Western riding bit question - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 12 Old 09-11-2019, 05:25 PM Thread Starter
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Western riding bit question

For all of you Western riders, I have a question that's been floating around in my head for ages. Isn't most Western riding done with neck reining rather than direct reining? If so, why are there so many different bits? Why do you need a bit at all? Why not just ride with a sidepull or similar?

Please forgive me if this is a dumb question -- I'm really curious.
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post #2 of 12 Old 09-11-2019, 05:50 PM
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I always sort of thought of it as walking softly but carrying a big stick.

I feel like leverage bits encourage the horse to self-carry (wouldn't want to say "collect" because that is a whole nuther kettle of fish and people would say you can collect a horse just fine in a snaffle and my thinking is all wrong). But it allows you to ride on a loose rein, the horse sort of collects up and carries himself and you don't have to use much rein pressure (ideally).

I am just a trail rider but I have never had good experiences with snaffles. They always seem to encourage my horses to root and sky-gaze. Put on a curb bit and you magically have a horse that breaks at the poll, pretty well stays off the bit and rounds up instead of hollows out........just my personal (non-professional) experience.

Different mouth pieces are important because you want something the horse is both comfortable with and responds well to when you do use rein pressure.

If you have a wonderfully trained western horse you can neck rein and just the drape in the reins will direct the horse. In the real world, you DO have to use your bit once in a while and you want the horse to be comfortable in it AND respect it.

That's my take on it. It will be interesting to see what other people think. Because I have been riding western for something like 20+ years but don't have any formal training.
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post #3 of 12 Old 09-11-2019, 06:00 PM
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There are other forms of western riding though that do require a much more intense form of communication. When I say intense, I don't mean painful. Western spade bits are... something else. They originate from the Vaquero tradition. They LOOK like torture tools, and yeah, they could be, but... for a horse trained to carry one and a rider who understands it... it amplifies communication between the two. For a lot of 'specialty' styles of western riding, there is a specialty bit, and they are quite simply a communication device, not a control device.

"The spade is what is known as a “signal” bit. The long tapering port, complete with spoon, cricket and copper covered braces is configured in such a way as to encourage and allow the horse to “pick up” the bit in his mouth and “carry it.”

Ironically, horses trained in this discipline are not to be yanked on. Their mouths are respected and protected; saved at all costs. The sensitivity of the spade bit horse is prized. That sensitivity would not remain if the process of making a spade bit horse was severe. The truly great “velvet mouthed” spade bit horses have benefited from a long intricate series of training steps that have prepared them to carry the spade.

The old vaqueros started their horses in hackamores, then moved on to the two rein process involving a small hackamore known as a bosal that fits under the bridle and is used in conjunction with the bridle and then finally into the bridle alone. Modern horsemen have added a snaffle bit to the beginning training of a young horse and then move on through the traditional stages from there.

Horses are suppled and softened, trained in all maneuvers and movements that they will later be asked to perform in the spade. By the time a horse carries the spade, the bit’s only purpose is to receive the subtle signals sent by the rider’s hands. Note the soft thin leather curb strap used on the spade. It has little or no function. Messages are delicately telegraphed down the reins and to the shank of the bit where its slightest movement equally moves the long intricate port. The horse feels and responds to a message, not to pressure. While the many leverage bit user’s hands scream their instructions, the spade bit horseman’s hands softly suggest their requests."

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post #4 of 12 Old 09-11-2019, 06:09 PM
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I never felt like a spade bit was cruel or controversial. (For what it's worth, I've never actually ridden with one). But I consider the spade bit horse to be the horse that DOES reliably ride off the weight of the reins. If you have a horse that is THAT reliable that you never actually have to use bit pressure, and he only goes by the signal of the weight of the reins shifting the balance of the bit ever so lightly, that is the kind of horse you can ride in a spade. That takes years of careful training most of us will never achieve, either with our horse's training or our own riding skills. But the kind of horse that rides in a spade, you should never actually need to put pressure on the bit.

For the rest of us mortals, we use a bit we can put some rein pressure on if we need it.

I did have one horse so reliable in the bridle I believe he could have been ridden in a spade. I was with a trainer one time and he was showing me this spade he used on his horse (to impress me or show off his training skills......I don't know?) but I was thinking, yeah, my Mustang would likely do just fine with that too.......but what's the point if I only trail ride and bit that strong is more likely to hurt the horse than provide any benefit on the trail. My hands aren't that great. The horse could step on a rein or get caught on something. A spade bit would be a liability. But I'm sure he would have done just awesome with it in an arena. He was a soft, wonderful, respectful horse.

