When to Upgrade your Bit
If you have been riding for any length of time, you will have seen it. A rider is struggling with her headstrong horse, and the coach steps up and suggests trying a stronger bit. The coach comes out with a twisted snaffle, or even a kimberwick, and soon the rider is back to work, hauling away on the poor horse’s mouth. Certainly the horse starts to listen a bit more, but it is clear that he is unhappy with his situation.
Of course, there are situations where a horse needs a stronger bit. But how do you know when it is time to upgrade, or whether instead you need to go back to square one?
Most of the time riders decide to upgrade their bit because their horse won’t listen to them. They are tired of hauling away on his face, and would rather make it easier on themselves by stepping things up a notch. Unfortunately this does not solve the problem, and soon the horse becomes dead to the new bit, and once again needs an upgrade.
If you have gotten stuck in this pattern of bit abuse, don’t despair. It can still be fixed. A hard-mouthed horse is very much the product of its rider, but given time, the problems can be retrained. You need to drop back to a mild bit, and start from square one, teaching your horse the basics of listening to your aids.
But sometimes the problem is not a lack of training, or a rider who has hard hands. Sometimes a well trained horse becomes strong in the bridle and will not listen to the rider, no matter what he is told.
In situations like this, an upgrade may be the right solution. But what kind of upgrade do you need? Sometimes the solution is not to move to a harsher bit, but to a bit that acts differently that what you have been using. Perhaps you need to catch your horse’s attention, and get his mind back on work.
If you have been riding with a snaffle, perhaps it is time to try a Pelham. In the right hands, a Pelham can be a gentle bit. Using two sets of reins, the curb can be barely touched at all, leaving the majority of the action mild. For a well trained horse with a skilled rider, a Pelham can become power steering and power brakes.
Sometimes it helps to add some leverage. Gag bits and elevator bits do just that. Both can be quite severe if abused, but with a light touch, each has its benefits.
Other horses just need a break from a bit, and do better with a hackamore. While the action is very different, hackamores offer a new way to communicate with your horse while riding.
So, if your horse is getting too wound up to listen well, despite a good track record and excellent training, try playing with a few different types of bits to see what works best. You might find that he will work well on the flat with nothing more than his usual snaffle, but needs the gag when out on a hack. Or perhaps he just won’t take that bent line without the power steering from a Pelham.
Upgrading your bit is an advanced training move, not a solution to a pulling problem. If a coach blindly suggests bitting up, consider that you just might need to do a bit more basic training first. Upgrading your bit without a solid foundation is a recipe for disaster, not a quick fix.