Western trained horses are generally started in either a simple snaffle (loose ring, D-ring, full cheek, etc) or a bosal type hackamore. It isn’t until later in their training that bits with shanks and leverage are introduced. It is never a good idea to start a young horse in a bit with any type of leverage not only because of the amplified power they offer, but because they can be incredibly confusing and overwhelming to a young horse. Not only do they act on the mouth of the horse, but they also put pressure on the poll and chin which can encourage breaking at the poll and a more vertical headset in the prepared horse but can cause head tossing and evading in the unprepared horse.
Any bit with shanks that uses leverage on the horse is a fairly advanced piece of equipment and should never be used on a green horse until they have at least the basics of neck reining, leg cues, and are solid with stopping and turning at all gaits. Upping the power with a curb bit will not correct any training gaps; actually, it will likely make them worse.
Also, let me dispel the rumor right now about the American Tom Thumb bit. THIS IS NOT A SNAFFLE BIT AND IS NOT APPROPRIATE FOR STARTING A GREEN HORSE IN.
The basics of leverage and the pressure ratio: A true snaffle bit has a 1:1 pressure ratio, meaning that for each ounce of pressure you exert on the reins, the horse feels one ounce in his mouth. A true snaffle bit does not have shanks of any length. Shanks and a curb strap changes that ratio to create more pressure in the mouth with less on the reins. The ratio of a normal curb bit can be determined by measuring the length of the shank and the length of the purchase. Not to get all mathematical on you but if you measure the length of the shank and get, let’s say, 4; then measure the purchase and get 1, then that particular bit has a pressure ratio of 1:4, meaning that for every 1 ounce you exert on the reins, the horse feels 4 ounces in his mouth.
A change in the ratio of purchase to shank also varies how the bit works and where it puts the most pressure. A bit with a short purchase and a long shank will put the majority of the pressure on the horse’s bars with only a little bit on the poll. A bit with a longer purchase to a shorter shank will put more pressure on the poll and less on the bars. Bits with long purchases are generally called "lifter" bits as they encourage a horse to break at the poll, round their neck, and lift their shoulders.
Short shanks: On a curb bit, the shorter the shanks are, generally speaking, the milder the bit will be. Shorter shanks means that the rein cue is magnified less than with long shanks but more than with a snaffle bit. If you are just stepping up into the curb bit world from a snaffle, a short shanked bit with a nice amount of sweep (will be discussed in a minute) is the best option to start with.
Long Shanks:Generally speaking, the longer the shanks on a curb bit, the more severe it is because it takes less rein pressure to put a large amount of pressure on the mouth. These bits are for the more advanced horse/rider pair. They are most commonly seen in the Western Pleasure and Reining arenas because they require a much smaller motion than a bit with short shanks to relay the same cue.
Shanks: Angle The angle of the shank can be determined by looking at the bit from the side, or in the case of a swivel shanked bit, with the shank turned out flat. If you draw a line from the middle of the bridle ring, straight down through the middle of the mouthpiece, and continue it straight down level with the end of the shank, that will show you how straight your shanks are. The farther away your rein rings are from the line, the more swept back your shanks are. The actual shape of the shanks has no bearing on this either. There are simple shanks like the one pictured below/left and then there are others like the cavalry shanks that are very curvy and ornate like the one pictured below/right. The only thing that changes the angle of the sweep is the distance of the rein rings from the purchase line.
Straight Shanks: The straighter the shanks on a bit, the less warning the horse gets before the action of the bit is engaged because it takes less rein movement to move the shanks. This, in turn, usually makes for a slightly harsher bit because there is no build to full pressure, it just happens almost instantly.
Swept back shank: On a bit with a more swept back shank, there is more warning to the horse before the action of the bit is engaged because you have to pick up more rein to contact the bit. On a well trained horse, they will feel the weight of the reins being moved and respond before the bit ever has a chance to move in the mouth. These are also commonly called a “grazing bit” because the swept back shanks allow the horse to graze while still wearing the bit.
Swivel Shanks: Swivel shanked bits are bits that have a joint where the mouthpiece meets the cheek that allows the entire cheek piece to swivel independently from the rest of the bit. Bits like this often will allow a more sensitive feel for both horse and rider due to the mobility of the shanks. Bits like this also allow for a one rein stop in case of emergency.
