The bit is a very important part of your tack, but how many people knows how to use it correctly? How is the bit meant to be used in the first place?
I recently watched a FEI Showjumping Show on tv and was amazed at the bits these top risers were using on their horses. What really made my eyes pop out is this new trend of jumping in a double bridle!!! Why is some of our top riders in need of using strong bits? The way I see it, they are supposed to be the people that can ride their horses in a plain snaffle with very light contact. That is the example they should be setting... well, in my opinion at least.
Watching these riders had me asking why they had to use these big bits. Watching each riders seat and use of hands painted a colourful, yet, shocking picture. If the rider didn't have an insecure seat, bouncing around, the rider was pulling the horse in the mouth to control the speed and turn. Pulling the reins!? What happened to using the seat and leg? If riding was all hands and no leg, then more people would be riding. Anyone could ride!
So this is my observations... 1. The rider pulls the horse in the mouth to turn etc. The horse starts off in a snaffle but, because the rider is constantly pulling on the reins (ultimately ruining the sensitive bars of the mouth) the horse becomes hard mouth. The horse doesn't respond to the rider's pulling, so a bigger bit is used. 2. The rider has a weak seat and doesn't use his aids properly and relies on his hands and heels (!!!) to communicate with the horse. Steering is left up to pulling on the reins and spurring with the legs. The horse is now numb to the leg and rein aids.
So how should we use the bit?
Well, it all starts off with the rider's seat. A balanced seat (soft hands) and correct use of the aids results in the soft (and correct use) of the bit. The bit is just meant as a tool to communicate to the horse's head what you want it to do. This does not mean pulling on the reins to turn or stop. The bit is meant to give the rider control of the neck and forehand, allowing the rider to adjust the forehand/neck accordingly as needed. However, the bit has to be used in conjunction of the other aids. All aids are meant to work as one. Pulling on the reins (mouth) breaks the whole circuit of aids and the horse just plods around (most likely on the forehand).
Now, the question some people will want answered now is how do you stop the horse without pulling on the reins? Well, this is where correct use of the aids are important. You should be able to control your horse's speed by using your seat briefly (half halting). If you need to use the reins, a soft squeeze should suffice. If you can't do this then maybe your horse isn't ready to go around a jumping course just yet.
Back to bits...
We need to understand that the horse's mouth is VERY sensitive, lined with many nerves. When the bit is used, pressure is applied on this sensitive area. Too much pressure will cause a lot of discomfort for the horse. This is why choosing a bit is a very serious matter and should be given a good amount of thought before sticking one in the horse's mouth.
Here is some advise to consider:
Use the softest bit possible. Usually this would mean using a snaffle, but be warned : “In the wrong hands an ordinary bit, such as the snaffle, can be as harmful as a stronger bit.”
Double jointed bits, such as the French Link snaffle, are considered milder than single jointed bits, because they reduce the “nut-cracker” action of the single jointed bits. They take pressure some off the bars of the mouth and places more pressure on the tongue. Sensitive horses tend to dislike the added pressure on the tongue and prefer the single jointed bit.
The thickness of the mouthpiece of the bit is important. As rule of thumb, the thicker the mouthpiece the milder the bit. The theory behind this is that a thicker mouthpiece lies over a larger surface area thus reducing the pressure per unit area.
Horses that are don't like pressure on their tongues do well with a ported mouthpiece. Beware of ports that are too high as they may get into contact with the roof of the mouth.
The above mentioned horses may also like the hanging snaffle (Boucher snaffle). This bit is attached to the cheek pieces of the bridle via an extra ring. This results in the bit being suspended in the mouth rather than lying on the tongue, thus reducing the pressure applied onto the tongue.
Make sure your bit is the right size for your horse. If it is too small it will pinch the sides of the mouth. If it is too big it will flop around and irritate your horse. As a rule of thumb you should be able to put a finger between the ring of the bit and the side of the mouth.
If you can't control your horse using a soft bit, don't just put a stronger bit in his mouth. Solve the problem at its root... either you aren't riding properly (not using your aids correctly), or your horse needs more schooling or the horse is in pain (thus, trying to run away from it). If your horse is very hot and/or very impulsive, ground work is the key to solving the problem.
The double bridle
I just want to make a brief comment on the double bridle. I don't believe it should be used in showjumping. It is meant to be used in dressage and showing to ask the horse to move in the correct frame. In showjumping it is being used as a device to control the horse rather than to correct the frame. I believe that if you can't jump in a soft bit then you and your horse shouldn't be jumping, yet.
1.The mouth is the most sensitive part of the horse.
2.Use the softest bit possible.
3.Use a bit that suites your horse (not the latest trends!).
4.A thicker mouth piece is softer than a thin one.
5.Make sure the bit fits your horse's mouth.
6.Even in the wrong hands a soft bit can be as harsh as a strong one.
7.Trouble controlling the horse should be fixed at its roots (no quick fixes!)
8.Double Bridles are meant for correcting the frame, not for control.