At least 3 times a week I get asked by a client which bit from my range is the “softest” is for their horse. Instead of coming to me with a problem they are looking to solve- a horse that pulls, a horse that won’t accept the bit, a fussy mouthed horse- these riders are looking instead for the “softest”, “kindest” bit for their horse. These riders don’t have any real issue with their current bitting arrangement, or any training problem they are looking for help with. They are simply wanting the best for their horse to ensure they are as happy and comfortable as they can be.
The problem for me is, that there is not one single item in my range that I can categorically state is the “softest, kindest” bit.
Well, in my bitting consults with riders, I always aim for the bitting solution that will allow optimum communication between horse and rider with the very least amount (if any) force and discomfort for the horse. Realistically though, any bit- a foreign object placed in the horse’s mouth- will work on pressure/ release and so all bits will cause some discomfort in the course of their use. As a rider, you apply pressure, the horse responds, you release. These are the basics of training a horse.
This bit WILL be uncomfortable even without the rider’s hands. Ow!
In saying that, unless you bit is of a sharp edged construction or very, very fat most bits are accepted by the majority of horses and cause no discomfort in themselves. Any bit sitting in the mouth, without a contact is “soft”. It is only when the rider takes the reins that the bit causes discomfort or even pain.
Yes, there are snaffles that are designed and sold with a marketing blurb about how they are “soft and gentle” training bits, how they sit ergonomically in the mouth, how they spread even pressure etc. There has been so much thought put into how the bit sits in the mouth in the last decade or so, and variations in shapes and designs of mouthpieces, all with their difference benefits to the horse and the rider.
There are certainly some brands that will state that their bits are the “softest” and “kindest” option around. Persoanlly, I don’t believe that there is any one bit out there that is any more kind than any other. I believe it all comes down to the rider.
A simple snaffle can cause just as much pain and discomfort as a complicated mechanical bitting arrangement if used harshly and incorrectly. A poorly fitting bit (too small, too big) can cause as much pain and discomfort as a thin twisted wire snaffle. A cheap, poorly made bit can pinch or scratch, but an expensive, shiny and ergonomic bit if used badly can do the very same.
What I am trying to say is that there is no “one bit fits all” in terms of finding a kind bit to suit your horse, because you are looking for a bit to suit not just your horse, but your riding needs as well.
For example, if you have a keen and experienced XC horse that is very strong, hauling on it’s mouth with a snaffle for 5 minutes and holding on for dear life is not a kind option. Stepping up to a bit with some leverage, allowing you to use more precise and clear half halts, and release to reward to response may help you achieve a more harmonious and “softer” round with less fighting and tugging.
Karen O’Connor and Mr Medicott (copyright Shawn Hamilton, used by permission)
A lot of people watching last year’s Olympic eventing SJ rounds were shocked at the bitting arrangement that Karen O’Connor (US) used on Mr Medicott. It was a snaffle combined with a very long shanked mechanical hackamore. This very experienced and very well educated horse was previously riddden by a strong male rider, and Karen is quite a lot smaller and lighter. If you watched the round though, the horse was happy moving forward, he did not fight the hand, their rhythm was even and consistent, and the round was very controlled and precise. Certainly not a bitting arrangement for everyone, but for this combination it was the “softest” and most effective option.
So, instead of searching for the elusive “softest and kindest” bitting option, it is perhaps more helpful for the rider to look for the most effective bitting solution to suit their needs and their horse’s needs. Sometimes this means bitting up, sometimes this means bitting down from your current arrangement. And of course, no bit change should be used on it’s own, but always considered as just one tool in the continuing training of yourself as rider as well as your horse’s education.