If the Bit Fits

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by Ross Hecox
Western Horseman

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.”

Two-Way Street

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.”

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