Wear on horses’ teeth found on archeological digs in the Ukraine steppes suggest that some form of bits and bitting were used as long ago as 4,000 BC. Metal bits came into use at about 1,500 BC, both plain bar and jointed.
These simple snaffles are still used today, but it wasn’t long before a huge range of different bits evolved to suit a variety of horses and riders. War horses or destriers from the Middle Ages, for example, which were ridden into battle so needed to be under extreme control, were ridden a curb bit with a high port to put pressure on the horse’s mouth, as well as long shanks to increase the pressure on both the mouth and the poll.
Thankfully, horses are not needed for battle purposes these days, but there is still a huge array of bits on the market. It can be bewildering working out which one will best suit your horse — or indeed if he’ll need more than one, for different disciplines such as hacking and jumping. In addition, competition riders need to check that the bits they choose are allowed by the rules of the governing body under which they are competing.
The types of modern bit available can broadly be split into the snaffle, curb bits, and gags. Each bit works on a different part of the horse’s mouth and has a different action. It’s important you choose the right size bit for your horse’s mouth and that it’s positioned correctly — as a general rule, it should extend approximately ¼ inch beyond the horse’s lips on either side, and there should be 1-1 ½ wrinkles at the corner of his mouth.