How bitting has evolved over the years

  • The bit has always been an integral communication aid between horse and rider, but the type, design and shape has evolved enormously, says Emily Bevan

    While a limited selection of bits was available in the latter part of the 20th century, today you’ll find thousands of different designs, shapes and sizes on the market, in a wide range of materials.

    Bits were originally made from steel before 18/8 stainless steel — which doesn’t rust and is easy to clean, but is colder to the touch — became the most common material. Solid nickel was also frequently used in the past, but it tended to wear badly and is rarely seen now. Instead, other alloys are more in favour, with mouthpieces often boasting a high copper content and better thermal conductivity properties.

    Popular choices today include sweet iron, which has a high carbon content that oxidises in the horse’s mouth, encouraging salivation and resulting in better acceptance of the bit, and titanium which is lightweight yet strong.

    “Like most things, bits come in fashions. I thought bits with keys on had been consigned to the past but they’re back again, as is the Swales three-in-one pelham,” says Tricia Nassau-Williams, lorinery lecturer and projects manager at the Worshipful Company of Loriners. “There used to be many different designs of pelham on the market, but they are more limited now. The French-link mouthpiece was also a popular option, but it’s now been sidelined in favour of lozenges.”

    Ema Odlin-Baxter, senior bitting advisor at the Horse Bit Shop, agrees: “I can’t remember the last time we sold a hollow-mouth French-link; the demand for jointed bits has really died off recently, as have driving bits like the Wilson snaffle, which were very common to ride in before the turn of the century.”

    Pressure relief

    Today, bits are designed with pressure relief in mind. It’s for this reason that lozenge mouthpieces have proved popular. Their oval-shaped link in the centre of the bit contours the tongue and uses even tongue pressure to encourage the horse to accept the bit.

    Lever bits like American or Dutch gags are also widely used nowadays, with owners favouring the choice of rings that offer a variety of rein settings.

    Horses accept pressure in different ways; some prefer tongue pressure to bar pressure, while for others it is the other way around. The numerous bit designs on the market, many of which are ergonomically shaped, means that there are many combinations of the different pressures, too.

    “A lot of time and trouble has been taken with saddle making and fitting in recent years, but now it’s the turn of the bridle and bits,” says Tricia. “A huge amount of anatomical research is taking place, people are responding to demand and it’s a really exciting time in the development and research of bits and bitting.

    “But whatever the design or alloy, a bit can only be as effective or successful as the rider implementing it,” she adds.

    Nosebands have also influenced bit changes. Whereas bridles used to feature either a plain cavesson or a drop noseband, nowadays there is a greater range on the market. Types like the flash or grackle restrict the extent to which the horse can open his mouth, and consequently affect how bit pressures are applied.

    A range of breeds

    Another impact on bitting is the evolution in breeding. While thoroughbreds, cobs and native ponies used to make up the majority of the UK’s horse population, today the range of breeds is much wider, with cross-breeds, sport horses and warmbloods more commonly found than before.

    “Horses are being bred to be hotter and more athletic, which has resulted in a change in mouth conformation. They often have narrower bars, bigger tongues, and are more sensitive and less tolerant,” explains Ema. “Bit mouthpieces used to be 21mm thick but now they are 16mm, and they have been better developed to spread the pressures around the horse’s mouth. Owners are also more educated and aware of changes that can be made.”

    As well as the influx of nosebands and changes in breeding, the way horses are exercised and the range of disciplines they compete in is also different. In the pre-war days, riding mainly entailed hunting, polo, hacking and showjumping, whereas now there are many more disciplines available and greater demands are placed upon the horse.

    “We follow the FEI on permitting bits under British Dressage (BD) rules,” says Rachel Smith, BD member experience manager. “The list has grown as new technology and research has come to the fore, although it’s still based on the same principles of simple rings and mouthpieces, meaning no Kimblewicks, gags or pelhams can be used.

    “These bits are generally not permitted as they can provide riders with assistance to get horses’ heads lower or higher, depending on the effect required.”

    A spokesperson from British Showjumping said that it “monitors the use, and trend of use, of bits throughout the year, as well as listening to feedback from the officials workforce”. It then updates and amends rules accordingly.

    Alexandra Bright, British Eventing (BE) assistant sport manager, explains that “for the dressage phase, BE follows BD rules regarding permitted bits, while for showjumping and cross-country we align with FEI rules, with some exceptions”.

    These rules are continually reviewed by BE, and it is happy to consider proposals from members.

    Industry innovation

    “Over the past five to 10 years, people have started to realise what a difference a bit can make,” explains Claire Lund of Bombers Equestrian Equipment which, along with Sprenger, Myler and Neue Schule, is one of the most innovative bit brands on the market.

    “It’s no longer about forcing a horse to work with a bit, but about finding a bit that works for that individual horse,” she explains. “Bombers’ bits work largely due to the philosophy behind the bits, that pressure creates resistance and resistance creates a lack of control. By softening the pressure and making the bit as comfortable as possible for the individual horse, we improve the horses’ response to the pressure of the bit.”

    Using research focusing on the working angle of a bit, Neue Schule has developed the Turtle range, a selection of bits that are designed to sit more comfortably over the tongue when a rein contact has been taken up.

    “The loops [circular parts of the joint] of the Turtle range have been attached in a way that they do not dig into the tongue after a rein contact is taken up, and the lozenge lies flat in the mouth,” explains Heather Hyde, founder and director at Neue Schule.

    “As horses don’t have much room in the mouth, these mouthpieces are anatomically designed so they fit comfortably between the tongue and the upper palate without taking up too much room and crushing the tissues of the mouth.”

    You might also like:

    Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday, is packed with all the latest news and reports, as well as interviews, specials, nostalgia, vet and training advice. Find how you can enjoy the magazine delivered to your door every week, plus options to upgrade your subscription to access our online service that brings you breaking news and reports as well as other benefits.