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Reinhold's Horse Wellness™

Madison, Wisconsin


Bitting Horses - A Brief Look at an Ancient Topic!

by Stefanie Reinhold

“Any soreness or stiffness will cause the horse to worry.” (Walter Zettl in his book “The circle of trust”).

In my practice of equine bodywork I often encounter horses that are 'hard to bit', that display stiffness in the neck, soreness in the corners of the mouth, sensitivity on the bars of the mouth or are described as 'stiff to one side', 'hard in the mouth', 'leaning on the bit' or 'bridle lame'. While not all of these concerns are results of bits or bitting, it can be a contributing factor. Therefore here a brief look at the topic.

Communication with and control of the horse via his sensitive mouth by inserting a 'bit' has been a topic for literally thousands of years.
While we have moved away from the most obvious cruel practices, such as training a horse to the bit by applying a 'bitting harness' to the unbroke colt and sending him out to pasture in panic, we do still use metal bits of various severity and weight.

What goes on in the bitted horse's mouth?

Whether a horse has a 'happy' painfree mouth and is response to rein aids while respecting the bit, depends on various factors, mainly on rider skill, in my opinion, and proper training. It is the combination of 'software' and 'hardware' (rider and bit) and compatibility with the needs of the particular horse, that determine the results on the broad sacle from gentle to torterous and anything in between.

The 'Software' - The Rider. Some Examples.


The balanced, insightful rider

Has an independent seat and soft hands, influences softly via bit only when absolutely needed.


The balanced, temperamental rider

Has an independent seat and soft hands, but resorts to harsh 'messages' to the mouth, when it seems necessary


The crooked rider

May have a generally independent seat, but due to restrictions/postural habits, leans one side and hangs in the horse's mouth to one side, exerting pressure and creating resistance and stiffness


The unbalanced or insecure rider

Does not have a truly independent seat or is fearful and balances him/herself off the reins, causing a 'hard mouth' in the horse, as well as resistance and stiffness


The unbalanced, temperamental rider

This rider overestimates his/her riding abilities and - on top of disturbing the horse in the mouth - gets harsh with rein and bit when the horse does not respond to confusing requests by the rein

Any of the above types now comes with any of the below types:

The 'Hardware' - The Bit. Some Examples.


The traditional snaffle

This is a non-leveraged, broken bit. Can be a gentle bit in the hands of a skillful rider. Can jab into the roof of the mouth.


The 'JP' snaffle bit

This is a non-leveraged broken bit with a curved design. Can be a gentle bit in the hands of a skillful rider.
Cannot jab into the roof of the mouth due to curved design.


The leverage or 'shank' bit (also 'curb')

Various degrees of shank angles and port shapes make this bit hard to assess in general, an individual view is needed.
Some general points to note:
A 'port', depending on design, can jab into the roof of the horse's mouth when the reins are pulled. Depending on design and rider's habits, such bits can be a gentle form of communication or torture instruments and can break jaws!
Note: The longer the shank, the more pressure with the same amount of pull. Example: A 3:1 bit will put 30 pounds of pressure on your horse's mouth when you put 10 pounds of pressure on the reins, for instance in a moment of panic.


The double bridle

Consists of a snaffle and a curb bit. Can be a relatively gentle, if in the right hands. The curb is originally supposed to be ridden with a loose rein, unless absolutely necessary. The double bridle is originally a cavalry bit with the snaffle being the 'default' tool, the curb being the 'emergency brakes'.


The double twisted wire snaffle

A thin twisted straight double snaffle, which serves to inflict the most amount of pain with the least amount of effort on part of the rider.
Even a small amount of pull on the reins will inflict severe pain and/or injury to the bars of the mouth and the roof, due to the bits design, the roof gets jabbed twice. This is what it's supposed to do. Think before using this one.


The 'Special Design' bit

Usually a bit designed by a certain bit maker with the aim of producing a bit for special needs, such as the need to use an especially horse friendly or gentle bit or a bit that encourages a horse to lower the head. Usually made of metal or a metal/rubber combination and often quite pricey.


