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Open Up and say Ahhh...

Posted by Anita Marchesani on Apr 03, 2014

There is a lot of confusion for riders surrounding choosing a new bit for their horse. A lot of my clients email or call me not just because they are looking for help with a problem, but because they want to find a bit that their horse will be comfortable in.

For me, the comfort of the horse is as important as the safety of the rider. Improved comfort gives the rider improved communication, a more relaxed animal underneath them, a more enjoyable ride. Riders will often complain that their horse is “heavy” in the hand, that they “pull” or “lean” on the bit. I have said previously that riders need to look to their own riding often when a horse is “heavy” or “leaning”, and I won’t revisit that here. However, another reason for a horse being heavy in the hand can be from discomfort in the mouth, as horses will generally push INTO pain. They can do this to numb the area, or they can do it to run away from the discomfort. (again, the discomfort of the bit can be from incorrect use or too strong a contact from the rider).

There are so many different shapes, thicknesses, compositions, weights and styles of bits that it can be hard for a rider to decide what might be a more comfortable option. So much of bitting comes down to experimentation, but how do we know where to start? By taking a look at your horse’s mouth.

It’s not very hard, and really, the amount of time we spend looking at saddles, checking the back, trying different saddle pads- when was the last time you looked at your horse’s mouth?

Here’s what I suggest you do. Put your horse in a halter and have a look at him from the side. Does he have thin, fine skinned lips? Or are they bulbous and fleshy? Are they pink and delicate? Are there any marks there at all? How long is the lip line- does the mouth end before the chin groove or after?

an older gelding with a fat tongue obscuring his front teeth

Now take his lips from the side and part them a little with your fingers. If he is a gelding he should have two canines in the middle, if he is young, they may not be coming through just yet, but you may see or feel the buds of them in the gum. If she is a mare, have a feel along the bars, as sometimes there are tiny bumps where the canines would be on a male. Have a feel along the bars- they are usually a lot sharper than most people realise!

Now look at the tongue. It fills the mouth cavity doesn’t it? There’s really not a lot of room there for, well, anything except a tongue really. If the tongue is bulging out and perhaps obscuring the canines or front teeth, I would call this a “fat tongue”. A normal tongue will still fill the mouth cavity though. Have a look at the gums, and look for any redness or discoloration, particularly where you bit sits that may indicate bruising.

Do this on both sides, then pop the bridle on and have another look. It is very important to assess the placement of the bit in the mouth buy looking IN THE MOUTH, not simply at the wrinkles on the lips. Should your gelding have a short lip line (or your bit sit too low in a longer mouth) the bit will painfully and repeatedly bump into the canine teeth- this can deaden the nerve and kill the tooth. In humans, a dead nerve means a root canal- ow!

the bit in the mouth

the bit ideally placed in the horse’s mouth- clearly halfway between the canine and the molar teeth.

Ideally the mouthpiece should sit halfway between the molars and the canine, or in a mare where the canines would be. The correct placement of the bit should not be judged on the wrinkles of the lips, as some horses have very long mouths and others have very short ones. Trust me, a short lipped horse will be more comfortable with a few more wrinkles in his stretchy, fleshy lips than with a solid bar of metal banging into his canines.

Look also at the thickness and shape of your mouthpiece. Can you horse comfortable close his jaws and move his tongue? Hold the reins and take a contact, can he still do the same? look at how the bit moves in the mouth as you take the contact. (you might need a helper for this). Very thick mouthpieces (over 2cm generally) do not suit most horses as they cannot comfortably close their jaws around it, and really most ponies and smaller hacks do not have room for a double bridle set (unless particularly fine).

Looking at your horse’s mouth in this detail does not take very long, and you will be amazed at what you see! I highly recommend everyone to take a peek.

Give your pony a cuddle for me!