When starting a young horse, (or when riding any horse for that matter) the two most important and influential pieces of tack are in my opinion, the saddle and the bit. The saddle is important for obvious reasons, but the bit often seems to be overlooked as being an equally important piece of equipment.
The bit is one of the primary means of communication with your horse in his early years, and whilst the rider is always working towards the primary use of legs and seat, with horses being flighty creatures there will always be occasions when the bit will play an important roll!
The selection of the first bits can shape the horses whole riding career, a bad experience at the beginning may set up a lifetime of resistance. Some horses are more sensitive than others, and while one horse may be ridden in an unsuitable bit and tolerate it with no consequences, another more sensitive equine may take longer to resolve issues caused by a badly fitting or chosen bit.
The very first bit you put in your horses mouth should be inoffensive and warm. It also should ideally not have large rings or be of a cheek style that could easily catch or hurt the horse, as his first instinct may be to try and rub his mouth on anything he can to remove the offending article! For example, a suitable bit would be a nylon loose ring snaffle. It is inexpensive to buy, with a nylon mullen mouth so it is warm and a mullen mouth so it is comfortable, with no moving parts to pinch or scare the horse. The rings are also very small and neat so there s minimal chance of getting caught up.
The next step is the choice of bit as the first bit for backing and riding away. The nylon snaffle is not suitable for this purpose, as the mouthpiece is not reinforced, and the small rings may drag through the horses mouth when asking for a turn. I would always recommend the use of a double jointed bit, which does not have the nutcracker action of a single joint, which can pinch the bars ad lips as well as hitting the palette- not a pleasant first experience! A double joint will lay neatly in the horses mouth and allow room for the horses tongue, giving the horses a feeling of freedom and not restriction. This mouthpiece should not be too thick- a thick bit is not as kind as you would think, the only advantage being a larger bearing surface.
This is outweighed by not allowing enough room for the tongue, and often they can be responsible for causing lip splitting- especially in young tender lips. Plastic mouthpieces also have a habit of causing friction burns if the horse snatches or the bit is pulled through the horses mouth quickly – a distinct possibility with a mouthy youngster! The mouthpiece should ideally be made of a pleasant tasting metal, e.g. copper or sweet iron, as this will encourage the horse to relax his jaw and ‘make a mouth’ in other words to produce saliva to keep his mouth soft, comfortable and responsive.
Lastly, cheek selection is less obvious, as it is partly dependent on the ability of the rider. A loose ring is ideal as it gives a lot of sensitivity and movement, allowing for good communication, but this can work against you if you are inexperienced and have less stable hands. The horse in this case will feel every little vibration via the rein and could become agitated rather than relaxed.
A full cheek is a good choice for a novice rider/novice horse as it helps encourage the horse to turn by applying pressure to the cheek if the horse does not turn with gentle pressure on the rein, and the solid style of the cheek is less sensitive to rider movement. For a more experienced rider, a fulmer may be used as you have the advantage of the loose ring for finer communication if steering is still an issue.
Examples of bits I would recommend are the French link or lozenge snaffle, but I especially like the Sprenger KK ultra bits, as they have been designed with the horses anatomy in mind using a patented material called Aurigan for the mouthpiece. This metal vastly improves the palatability and mouthing properties of the bit.
They also have an angled lozenge designed to sit perfectly on the horses tongue to provide optimum communication whilst keeping the horse relaxed and attentive. It must however be remembered that every horse is an individual, and conformation and temperament play a big part in finding the most suitable bit for your horse.
We always advise our customers on the choice of bit and offer a hire service, to ensure the correct bit is found before a second mortgage is needed! It must be remembered that any bit is only as good as the hands that are using it, but finding the right bit for your horse can make the most enormous difference to how much of his true potential he will eventually fulfill.