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Understanding Horse Bits, Do They Cause Pain, and Why

This article was written as a response to the question: Any Equestrians Here?
Are bits cruel? A look at what makes a bit more severe and a discovery of why we use bits. Snaffles, curbs, the double bridle, pelhams. What is a snaffle bit? What is a curb bit? How do riders use bits to control their horse? What kind of bit is gentle? What are the common types of bits used on horses.

It was recently asked “Does the bit hurt my horse?”. Although people might want to think otherwise, bits, and even bitless bridles do hurt horses. The pain can vary from mild to more severe. The mild pain can be simple pressure, and is generally not considered cruel. If fitted incorrectly, or if the horse has a wolf tooth, a bit can cause more unnecessary pain and discomfort. A rider with unsteady hands will cause more pain by jerking on the bit repeatedly.

Snaffles

The gentlest bit is the snaffle. This is a bit without shanks, there are many kinds of snaffles, some more harsh than others. The gentlest snaffle is not jointed and has a thick rubber mouth piece. The more joints a snaffle has (they often have only one joint) and the thinner the mouth piece, the more severe the bit. As well snaffles that have twists, ridges, and sharp edges, on the mouth piece will be severe.

mullen snaffle

photo source - the very gentle Mullen Snaffle, pictured above, with a far more severe snaffle, with twisted wire, pictured below. 

wire snaffle

photo source

Snaffles work by putting pressure on the mouth, lips, and against the jawbone. In most cases these are the first bits horses are introduced to in training, Western horses then progress to the curb bit (or some form of bitless bridle), while English horses (particularly those used in Saddleseat or Dressage) to on to the Double Bridle, or other form of bridle and bit combination. A good deal of pleasure horses remain ridden only with a snaffle, while horse shows often require mature horses to be fully trained into the full bridle, and bits that go with them.

Horses that wear snaffles are trained for direct reining, a pull on the right rein leads them to turn to the right, a pull on the left rein leads them to turn left. There are some indirect reining techniques as well.

horse in a double bridle

author photo - showing the double bridle

In the double bridle, there is a tiny snaffle, known as the Bradoon, this is a very thin bit, used in combination with a curb type bit.

Curbs

The curb bit is traditionally thought of as a Western bit, but this is not correct. It works by applying pressure on the jaws, and the high port puts pressure on the top of the mouth, it has leverage action which puts pressure on the top of the horses head (the poll), and with a chain (or leather strap) underneath the jaw it puts pressure there as well. The curb is by far, more severe than a normal snaffle, and if used incorrectly, or roughly, can cause undue pain and distress to a horse.

western curb bit

photo source - a typical western curb, in some cases the port (middle section in the mouth) is much higher.

The longer shanks from the mouth piece to the reins mean more leverage is created, thus a more severe bit. The higher the port in the mouth, the more pressure it will put on the top of the mouth, thus being more severe.

Occasionally a curb will be jointed, in such a case it has no high port, but will have the nutcracker effect on the horses lips and side of their jaws, as in a regular snaffle.

Horses who wear curb bits are generally trained on the snaffle first, then move into the curb. Once in the curb they are taught to respond to neck reining so pressure is not used on their mouth other than to keep the horses head in position, and often for speed control.

Curb bits are not for beginners, only a tiny amount of movement with the reins is needed for a horse to feel it in the mouth, and any harsh, or sudden, tugs will cause undue pain. Horses in distress from curb bits will often open their mouths and try to raise their head to get away from the pain.

horse in distress

photo source This horse is in pain and throwing his head to avoid it, you will note there is a "tie-down" on the horse so it cannot raise its head further.

Pelham

This is often considered an English style bit, using two sets of reins, but is not quite as severe as the double bridle, which uses the bradoon (mentioned earlier) and an English curb. It is commonly used in polo, but really should be used by holding the reins in both hands. As with the double bridle, there are two sets of reins, and a rider must hold these in a way that they can control each separately.

pelham bit

photo source - you will note there is a bit of a cheat here, a strap connects the two rings of the bit and only one rein leads from each side to the riders hands.  This bit is less severe than a curb, you will note the short shanks.  Below is a picture of this system in use on a polo pony, clearly the animal is showing signs of pain and distress.

polo pony

photo source

Summary

There are more types of bits than have been mentioned, but we can see that bits do cause pain, in some form or another, and it is this pain that we use to control them.  There is no need to cause undue pain by using a bit incorrectly or by using too harsh a bit rather than better training.  If a person is looking to buy a horse, they should always check the bit being used on the horse to see how severe it is.  To be fair even bitless bridles work by inflicting pain, usually on the top of the horses head, or under the jaw.

