How to Choose a Bit for a Horse

Two Methods:Choosing a Gentle BitChoosing a Stronger Bit

The general rule of choosing a bit is to find the mildest bit possible that still allows you to communicate clearly with your horse. An ill-fitting or overly severe bit can cause pain and discomfort to your horse, or even injure it. Take your time over this decision, and learn to use your new style of bit from an experienced mentor.

Method 1
Choosing a Gentle Bit

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    Check the requirements for horse shows. Most horse showing competitions forbid the use of certain bits. Even if you do not attend events, obeying one of these lists is not a bad idea. These bits are generally forbidden due to the pain they cause the horse.
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    Start with a snaffle. A simple snaffle bit is a mild, popular option, that only applies the amount of pressure you pull.[1] Always begin with a snaffle, and try the stronger bits only if the horse is difficult to control.
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    Measure the horse's mouth. You can purchase measuring tools for this purpose, or you can place a wooden dowel in his mouth where the bit should sit. Find a dowel that sticks out about half an inch (1.25 cm) on either side; this dowel is the appropriate width for your bit. For most horses, start with a 4–5 inch (10–13cm) bit and switch as necessary.
    • Usually, a smaller horse has a smaller mouth and will need a smaller bit, and the reverse for larger horses. Their are exceptions, however, as some breeds have unusually large or small heads.
    • If you have access to a previous bit, allow it to hang straight and measure the mouthpiece. Do not include the rings in the measurement.
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    Choose the ring shape. The outside of the snaffle consists of a ring on either side of the mouth. Common options include D-rings, O-rings, and loose rings which are free to rotate in place. The best way to choose these is to try out several, to feel the difference in control and see how your horse reacts. Make your decision based on your and your horse's personal preference.
    • If you can't try out the bit before buying, go with the popular D-ring. This tends to be less harsh than other bits.
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    Choose a mouthpiece. Snaffle bits come with a variety of mouthpieces as well. A basic, jointed mouthpiece is a good option for most riders, but there are other options. Here are a few factors to keep in mind:
    • Rubber or plastic-coated mouthpieces are more mild than a bare metal bar. Twisted wire mouthpieces are the most severe, and should only be used by experienced trainers.[2]
    • Thinner mouthpieces are generally more likely to cut the horse's mouth or cause pain.
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    Check the mouthpiece comfort. Confirm that the mouthpiece is comfortable with the following tests:
    • Make sure the rings or metal connections at the corners of the mouth do not pinch the horse's lip tissue. If you're not sure, put the side of your finger next to that ring/bar juncture. Spin the ring and see if it pinches your own finger (which is harder to pinch than soft tissue).
    • The link in the middle of a "broken mouth snaffle" can pinch as well. If you have this type of bit, test this on the side of your finger as well.
    • Check whether the center of the bit hits the rugae (ridges) of the horse's palate, or the roof of the mouth. This is often what's happening if the horse is restless or tosses its head a lot. In this case, switch to a French link mouthpiece, which lays flatter on the tongue and allows a larger range of motion.[3]

Method 2
Choosing a Stronger Bit

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    Decide whether a stronger bit is appropriate. Always train the horse with a mild snaffle bit before moving on to a more severe option. Stronger bits can provide more control, which may be useful for horse shows. Some excitable horses will resist stopping with a mild bit, but focus on ground work training first. Some spirited or sensitive horses will object to a harsh bit, and continue misbehaving.
    • Think about your typical riding activities. You'll typically want a mild bit for riding in the school, and perhaps a stronger bit for more strenuous activity.
    • Check the bit regulations of any horse competitions you plan to enter.
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    Consider your own riding ability. Beginning riders are more likely to harm the horse with a strong bit. You should have a fair amount of riding experience before you try to use one. Even then, ask your trainer for advice on choosing a bit, and on adjusting your rein use to adapt to a new bit.
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    Choose the bit. There are many variations of bits, and you may need to try several before you find one that works. Most English riders just move to a snaffle with a harsher mouthpiece or ring. Western riders may try a different style of bit altogether, such as the curb bit. These use leverage to increase the amount of pressure from your pull. The Pelham and the Slotted Kimberwick are two common options which use a curb chain to provide more control over the head.
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    Train the horse without a bit. Bitless riding is becoming more popular, although it is not yet legal in most competitions. Even if you use a harsh bit some of the time, consider training without a bit occasionally. This will improve your own balance and strength, and teach you to direct the horse with cues from the "seat." This may even solve some behavioral issues, as many horses calm down when the mouth is no longer agitated.
    • Bitless riding is allowed in most jumpers, polo, and endurance competitions. For other disciplines, you will need to compete with a bit — but you may still benefit from the training.


  • If the horse is refusing the bit or not responding to the bit well, it could have tooth problems. Consult your veterinarian.
  • Use bit guards to prevent rubbing, and petroleum jelly to protect the corners of the horse's mouth.
  • if you've just bought the horse, you can get advice from the previous owner. The owner can tell you what bit the horse uses, and how it responds.
  • In some countries there are bit banks, which rent out bits for you to try out.
  • A hunter mount shouldn't need a harsh bit or a curb chain. Stick with a snaffle or D-ring.
  • If you ride Western style, you cannot ride two-handed with a Western curb bit. It is against horse-showing rules. You can ride two-handed with a snaffle, however. Any bit with shanks should never be used with direct reining or two hands. This includes the so-called "western snaffle" or "tom thumb", which is actually a curb, not a snaffle.
  • The bit is only as strong as the hands are.


  • Make sure all bits you choose are legal. This is especially important for any competitions or shows that you may wish to enter. There are many harsh bits that are illegal to use for some competitions and shows. Contact the governing body of your discipline for a rule book.
  • If you are a beginner, do not get any complicated long shank bit. Improper use will rip up for horses mouth. Make sure you know how to use the bit before you put it on the horse.
  • It is against horse show rules to have a curb chain on a regular egg butt or any other snaffle bit.
  • Don't ride your horse if it doesn't like its bit. Your horse may refuse to ride, and it is generally pointless to try to break it if the horse is uncomfortable.

Article Info

Categories: Tack (Saddles and Bridles)