Bits That Go Ouch

Last Updated on August 21, 2023 by Allison Price

Learn about three common problems bits that can pinch, poke or make your horse wince. For a happier ride, learn how your bit affects your horse’s mouth.

Are you familiar with the exact response of your horse’s mouth to pressure? Many riders don’t. It’s always surprising to me how many riders I meet at my clinics and at big shows who don’t understand the design and actions of a bit in response pressure.

Check your bite to find a better option for your child’s mouth.

Alana Harrison

Each horse’s mouth is different. These slight differences play a part in how the bit affects his chin, bars and lips. One horse’s bit may work well, but it might cause pain for another. For example, a bit that is comfortable for one horse could be painful for another. This can lead to a horse that is unhappy and possibly unhealthy, as well as a decrease in your ability communicate with him using your rein cues, whether you are out on the trail, the practice pen or the show ring.

Problem #1: The Strap that Binds

The problem: This happens when the chin strap attaches the shank bit to the bit. It causes the mouthpiece to interact with the strap. Certain configurations can cause the chin strap to pinch corners of horses’ mouths, between the straps and the mouthpiece, when rein pressure is applied. The buckle on the chin strap can cause further pinching depending on where it is placed. This bit setup can cause severe sores and even tear at the corners of your horse’s mouth if it is used consistently with hard hands.

Horse’s reaction to the bit/chin-strap combination: Head tilting. This combination of bit/chin strap will cause your horse to throw his head up when you apply pressure. Your horse’s discomfort over time will make it difficult for you to communicate with him effectively. He’ll try to avoid the bit to get out of the pain. Riders frequently attribute head tossing and use harsher rein pressure, or a tie-down to aggravate the problem.

A loose chin strap can pinch the corners of horses’ mouths at the mouthpiece when you apply rein pressure to certain bit configurations. This can cause discomfort in horses, causing them to squint or toss their heads.

Robin Gollehon

Considerations: This problem isn’t always predictable–meaning, you won’t be able to recognize this type of bit/chin-strap combination just by glancing at the bridle as it hangs in the tack store. You can perform an initial pressure test by placing your hand on the mouthpiece of the bit and applying pressure to the shanks. This bit may be problematic if the chin strap is too tight around the mouthpiece relative to how much pressure was applied to the shanks. You might not be able tell if the bit will pinch your horse’s lips unless you actually try it on him.

Solutions If your horse already uses this bit, tighten the chin strap to make sure the mouthpiece doesn’t hang as low in the horse’s mouth. A snugger fit will allow the strap to be closer to the mouthpiece than it is when it is too loose. Some horses find that it raises the shanks enough to prevent pinching. If the bit’s purchase is too short (the bit that connects to the bridle’s leather cheekpiece) you can use a bit with a longer length. The purchase should not be too long for your horse’s mouth. This could lead to pinching and the chin strap may become too close to the mouthpiece. You can also try a bit with built-in slots (drop-back curb loops), which position the chin strap further back than the mouthpiece.

Problem #2: Loose Joints

The problem: If the hinges connecting to the shanks and mouthpieces are too loose or the joints on the mouthpiece are not tight enough, your horse’s corners can become pinched and caught. Low-quality bits are often made with loose hinges and joints that have too much play. High-quality bits are made with more closely connected hinges and have smoother edges.

The tighter chin strap will prevent the mouthpiece from slipping down in the horse’s mouth. It can also eliminate pinching and reduce head tossing.

Robin Gollehon

Horse’s reaction to the mouthpiece: This pinching is similar to that caused by the loose hinges at the sides. Horses could get pinched if there is too much play in their mouthpiece joint. To avoid any discomfort from this pinching action, he will head-toss again. You can’t blame him.

Be aware of the following Do not settle for inferior bits. A wall that is cluttered with unusable, cheap bits is better than one that has a handful of quality bits.

Solution: Toss your bit. You can get a bit that is similar to this one, but with better construction if your horse does well with it. For example, a basic, but well-made loose-ring snaffle would be a better choice. The rings pass through sleeves that attach directly to the mouthpiece. These sleeves prevent pinching from occurring by protecting the corners of the horse’s mouth from excess play in the hinges. Rubber bit guards can be attached to the mouthpiece at the connection to the shanks. These protect horses’ lips and cheeks from pinching or interference caused by loose joints. However, rubber guards are not allowed in the show ring. This might work for you if you trail ride or compete at speed events such as barrel racing or polebending.

Problem #3: A Jabbing Combination

The problem: Many riders use a broken mouthpiece shanked piece when transferring a horse from a basic to a curb bit. Two examples of this design include an Argentine snaffle and a Tom Thumb. However, I believe that if this is used as a transitional piece, then your horse is still learning. This means that you are likely still riding your horse with two hands and applying direct-rein pressure to get him to move his head to the left or right. This bit can cause problems even if your horse is finished.

Direct-rein pressure applied in a broken mouthpiece, shanked piece (such as a Tom Thumb) will cause the metal portion of the shank to poke your horse’s cheek. This can cause discomfort and reduce your ability to communicate with your rein cues. For example, if you ask your horse to bend, the metal part of the shank that attaches to the bridle will also pinch his cheek. Credit: Photo courtesy Robin Gollehon

For example, let’s say you ask your horse to turn to the right using a straight right rein. The combination of the bit’s shanks, broken mouthpiece and your right rein will cause your right cheek to be pricked by your right rein if you pull it out from your hip.

Horse’s reaction to this bit: Each time you use the direct rein with this bit you will simultaneously stab your horse in the cheek. You’re asking him to move in one direction and telling him to do the same in the other. Your horse may start to turn his head when you touch the rein, anticipating that you’re about to stab him in the cheek. To avoid any pressure, your horse might turn his head when you mount. He may also plant his legs and refuses to move forward or backward. These mixed messages can cause behavior problems in your horse, leading to a downward spiral. This poking could lead to sores, hair loss and scarring for your horse’s cheeks.

Considerations If your horse has a mouth that isn’t quite right, you should go back to basics and get help from a bit professional or trainer. A snaffle bit is different from a shank bit. You need to understand how it works. Broken mouthpieces don’t make bits snaffles. A true snaffle has no leverage, as it doesn’t use shanks. Two pounds of pressure can be applied to your reins using a genuine snaffle bit. Your horse will feel the pressure. The shanks create a lot more pressure for horses than if you apply the same amount of pressure to their reins.

Solutions This bit might work if your horse isn’t going to be asked to tilt his head left or right. This design will cause problems and I recommend that you change bits. It is often mistakenly believed to be a mild, transitional piece because of its broken mouthpiece. Riders frequently use it. Unfortunately, the bit was included in the horse’s package.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!