Improving Your Horse, Bit By Bit

SElection of bits. Photo by Katie Tharp-Hebert

Improving Your Horse, Bit By Bit

By Laura Freeman, DVM

You feel that your horse is not performing up to his or her potential, but you have ruled out any soundness issues, changed feed, have had your saddle fit checked, and still aren’t there yet. Now you want to try a new bit. But which one?

Look through any catalog, and there are pages and pages of bits: single-jointed, double-jointed, loose-ring, D-ring, eggbutt, full cheek, Baucher, Pelham, curb, stainless steel, aurigan, titanium, even rubber and plastic! How on earth do you choose, and where do you start? Some catalogs have “loaner bits”, but you usually are limited to how many you can try at once, and with shipping time back and forth, it can take weeks to try just a few (not to mention the cost of shipping!). A bit-fitting clinic is the answer to this problem.

Recently, Kim Gentry of Bits N’ Such Equestrian came to Katie Tharp Hebert’s Runnymede Farm in Folsom to give a bit-fitting clinic, and she came armed with dozens of bits for people to try. Kim is a Grand Prix dressage rider who has trained many horses up the levels, including her own Leonardo, bred by Oak Hill Ranch. Most recently, she and Leonardo were the only Grand Prix pair on the Australian team in this year’s mixed-level Nation’s Cup in Wellington. They helped the team win the bronze medal, Australia’s first Nation’s Cup medal ever.

Kim uses her experience and her trainer’s eye to determine when a bit works for a horse and when it doesn’t. She starts by observing the horse under saddle in its usual bit, then after examining the horse’s mouth for size, tongue thickness, palate height, and the shape of the bars and lips, she chooses a new bit to try from her extensive collection based on what she feels she can improve in the horse’s way of going. She is not wedded to just one brand of bit; she carries Neue Schule, Herm Sprenger, as well as Lorenzini titanium bits. Usually the horse shows a difference immediately and depending on whether the horse improves or not determines the next bit to try.

I brought two very different horses to the clinic: a 16.2h 18-year-old Grand Prix horse, and an 18h, 11-year-old lower-level horse. Due to an injury, I was unable to ride in the clinic, but my trainer, Katie Tharp Hebert, rode them for me. Both horses showed clear differences in their way of going as different bits were tried. My older GP horse has had problems with tension and stiffness, which I attributed to his age, some existing arthritis, and the difficulty of the GP movements. But after trying a few different snaffles, my usually grumpy, tense horse was moving smoothly, with more suspension, no nervous foam, and a quiet tail! The look on Katie’s face said it all – he was a different horse! No pulling, he was easier to sit, and he was relaxed. His passage showed the biggest difference – before, it was over-reactive and jerky, but with a bit he liked, he was relaxed, smooth, and sitting behind. When we moved to the double bridle, his preference was surprising. The curb I bought him with was thick, heavy, and with a high tilted port which he really didn’t seem to like (and neither did I), but the bit I had changed him to was not ideal either. He has fat lips and tongue, so not much room for two bits. We found he liked a very lightweight curb with no port at all and a thin mouthpiece. Trying another bit with even a small port made him grumpy again, so we knew which bit to keep.

The larger, younger horse was also very clear in his preferences. Instead of diving on the forehand and moving with short strides in front, he accepted the contact, lifted in front, and had much more open, forward strides. His eye was soft, and his tail, which he usually carries off to the right, was carried right in the middle. His canter was much more fluid and forward, too, where before he usually got “stuck” on one lead, practically cantering in place. When we tried his favorite mouthpiece with just a different ring shape, he showed a clear dislike, shaking his head and getting very hard in the eyes, so we quickly stopped with that one. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t just tired and cranky (we had tried several bits on him by now, with lots of stopping and starting, and he’d been ridden for a while), so Kim put the bit he seemed to like best back on, and he went back to soft eyes, and forward and suspended gaits. Nope, not tired, just hated that other bit!

Watching other riders with their horses, I could see similar differences in their way of going. Head tossing or tense in the neck and choppy strides with bits they didn’t like, fluid and moving over the topline with bits they liked. I bet it felt great for their riders!

The ability to try multiple bits one after the other and judge the differences is a real improvement over the trial and error by catalog method, and having Kim’s educated eye and experience with what each bit can do for your horse makes this a very worthwhile clinic, and can certainly improve your experience at your next riding clinic as well as your day-to-day riding. Kim has bits that can work for anybody – dressage, hunter/jumper, or eventing, and she knows which are legal and which are not. I highly recommend a bit-fitting clinic with Kim Gentry of Bits N’ Such Equestrian!

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