No horse I've ridden before or after would I even dream could be ready for a spade bit in an arena with a trainer in the saddle. But I do believe I had horse that could have done just fine with it. He was an awesome horse.
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Last edited by trailhorserider; 09-11-2019 at 06:20 PM.
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post #5 of 12 Old 09-11-2019, 06:33 PM
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I have ridden almost all of my horses over the years in a Snaffle or Leverage Snaffle. The filly I'm riding now I have been riding bit less so far and my intention is if she lets me by being completely controllable, I want to continue it. I'm only 12 rides into her so far. I am going to introduce a snaffle to her just so she knows what it is and I can use it if I feel it is needed. I can see many advantages to going bit less. Time will tell.
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post #6 of 12 Old 09-11-2019, 07:23 PM
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English and Western should be done with the indirect rein. Direct reining or plow reining is for green horses in combination with indirect rein or a last-ditch resort on a strong horse. If you're riding two handed, the outside rein is the one that controls, the inside rein is for collection.
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post #7 of 12 Old 09-11-2019, 07:37 PM
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Bandit is ridden bitless, snaffle or curb. Depends on my mood and what we are likely to do that day. Bits have more potential to create pain but also offer a crisper, clean line of communication. You can say, "This! Good job!" better - like using a pencil to write instead of a crayon.

Curb bits, IMHO, can be gentler than either snaffle or bitless.

A curb bit doesn't pull in a straight line like a snaffle. If the bit is balanced so it rotates 45-60 degrees before the curb strap tightens, the rotation does not create pressure in the mouth or on the poll. You can rotate the curb bit with just a hair tied to the shank.

Once the curb strap tightens, you create pressure in the mouth - against the bars and tongue - with leverage. But that period of free rotation is a very obvious cue to the horse. The mouthpiece is rotating on his tongue. The shanks are rotating beside the face. No pressure. No pain. But a very obvious, easy to feel signal to the horse. Thus very gentle while also very precise.

But horses are emotional creatures. When they "get their blood up", when they get excited, it is like giving them a drug or like the loud background noise in a bar. You can talk to someone in a whisper beside a mountain lake but may need to shout to be heard in the bar. In like manner, an undistracted horse can listen to very soft cues...but an excited horse may not hear the whisper.

If not, then the curb bit makes it easy to shout. But remember, you are pulling it with one hand instead of two. So you are not shouting that loud, and you will stop as soon as the horse "hears" you. When and if to obey always remains with the horse.

Snaffles? They are OK. If I'm in an arena and going to do a lot of turning, then a snaffle is good. On a trail, I prefer either a western curb or bitless. I honestly don't know which Bandit prefers. He rides about the same. Bitless just feels a bit sloppier.
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post #8 of 12 Old 09-11-2019, 08:58 PM
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Marketing is the short answer.

Beyond that: the shape of the horse's mouth, the type of work to be done, the amount of training a horse gets. And more.

I've been lucky enough to work with cowboys that worked their horses in everything from aluminum grazing bits to spades.

One of my favorite bosses believed that you should "train them in what you're going to ride them in." He didn't have the handiest horses, but they were fine.

My own horse can be ridden in a bosal, kimberwick, a medium port curb, a Pelham,or a spade. What I ride him in depends on what we're doing.

The bosal is reserved for slow work when there is snow on the ground.
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post #9 of 12 Old 09-11-2019, 09:00 PM
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My understanding of western riding and bit requirements is more what is permitted, allowed, expected and mandated by show ring rules, acceptance and fad.
If you ride not in a show ring setting then do what you want and that which is most comfortable for the horse but establish a great form of communication between partners, that be you and the horse.

For some that is bitless, some a snaffle, some a curb and all can have varying degrees of pressure applied.
Because you ride bitless including hackamore does not mean no pressure applied or is it humane or gentle..
If you ride with a snaffle, as in a direct rein bit a different form and amount of pressure is applied.
If you ride in a curb, regardless of mouthpiece, a fulcrum & shank makes it a curb bit...again different pressure happens.
Horses are trained to go from bitless {like a bosal} to a direct rein bit then as their training level increases they are introduced to a curb design where less "leading" is done and more a guiding by seat & legs with a gentle, subtle laying of a rein on the neck communicates your wishes to your partner.
A spade bit...looks nasty but a horse who is so finally tuned into and trained in response that the reins do not move in communication, the horse moves from seat, seat bone, weight shift, and legs...then what is carried in the mouth although it matters, it doesn't matter so much if that makes sense.

To me, when a horse willingly puts their head into their bridle, picks up, holds and not want to let go of their bit they are happy or they do spit out bits and become evasive to things they not like...
Listen to your animal speaking to you...
My personal feeling is teach a horse to accept and work well in a bit they enjoy carrying, as the animals training increases so can the gentleness of hand and finesse of bit used as far as the horse is able to go in learning and as far as the rider can go in soft communication shared.
As the training of animal increases so can the options, styles of bit introduced again the animal enjoys carrying or packing.
Once though the animal knows how to ride with a bit, you then can also take the bit away and have a strong basis of communication established using least is more and happy for the rider to use their choice.
To not offer and teach though leaves your horse with a gap in their education that because we not know what tomorrow brings, makes the animal vulnerable to changes unpredictable in our human lives that can and do happen.

