around the jaw, like a sort of hackamore, but humans have always been inventive, and it wasn't long before the advantages of using something resembling the modern bit was discovered.  At archaelogical
sites showing signs of horse domestication antler cheekpieces  have been found which served as toggles to soft mouth pieces, probably made of rope, rawhide or sinew.

Excavations from the Ukrainian steppes have unearthed horse teeth from 4,000 BC which show possible signs of wear from using a bit.

In 1,500 BC metal snaffle bits first appear - both a plain bar and jointed. 

Bits have evolved from the original snaffle to a bewildering array of shapes, sizes and materials so bitting a horse is no easy task! 
One of the Colossal Horses in the British Museum.  The statue is Greek from around 350 BC
One of the Colossal Horses in the British Museum.  The statue is Greek from around 350 BC

Snaffle Bits

Full cheek snaffle bit
French link bit
All photos of bits on this page kindly reproduced with permission from Shires Online Catelogue
From top left clockwise:  loose ring snaffle, eggbutt snaffle, french link snaffle, full cheek snaffle

As you can see - even snaffle bits are not a simple subject with 10 optinos for snaffle bit cheeks alone!  (e.g. Loose ring, Eggbutt, Dee, Full Cheek, and Half Cheek!)

A broad mouthed loose ring snaffle is considered to be one of the kindest bits.  The thinner the diameter of the mouthpiece, the more severe the bit becomes.  The loose rings can allow play in the mouthpiece - eggbut rings allow less play in the mouth, but help prevent pinching to the lips.    The French Link has an additional piece which lies in the groove against the tongue and softens the contact. 

Jointed pelham bit
Technically the gag is a snaffle with the addition of leverage action on the poll.  This is a strong bit, good for horses which pull.  Two reins whould be added to allow for more subtle use. 

The Dutch gag, pictured above, is very popular for competition, and allows for a snaffle, pelham or curb action depending on the rein positions. 

Gag bits are very useful, but if used incorrectly can be extremely dangerous and painful for the horse. 

The pelham is the most commonly used type of bit after the standard snaffle.  It should be used with two reins to allow for maximum control - the bottom rein is only applied when needed to introduce poll and curb action.  The pelham has a wide range of mouthpieces such as mullen mouth and jointed mouth (shown above).

Double bridles

bits and bitting - Double Bridle
In dressage you are permitted to use a double bridle from elementary level onwards, but it is not compulsory until you reach advanced level.  The snaffle bit of a couble is known as a bradoon.  The bradoon operates in the same way as a snaffle on its own - the curb bit opearates on the other points of control, i.e. the poll and the curb groove. 

Points of control

The bit and bitting influences the control you have over your horse - it provides you with steering and brakes.  However, riders sometimes use bits to solve behavioural problems best tackled in more appropriate ways. 

The bit influences seven points of control - the poll, nose, curb groove, corners of the mouth/lips, bars of the mouth, roof of the mouth and the tongues.  Rein aids create pressure at these points - when the horse responds pressure should be released.  For example, the poll pressure and curb groove will tilt the horse's nose in towards his chest. 

Bits come in all shapes and sizes, and in a variety of materials.  Bits are an incredibly large and confusing subject - if possible find an expert to discuss the individual needs of you and your horse with.  It is always better to work with a less severe bit rather than risk damaging your horses mouth.
Other articles on Tack:

  History of the Saddle
As can be seen in the picture below, bits and bridles not too disimilar from what we use today have been around for a very long time.