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Development and origins of bits, horsemanship shared

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

For thousands of years, horsemen have been using devices in their horse’s mouths for control and communication when riding or driving the horse – taking advantage of the interdental space between the horse’s incisors and molars.  

Reins attached to the bit enabled the rider or driver to have contact with the mouth and control of the horse. Some kind of headstall, hanging from an area behind the ears serves to hold the bit in place. 

Bit types 

There are basically only two kinds of bits: The snaffle – with no shanks – and the curb – with shanks, plus the Pelham type which combines a snaffle and curb. There have been hundreds of different variations on these basic bit types.   

A double bridle, used by some English riders, polo players and in some equestrian competitions like dressage, actually has two bits – a curb and a snaffle – in the horse’s mouth. 

Over the years, horsemen have created and modified the devices they put into the horse’s mouth to control him. The snaffle, the first type of bit invented, was originally used in chariot racing before horses were actually being ridden. The snaffle is generally a straight bar resting on the horse’s gums in the interdental space with rings on each end of the bar to attach to the headstall and to the reins.   

Sometimes, a cheek piece was added to the rings to make it less likely that the bit could be pulled through the horse’s mouth.  

The Egyptians were using jointed snaffles by 1400 B.C. These bits had straight cheek pieces, sometimes with sharp spikes pointing toward the horse.  

Horsemanship of bits 

The type of bit used on a horse is not nearly as important as the horsemanship that accompanies it. When it comes to developing a good mouth on a horse – a mouth that is “soft” and responsive to the bit – there is no substitute for light hands, good seat and balance and the sensitivity to know how to interact with the horse.   

A “hard-mouthed” horse which pulls on the bit and is unresponsive to signals is usually made this way by misuse of the bit. Jerking on the bit or excessive pulling on the reins can damage the nerves of the gums the bit rests on, making the horse less sensitive to a finer touch.  

The straight snaffle is supposed to be the least severe bit, but if the bit is thin and narrow, it can cut into the horse’s gums if used harshly.  A jointed or broken snaffle can bend in the middle and puts more pressure on the sides of the mouth when pulled on. 

A curb bit has shanks extending downward from the mouthpiece and reins are attached to the shanks. When the reins are pulled, it creats more leverage and the bit is tipped in the horse’s mouth; the raised port in the center of the mouthpiece tips downward and presses on the tongue, and the curb strap or chain tightens against the horse’s jaw. 

The Pelham combines the effects of both a snaffle and a curb with four reins. A pull on the snaffle reins puts a direct pull on the bars and sides of the horse’s mouth, just like a snaffle bit. On the other hand, a pull on the curb reins puts leverage on the tongue and tightens the curb chain or strap. A Pelham bit is ideal for transitioning a young green horse from the snaffle bit to a curb. 

Origin and development 

University of Kentucky State Equine Extension Specialist Dr. Bob Coleman has always been interested in the many different bits in use today and historically. He has been collecting bits for a long time and now has more than 400 different bits. Coleman says there are dozens of variations on the basic snaffle, and just as many varieties of curb bits. 

“The Texas curbs and the vaquero bits and spade bits are examples,” he explains.  “It’s amazing how much steel we put into a horse’s mouth with some of those big spade bits. These bits look like they’d be uncomfortable for the horse or even brutal, but if they are designed properly and used appropriately, that extra metal is not a big deal.” 

The Spanish spade bit is probably the most extreme in elaborate craftsmanship, versus the Texas curb, which is very simple.   

“Those early bits may have been more simple because that’s what the blacksmith could make,” Coleman notes.  

He continues, “There are other bits that are mechanically elaborate. Are we better horsemen because of the elaborate bit, or are we trying to use it to make up for our lack of horsemanship?”  

Some of the very simple bits may have been simple because there was also a lack of horsemanship, and the simple bit helped keep the horse from being hurt.   

“Some of the bits that have been around for thousands of years could be very harsh, including some of the medieval curb bits, and they were horrendous,” says Coleman. 

“I have half a dozen Texas curb bits with different shanks and they are so simple compared to some of the other curbs,” he shared. “A gentleman I often ride with uses a curb bit with jointed mouthpiece, short shanks and it’s very simple and works well. With this kind of bit, one can ride one- or two-handed because it works like a snaffle or a curb.”   

“Everyone is happy, especially the horse,” he adds. 

The important thing is not the bit, however, but the hands on the reins. This determines whether the bit is used harshly or appropriately. Even the most simple and mild snaffle bit can be painful for the horse if used harshly.   

Often, horsemen talk about “good hands,” but Coleman goes a step farther and says the important thing is actually a “good head,” to direct those hands and to keep the rider in tune with the horse at just the slightest touch of the reins to give signals through the bit. 

Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to  

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