Last not least: The 'Tom Thumb'

This is a leveraged snaffle bit! It is not a true snaffle.
Default bit for many trail riders, often used by inexperienced riders, this bit is controversial.
Note: It is often overlooked that this is an aggressive bit!
For clarification, please read: The Trouble with Tom Thumb

otto LoerkeNote: In my opinion, human use of metal bits is dependent more on the rider's skill and attitude (the 'software') than on the type of bit (the 'hardware'). See image left: Otto Lörke, one of the most influential master riders of the 20th century, cavalry man and dresssage master teacher at the cavalry school Hannover, riding with a loose curb rein!

Alternatives to Metal Bits

There are many alternatives to metal bits, depending on your preference and riding style. I have seen folks riding happily and successfully with rubber bits, hackamores (caution here, too, there are types that are less than gentle), side-pulls or various types of bitless bridles.


An ancient way rediscovered? The native American type bridle.native american bridle

The native American way of riding and therefore tacking a horse was surely different from the Western culture, which is the background for my own riding training. However, I find it extremely fascinating to see how little 'hardware' was necessary when 'software' and 'software' (rider and horse) were in agreement.

An innovative alternative: The Meroth™ Leather Freedom Bit™

On a quest to find just the right bit for a horse, who did not take to any bit in particular, I came across the Meroth™ leather bit. Curious, I met with Mr. Meroth in Germany and had him explain the purpose and history of this bit to me.
The Meroth™ leather bit was developed in the 1980's in Germany and has been successfully used throughout Europe ever since. It's advantages are in the

  • plant based, completely non-toxic tanning process to produce the leather for this gentle bit (adheres to European baby toy specifications)
  • unique design that lets the bit conform to the horse's mouth after only a few uses
  • ability to use the bit without a bridle after it conforms to the horse's mouth (does not work for all, but most horses) and thus 'ride the native American style'
  • gentleness, which makes it readily accepted and loved by most horses, who have been 'hard to bit'
  • ability to enable the rider to give ever so subtle rein aids very effectively
  • pain free way it connects the rider's hand with the horse's mouth
  • durability and ease of use.

About the Meroth Leather Snaffle: "I was amazed at the difference in my horse using this bit. My horse was collected, relaxed and responsive. Riding bitless made her nervous and spooky. She would become fixated on playing with a metal bit so much that she would lose her focus on me. I am sold on the Meroth leather bit and highly recommend it." Sheri G.

meroth leather bit

After a test here in the US on 2 horses for 1 year, I was convinced that this bit will be a welcomed alternative to conventional bits here in the US.
The bit is available as a 'snaffle' in 3 sizes, as well as a Pelham bit.
For questions about this type of bit or for wholesale inquiries, please email us.
To purchase this bit online in our horse wellness retail shop, please click here.


This could be YOUR horse!





Link to an interesting article: Horses and Humans in Antiquity

Quoting 'Veterinary Surgery, Volume I' by Louis Adolph Merriat, 1908, in a section about 'Bit Luggers' (horses that pull against the bit)
"Bit Gnathitis from severe pressure and lacerations of the buccal surface opposite the first and second superior molars from friction of the cheek against the sharp enamel points [of the teeth] are certain to result in the lugging horse [horse that goes against bit] and in turn these injuries, which are frequently of no small proportions, are prone to augments a bad disposition."

Quoting the 'US Cavalry Horse' by William H. Carter, 1895, in a section on 'Bitting and Training'
"...[the bridle hand] should oscillate with the motion of the horse's head but at the same time bear lightly, for the bit destroys causes pain if constantly pressed on the bars, gradually destroys their sensibility and leaves the horse with a hard mouth."

Enjoy your horse!


Stefanie Reinhold

More Articles:

Benefits of Equine Massage and Body Work

How to warm up your horse before exercise and competition

How to exercise your horse for strength and flexibility

Pain or trauma related horse behavior issues

Horse grooming 101

Horse grooming guidelines















*) Please note: Equine massage and bodywork is a non-invasive, gentle wellness modality aimed at enhancing performance in the healthy horse and never replaces proper veterinary care. If in doubt regarding the physical health of your horse please consult your veterinarian.

all images and content © Stefanie Reinhold dba Reinhold's Horse Wellness 2007-2009 unless otherwise noted
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