So, as far as why so many bits...
Different palates make a need for different sized mouthpieces.
Different breeds, different bone structures all make differences in need.
Different animals like to carry different metals, different thickness, different "breaks" or not in the mouthpiece.
Depending upon how the bit is actually constructed, the fulcrum can offer a faster, response and message sent. Shorter, taller, splayed outward, closer fit....so many variables but if you understand what you are looking at it matters, it matters a lot.
The positioning of the shank, where it actually starts to sweep {bend} also has to do with the signal the horse receives and how fast, how severe...
Just because you have a straight shank also does not spell a hard, instant message sent bit either because you must also understand the fulcrum, the distance to the mouthpiece, then the distance to the shank end...all magnify, multiply the amount of minute communication your hand speaks to the horse with.
Walk into a tack shop and seeing the wall of bits displayed...look super close at the slight differences and now realize that each bit is a slightly different design in communication.
The biggest part of the equation of bits & communication comes down to the human factor and how much you as the rider holding the reins communicate with your horse...do you whisper or shout to your partner.
That is why there are so many bits...do you whisper or shout at your horse?
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post #10 of 12 Old 09-12-2019, 10:38 AM
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Bitting the western horse is an art form. There are so many variables coming into play for each individual horse, and someone experienced can tell when the tiniest change in the bit makes a difference in how that horse responds. Look at the hundreds of bridles on the wall at some of the reining/cutting/cow horse trainers tack rooms. They probably have a dozen bits they use regularly, but they'll tinker and fiddle and sometimes two seemingly-identical bits can have very different responses in the horse. Hang around one long enough, and you'll see the trainer dismount, go into the tack room and pull out a bridle he hasn't used in ten years, and it fixes whatever he wasn't happy with in that horse.

The length of the shank above the mouthpiece, the length below, the angle of the shanks, the length, the ratio above and below the mouthpiece, whether they are swept back, whether they are loose or fixed, what angle the mouthpiece is set on, and the mouthpiece itself all come into play. Is it a broken or fixed mouthpiece? If it's ported, how high is the port? What angle is the port? What is the mouthpiece made of? Steel? Copper? Sweet Iron? At what angle is the bit balanced? Hold two bits and you'll see two different angles. One may be for a low-headed horse, and one for a more high-headed horse. Or one may just be badly made and never really balance or 'release' the horse's cues (like a Tom Thumb). Then you add the curb strap/chain and where that attaches, how tight it attaches, and what the material of the strap is also affects the bit. A loose curb strap allows the bit to rotate quite a lot before it comes into play, allowing the horse a lot of time to respond to the 'signal'. Some bits, like the Spade, are not meant to rotate much at all. They're ridden with a moderately snug curb strap so they can't rotate too far, and the big spade actually rests comfortably in the mouth when the horse carries his head correctly and contacts the roof of the mouth on the hard palate, which is much more comfortable for the horse than the soft palate lower down in the mouth. A ported bit affects how the horse carries his head, which, in conjunction with proper training, can affect how he carries his body, too. The horse's conformation also comes into play. A horse with a thick tongue and low palate will be bitted far differently than a horse with a thin tongue or higher palate. A horse with a higher-set neck like an Arab or Morgan will take a different bit than a Quarter Horse whose neck is set level with his topline. As the horse progresses in his training, his carriage will change, and his bit likely will as well.

A western bit ridden on a loose rein on a finished horse is a fine-tuned signal device. It gives a lot of 'signal' before it comes into contact with the horse, and that signal is what makes a horse soft and light. On a typical bit, the rider moves his hands to, say, signal a stop. The drape comes out of the reins imperceptibly, but that starts to rotate the bit. The horse recognizes that as a his cue and starts stopping before the curb strap even comes into play. And because he can recognize and respond to a slight cue, he's soft and it looks like the cue wasn't even given.

A finished western horse can be ridden in nearly any bit the rider wishes, but a more advanced bit fine-tunes the signal, and that's where you get the best response. A weekend trail rider who only wants the horse stop or turn when asked will do just fine in a snaffle or simple run-of-the-mill shank bit. But someone who knows how to get more from a finished horse will get a far better response with a different bit, because the signal is so much more refined. I've heard it explained as the difference between the driver who just wants the minivan to go to the grocery store and back, vs. the driver who is driving on a mountain road in a Ferrari. The Ferrari driver would likely be very unhappy in the minivan. The minivan driver is likely to ruin the Ferrari.

FWIW, most horses seem very comfortable in a correctly-fitted curb ridden by someone with good hands. They appreciate the comfort and release a balanced bit provides, as well as the signal. A lot of horses who are very unhappy in snaffles will visibly relax and start to enjoy being ridden a lot more when switched to a leverage bit.
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Last edited by SilverMaple; 09-12-2019 at 10:49 AM.
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