Solid shank bits: Bits with a solid or immobile shank are one of the most common types of western bits sold. They are a relatively simple bit that is designed for the horse that neck reins well. They do not allow for one rein correction because the solid shanks will change the position of the entire bit on the horse’s head if one rein is used. There is not quite as much feel in a solid shank as there is in a loose shank.
Broken: Nearly all western bits come in a variety of combinations between the different shanks and mouth pieces.
Single jointed: A single jointed mouthpiece is most commonly seen on your average snaffle bit. However, shanked bits with this type of mouthpiece are NOT snaffle bits. Most of the time, these are not that great a combination with shanks. They combine the amplified pressure from the shanks along with the nutcracker action of the broken mouth and can actually be very harsh. They are also very confusing and tend to collapse into the side of the horse’s face if you try to use direct rein.
Double Jointed: Double jointed bits are a little better option than a single jointed as the double joints do alleviate much of the nutcracker action. However, they still exert quite a bit of pressure on the bars and tongue. It is not an uncommon thing to see a horse gaping their mouth with this bit if too much pressure is applied to the reins. This bit still has the issue with collapsing into the side of the face with one rein cues though.
Correction bits: Correction bits are ported, 3 piece bits with joints at each side of the port. They provide tongue relief through the port but work a slight nutcracker action on the bars. They are rigid enough that they don’t collapse like the previous broken mouth bits do but they are fairly harsh and are not needed for your average rider.
Chain mouths: For some reason, I have recently noticed an influx of various chain mouth curb bits for sale. These bits are very harsh and apply pressure everywhere; bars, lips, and tongue, not to mention that the chain is fairly coarse and has the possibility of really tearing a horse’s mouth up. I would not advise the use of these bits for anyone. They are offered in either full chain, or ported chain. Either way, they also have the same collapse issue as the single and double jointed bits.
Twisted bits: In my opinion, twisted bits (of the snaffle variety) should be reserved for only the best of horsemen to use for only a very limited amount of time on a horse that is, quite literally, an outlaw. However, twisted bits and shanks should never be combined. These bits are incredibly harsh on the mouth and I cannot think of one legitimate reason for anyone to ever use one of these.
Barreled mouths: If you feel like you need a bit with a bit of side to side mobility that you cannot get in a solid mouth bit, a barrel bit is the way to go. They allow for mobility to each side of the bit without the confusion of the non-barrel broken bits. There are 2 types of mouths that you would commonly see in this style; Billy Allen and Myler. These bits come in all shapes and sizes from a straight bar mouth to a high port to a square port. You, as a rider, need to determine which style would work best for your horse by examining his mouth conformation. Making sure that you are keeping the same amount of pressure on each rein is paramount when using one of these bits. Even a little more pressure on one rein can cause the bit to change the way it is laying in the mouth and cue the horse.
Shown below are the different types:
From left to right: straight bar, low port, high port, square port, copper barrel (Billy Allen)
Solid mouth: Solid mouth bits are simple and to the point. They are immobile and do not change shape or position in the mouth. It is impossible to have one shank cueing the horse without the rider noticing since the mouth itself is immobile. In order to lift one side, you must cue the entire bit.
Rutledge bit: I am still on the fence about this bit. I don’t have any personal experience with handling one so everything I write on it will be hearsay. All the information that I have read indicates that this is a fairly mild bit so long as it is adjusted properly. The curb strap is supposed to be kept fairly tight so that the flat part of the mouth lays flat on the bars of the horse. This bit was supposedly created for horses that have had damage done to their mouths that render normal bits ineffective. Due to its width, it applies pressure to nerves that have not been previously touched and thus lets the horse feel the pressure. However, I can imagine that improperly fitted, it would be incredibly harsh if the bit was allowed to turn upwards in the mouth. It would contact both the upper bars and lower bars on a very narrow surface.
Ports: There are a variety of different ports available. You must determine which port best suits your horse’s mouth conformation and your discipline.
Mullen mouth: This style is usually used for colts and young horses just moving up from a snaffle. It is supposed to apply equal pressure to the bars and tongue and is a pretty mild bit choice.
Low port: Provides a little bit of tongue relief and applies more pressure to the bars of the mouth.
Medium Port: Gives even more tongue relief and applies the majority of the pressure to the bars of the mouth.
