The bit that you use on your horse is quite a personal thing. It is like shoes really. Sometimes we just force ourselves to wear certain types shoes that we really shouldn’t just because they are in fashion not because they fit us. The same sometimes goes for saddles, boots, saddle cloths, nose bands and bits.
I personally have a lot of shoes that I rarely wear that have been bought over the years, some fit and some I just like the look of. I’m the same with bits. I have over a hundred bits ranging from simple loose ring snaffles and a variety of sharper snaffles to a huge assortment of gags, rubber bits, nathe bits (white bendy and smooth version of the happy mouth), and hackamores all in different sizes. In my mind, you can never have too many bits and if i see one that i know is hard to get or it may suit a client’s horse, I buy it and if there are two there i will often by both of them so I can lend one out and always have one for myself. Or I could just buy one because I like the look of it (just like shoes)!
My tack room is like the local bit bank and I always have many bits out on loan. I believe horses all have slightly different shaped mouths (like my feet are different to yours) so it may sometimes take a few tries to get the right bit for your horse, but in essence it is always better to try and keep it simple but as we all know this is sometimes much easier said than done.
Getting your horse bitted for dressage is quite simple and you should always start with either a fixed ring or loose ring snaffle. I like to start with a loose ring KK type mouth piece in German sliver (this helps to make the horses mouth nice and wet because of the makeup of the German silver metal). Sweet iron is also a great metal for helping the horse get a wet mouth but unfortunately they seem to only come in quite thin mouth pieces and only in a single joint. So these need to be used with care as you are likely to cut your horses mouth if you are too rough or heavy with your hands. And even if you are not intending to be rough, if your horse is heavy on one side he may cut it himself. Even with a simple snaffle things can get complicated quickly if you look at the range on offer. Some mouth pieces are curved more than others to fit the shape of the horses mouth. These will not suit every horse as they are also quite thin and may be too sharp for the sensitive horse. Then you have the loose ring verses fixed ring again. Most horses quite like the loose ring as it has a bit more “play’ in it, as the ring will slide a little when pressure is applied to the rein giving the horses time to feel that there is going to be more pressure so not so direct, it is essentially slightly softer than a fixed ring.
On the other hand, if you have a horse that tries to flick the bit or “spit it out” and suck behind the bit because he is sensitive, the loose ring could have too much movement so a fixed ring will sit stiller in his mouth.
Also you need to make sure the bit is not too big as this is a really big problem that I see all the time. You go into some horse shop and the bits are labelled pony, cob, full so for example, a young girl goes in to buy a bigger bit for her new “horse” (up sized from a Galloway) and gets a full size and it is way to big for her horse and her old bit probably would have fitted. Problem is, the full size is more often than not a 5.5 inch and this is a really big bit and will really only fit a large headed warmblood or cross bred. I have not used a full size in a long time. A 4 ¾ inch to 5 inch is a really good size for most thoroughbreds. (most German silver bits are a 5 1/8 inch) this way the bit sits snugly in the mouth with minimal unwanted movement.
Another bit that is really good for the light mouthed horse is a rubber bit or a nathe bit. If your horse is really light on the contact, a straight or mullen mouth piece is really good for encouraging the horse to take the contact and stretch into it and a straight nathe bit can solve a lot of tension problems in these horses. Then we come to the new and very fancy Myler bits. These have been around in the USA for ages but have only been seen here in Australia in the last couple of years. These bits have a different mouth piece in that each side can move independently of each other offering a “softer” feel.
I personally have not found many horses that really like the Myler snaffles. The ones that do like them go very well, however, the ones that don’t well it only takes a couple of circles to feel it’s not going to work. On the other hand the Myler combination gag hackamore (like the one I ride Kirby Park Irish Jester in cross country and sometimes show jumping) works very well on lots of horses, but I do find they work better with a drop nose band as well as the hackamore. It looks like a lot of hardware on poor Festy’s head but it really isn’t. The good thing about this particular bit is the bit ring has a little knob on it on the outside that stops the leverage on the gag action at an angle of just over 45degrees. Once this point is reached, the hackamore action comes into play so the major pressure is moved away from the horses mouth. I put a chain behind the hackamore to get a better response from Jester. The drop nose band is there to keep his mouth closed and it seems to work very well this way.
Another widely used bit for jumping is the Dutch gag. This is a bit that I see fitted incorrectly a lot also. Because the Dutch gag is a loose ring bit, it needs to be a lot higher in the horses mouth because as the reins are tightened, the “shank” angle can go too far without any poll pressure so the gag action is lost and the rider pulls on the reins harder getting no response then decides to put an even bigger bit in their horses mouth when all they had to do was put the cheek straps up a couple of holes. But then comes the problem that most bridles are on the top hole on the cheek piece so there is no room left to go up so you will need to buy a smaller set of cheek pieces. I just have my small set permanently on my Dutch gag so no matter which horse that I put it on, I can make it fit. With the Dutch gags, it is also a really good idea to use equalizers for your reins, this way you will also have some steering as well as breaks while you are galloping on cross country. Now remember these gags also come with lots of different mouth pieces in them.
There is a “tornado gag”, sounds exciting but it’s just a really baby Dutch gag action for the horse that is just a little strong. These are expensive to buy like the one pictured or you just buy a loose ring snaffle and take it a local engineering work shop and get them to weld a couple of half rounds inside each ring and presto your own Tornado gag.
Then there are the Spanish D and Pelham bits. I have one horse that goes really well in a hard rubber none bendy Pelham on cross country, but that is too strong for him to show jump in so he goes in a really bendy black rubber Pelham for this. Again this took me a number of months to work this out. I tried him at first in the Myler bit that I used on Jester but I couldn’t steer him at all on cross country, however, it was good to show jump in for awhile. But just by trial and error, I have found he really liked the Pelhams.
In the end, whatever bit you end up using, make sure you are just not following a new trend for the sake of it and understand that you need to be correctly balanced when using a stronger bit while jumping so you don’t get left behind and pull your poor horses teeth out of the back of his head. Also if you are thinking of using a stronger bit, please do it with some guidance from someone with plenty of experience. I have barely scratched the surface on the topic of bits but do remember trendy shoes and trendy bits aren't always going to suit your personal needs. Please listen to your horse.