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How Horse Bits Work and Basic Rider Uses

Your horse's mouth is extremely sensitive, with gums between his front and back teeth the usual place of influence for the bit. Called the bars, these "empty" spots are alive with nerve endings, as well as the tongue, inner checks, lips and palate. Choosing the right bit for your horse is important: using it correctly is imperative.
But there are many kinds bits out there and as many opinions and definitions about which are the right type to use. One thing that experts agree on; most novices assume that, to work with a big animal, one needs a strong bit. It's not true, actually. Aside from causing pain and fractiousness in the horse, the wrong size of bit or a bit wrongly placed can cause mouth damage that will not only lessen communication during riding but will affect the health and happiness of your horse.
Bits work by exerting pressure inside the horse's mouth. The are often assisted by bridle types that create additional pressure around the horse's head—cheeks, chin or nose. The idea is that, by moving away from the discomfort of the pressing bit, the horse moves in the direction the rider wants to go. In a properly trained horse with the right tack and a knowledgeable rider, it all works together to create unity between the rider's wishes and the horse's performance.

Horse looking through window at reader.The bit goes inside the horse's mouth, where it presses on the tongue and applies pressure to the bars in the mouth. The bars are made of sensitive cartilage, and easily feel the movement of the bit as it responds to the reins. Some bits put pressure on the lips, which doesn't work well because the lips move and because their sensitivity makes them easily damaged. Bits may also press against the roof of the mouth.

When purchasing a bit, consider its width. The mouthpiece of a bit shouldn't be too thin; it creates too much pressure on the bars. A wider mouthpiece covers a larger contact area and diminished the pressure. It's like the difference between pressing a cheese slicer against your thumb or pressing a butter knife: the cheese slicer will put more pressure in a smaller area, creating more pain. (And if you want something closer to what your horse may be feeling with a thin bit, try the cheese slicer on your tongue). You can also imagine the pressure difference by thinking about shoes. Women's high heels, with small contact area, can poke a deep hole in a golf green. Sneakers, with the contact area spread over several inches, will just mash the grass a little.

Next, consider shape. A straight bit puts more pressure on the horse's tongue and less on the bars. Some bits are curved, with grooves or hinges, which go easier on the tongue but increase pressure on the bars.

Also important is the leverage of the bit. A curb bit, for example, usually has a pressure ratio of three to one: if you put five pounds of pressure on the reins, your horse will feel 15 pounds of pressure in his mouth. Curb bits aren't used for providing directional signals, but for braking. Instead of putting pressure on one side or the other, the curb bit puts pressure between the chin and the bars.

The most important thing about bits is knowing what not to use them for. The bit is only part of a larger scenario: riders should be using their seat and legs to direct the horse, and the information from the bit shouldn’t outweigh the information from your body. People who rely on bits to create the ride are often novices who don't understand communication between horse and rider.

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