High port: Provides the maximum tongue relief and works on the bars of the mouth. Often will also apply some pressure to the palate of the horse (roof of the mouth). Designed for more advanced horses and riders since there is the added pressure point of the palate.
Sweetwater port: Nice mild option that gives the tongue a lot of clearance. Works mostly on the outside of the bars, but depending on the thickness of the tongue, can also give a bit of tongue pressure as well. This type of bit also allows the horse to move their tongue side to side that other ported bits don’t.
Roller port: This bit gives some tongue pressure but works mostly on the bars of the mouth. The roller is usually copper to keep the mouth moist and to give the busy mouthed horse something to fiddle with.
Spoon port: Generally designed to lay flatter between the tongue and palate. Used for more refined cueing as there is more surface area in contact with the horse’s mouth.
Hooded port: Not entirely sure the exact purpose of this bit. Commonly seen with a roller underneath the hood. I would guess it is for the busy and dry mouthed horse as the hood is usually made of copper as well, though it may be nothing more than decoration. If anyone has more experience with this one, please chime in.
Frog port: Very advanced bit most commonly seen in the Vaquero style horsemanship. Frog port applies more tongue pressure while the copper roller keeps the mouth moist. Not for your average rider.
Cathedral port: Should be used by experienced riders only. This bit applies pressure to the bars, poll, chin, tongue, and palate of the horse. Most often seen in disciplines where invisible cues are desired such as Western Pleasure.
Spade bit: Last but certainly not least, this is one of the most misunderstood and controversial bits out there. This bit is part of the traditional Vaquero training scale and is to be used by only the most advanced and knowledgeable horsemen on properly trained horses. This bit looks incredibly harsh and has the potential to be incredibly cruel in uneducated hands but on a truly well trained bridle horse, the cues with this bit are as simple as a twitch of a muscle in one finger as most of their training is off of seat and legs.
Bitless: There are also many bitless options out there in the western world. Some of them are great options and others are certainly cringe worthy.
Bosal:The rawhide bosal is a traditional bitless option that was mostly introduced by the old Vaquero horsemen as a part of their training scale. There are so many options for size and rigidity that I won’t go into but if you are looking to learn how to ride with a bosal, I suggest you find someone who is well versed on the proper way to use one. With these used improperly, it is very easy to either really skin up the nose and jaw of a horse or teach them to ignore it.
Soft, working, or loping hackamore: This is a milder, softer version of the rawhide bosal that is generally made of rope. It can vary in rigidness from extremely soft and flexible to fairly firm. This is a less complicated option much like riding in a rope halter.
From left to right: soft braided rope, hard braided rope, single rope, double rope
Sidepulls:This is a great option if you are riding a green horse or breaking a horse and you want to do it bitless. It is the bitless equivalent of a snaffle bit; simple, mild, and gives clear cues. There are also many options with this that vary in intensity and softness.
From left to right; single rope, double rope, rawhide, leather
Mechanical hackamores: Generally not a very practical or effective method for riding though they vary in intensity and harshness. None of these are meant to be used when direct reining simply because of their design. It gives conflicting signals and can make some of them harsher when one rein is pulled on. Generally, the shorter the shanks and the wider the noseband, the milder the hack will be. These are examples of some milder options in the western world.
Mechanical hackamores Coninued ..... Then there are the slightly harsher options:
Then, of course, there are the “this should never be put on any horse, ever” options:
Combination gag bit/hackamore: For some reason, most of these are designed to be overly harsh and marketed more towards barrel racers than anyone else. In my opinion, if a horse cannot be controlled without inflicting pain on every single pressure point everywhere on its head, then both it and the rider desperately need some re-training. Why the majority of them also have a twisted wire or chain mouth is beyond me as well.
I think that just about covers all the mass-produced and commercially available bits and hacks. There are only a few million more options out there but it would take 15 pages to talk about them all.
And just for the record, these are my 2 favorite bits that I use on all my horses once they graduate from the snaffle bit. I have a couple of others that are similar but with minor little differences to accommodate a horse's preference and/or mouth conformation.
Sam, I'm no western girl, infact I know diddley squat about western so this was very informative.
I could make a suggestion that like similar bit shapes in english riding the hooded port may be there to give toungue relief, but have it hooded so the horse can't use the stra space to get its toungue over the bit.