James 3:3 in the Bible says, “We put a bit in the mouth of a horse to make it obey us, and we are able to make it go where we want.”
For most purposes, a bit can be thought of as the enforcer. It is not the polite asking communication we would like to have through body language and voice. Many people use the bit as the only way they communicate to the horse. This can make the conversation somewhat rude and crude. Although a good set of hands on the reins can still offer a light asking pressure before a more stern telling pressure to actually enforce the initial cue.
Good hands on the reins puts pressure on slowly and releases quickly when the horse responds correctly. This actually helps a horse get lighter and respond better yet. A bad set of human hands can have the opposite effect. If the pressure goes on to quickly and does not release when the horse does right, the horse can actually get less responsive to the bit.
In some cases horses can get to where they completely ignore it and actually become a runaway. So technically, the bit itself does not control the horse as much as the horse knowing that the pressure will come off when they do the right thing. So as the famous horseman Pat Parelli would say, “It is not really the bit as much as it is the bit of knowledge.”
There are many different kinds, shapes and sizes of bits. I grew up watching people switching to different bits for every reason under the sun when their horse seemed to be bothered by one. The more I learned, I realized that people were usually wrongly blaming the bit for their troubles. Many of them were clueless that their hands on the reins were the true culprits (the first point of the gospel is so practical: “I’m the sinner”).
The simplest way to narrow down the types of bits available is to put them in two categories: The snaffle bit and the leverage bit. The snaffle bit has no leverage or curb chain applying pressure to the horse’s chin, whereas the leverage bit does. Some people feel that if a bit has a hinge in the middle then it is a snaffle, but that is not true. If it has any lever action at all below the bit it is not a snaffle.
All horses should be started with a snaffle, and can many times stay with it. This is the only bit workhorses ever use. This bit may take more skill to stop a horse because it does not apply the pressure of a leverage bit.
A child may need a leverage bit to be able to control a horse better. But a leverage bit can cause a horse to panic or rebel if it is used harshly. Horses do not think when they are feeling much pain, and can get defensive and uncontrollable. It comes back to the Jesus Christ perspective, that is getting yourself in your horse’s shoes to understand what is going through its mind.
The truly correct use for a leverage bit in advanced training is to help a horse maintain more of an arch in its neck to collect its body to be ready for quick moves. This arches a horse like a bow to help it be a better martial artist in battle, or a better gymnast in play. You will see stallions naturally do this as they court mares or get ready to play or fight one another.
The bit plays a big role in training and communicating with a horse. But ultimately we hope to get our horses to respond mostly to our body language and voice, so the bit and bridle becomes our backup communication.
Mike Daniels is a horsemanship trainer and barefoot trimming specialist from Raymondville, Mo.