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Comments (15)

Nice Job. I sent this one to my stepson who's into horses.

I found this very interesting. I am not a horse woman but an animal lover, I was distressed by the photo of the horse in pain. People are so stupid or insensitive sometimes with animals. I loved your writing.

I couldn't imagine being a horse considering those bits but I love to run like a horse. A well composed article, Brenda.

Ranked #4 in Horses

I'm a saddle seat rider and ride with double bridle. I've seen trainers with some pretty severe bits for the show horses. They go way overboard with the headsets and all that. Good information here!

Ranked #10 in Horses

Amazing information, who would have thought there were so many different kinds.

Great article, very informative! I was somewhat awed by all the different types. great write!

It makes me sad. The torture we do in the name of fun is uncivilized. Good article, I hope people will rethink about it after reading this write.

Ranked #7 in Horses

Lovely piece Brenda, you are a very kind horse woman! buzzed and tweeted, sorry no votes left.

Photonic Therapy

Australian vet is building quite a following for his therapy on pain management in horses. Check it out here: www.photonic-therapy.com

Babylon

Honestly? Do ride a horse? Do you own a horse?

Or did you pull this out of no where and just wrote this because you find horse back riding cruel? Let me start off by saying you chose terrible pictures to prove your point. Both pictures the rider is pulling hard at the horses mouth which is causing the pain, not the bit.

No one is going to put a snaffle with rubber on it in a horses mouth. No rider does and only a stupid rider would. Its just common sense. Also, sometimes a harsh bit is required on a horse if they are green broke or free spirited. It depends on the rider to use the bit gently, if they are pulling to hard then the bit will be painful, not if it is plainly resting in the mouth.

I have a horse actually, I have had 3 horses who I still own and all three of them are very sweet and all are rescue horses. I have been showing horses for 10 years and riding for 12. One of my horses will not accept a "Kind or Easy" bit. She finds them uncomfortable and will not even accept the bridal with only a bit and no reins.

She will however, accept a bridal with a "harsh bit" and finds it better than others. She loves that bit and I have tried at least eight other bits on her and this one is the best. It has a double break and 3 copper rings and she enjoys playing with the copper rings when standing or being idle.

Bits are made to help control a horse and steer. Some horses need "harsher" bits then others and some need "Softer" bits. Some even use bit less halters. I suggest to research these bits more and don't use pictures of people tugging on their horses. The rider in the first picture is slowing his horse, and a horse with any kind of bit will sometimes do that.

The rider in the second pictures looks to have no confidence and is tugging at the horse which is making it angry.

Hannah S

Also, the bit with the high middle piece, where the hell did you find that? Not once in my life of a horse back riding (Which has been 25 years) Have I ever seen such a bit, and it would never be used on a horse.

I doubt you are a horse back rider and I think you shouldn't write articles on topics you do not know well enough about. I suggest that this is taken down since you are showing pictures of outdated and not used bits and photos of people tugging on a horse, thats not how a good rider rides. Thats how a unconfident rider rides.

Ranked #1 in Horses

to Hannah and Babylon. I am the rider on the Arabian horse - in the double bridle you note how happy and composed he looks. As for the bit with the "high middle piece" clearly you have not seen many curb bits used in western riding, most have much higher ports than that! I have studied horses at College, trained and shown them. I am not encouraging the cruel use of bits, only noting that some are used in cruel ways when riders are too rough - ever been to a rodeo? Those horses often have sores on the corners of their mouth, try looking at the bits they use, they want total control. I am not saying these photos ARE how a "good rider" rides, again if you want to comment on my riding, see the picture where I indicated is of me.

Ranked #1 in Horses

I should add, in the pictures where the riders are being rough with their horses- at the rodeo, and polo pony, the riders DO know what they are doing, they are asking the horse for an instant response and are not beginner riders. They are using their reins to pull the bit to direct the horse as they see fit.

So Sorry!

Babylon- Is the name of a friend of mine who often uses my email since she doesnt have one, sorry she left such a rude comment! She feels strong about things like this and tends to get carried away :( Sorry if it caused any trouble!

Great article with excellent photos.

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