Gaited Horse Bits & Bridles
As I've traveled the county teaching folks how to get the best gaits from their horses, that they have the ability to give, the most common question of all is which bit they should be using. I have read where some other gaited coaches promote a particular bit as "the miracle for all gaited horses" and some even produce and sell their own custom bits...as if using that bit will make all horses ride better. The correct answer to this question is as varied as are the different sizes, shapes, personalities of the horses I work with AND their riders! There is no such thing as a single bit that works well for every horse any more than there is one saddle that fits every horse or one boot that fits every person. Even more surprising to some is that a bit that works well for one horse/rider combination often will not work well at all for the same horse with a different rider. This is because bits are like musical instruments!
If you've ever heard someone just learning to play the violin, you know how miserable it can be to your ears! On the other hand, if you've heard a violin played by someone who really knows how to make it touch your soul then you may say no other instrument could be so beautiful! So it is with bits! Proper education and training of the riders' hands and seat is often my biggest challenge, more so than teaching the horses. Proper horsemanship is the key to making any headstall setup work well...and if used wrong, sometimes the best of bits can cause poor behavior or even dangerous results...
Many things about Gaited Horses are often considered to be different than with non-gaited horses, but the fact is that most questions or problems are solved with the same answers or solutions regardless whether the horse is gaited or not. It just comes down to good horsemanship, which is: Understanding the horse, in mind and body, and knowing how to communicate to the horse well. This is the key to great training. I have met hundreds of excellent horsemen and horsewomen in all disciplines of the equine world, and found that there are many wonderful methods to training horses. The specific method used is not important, but the communication between horse and rider is. Bits & Bridles are a huge part of this communication...much like a keyboard or a mouse is for a computer.
Rather than continuing on my ranting and raving about bits and training and such, in a generalized manner, I am going to list several basic bit styles and explain the pros and cons of their use, as well as what they are supposed to be used for...and how that may differ in some cases with gaited horses from non-gaited:
Snaffle Bits are an excellent tool, when used properly. A snaffle bit can be used to teach a horse flexibility, responsiveness, steering cues, and many other things. In fact, a person can use a snaffle bit as the only bit from day one of training all the way through until they have a finished horse...in almost any kind of riding and any equine discipline. A snaffle bit is a wonderful tool because of its gentle nature and easy to understand cues in the horses mouth. It can be used to help a horse round out its back and correct its posture and many other things important to gaited horses, even cueing a horse with too high a head set to lower its head or vise versa. I use a snaffle to start 90% of the gaited horses I train, and love it! I will keep using the snaffle until I have the horse obeying all my cues with soft, supple movements and no resistance to my cues. I will move most horses to another bit at a certain point in their training, not because I have to in order to get the ride I want, but because I am usually training horses for other people to ride. I want to make the transition to the new rider as easy, peaceful & stress free as possible for the horse...and need to train the horse to understand the cues their new rider will be giving them! (Training the riders to do what most of them want with the horse in a snaffle is not logically feasible, as it takes much more skill to ride gaited horses well in a snaffle than it does in other types of headstall/bit combinations. Thus, I train the horses to match their riders as much as possible.)
"Gaited" Long Shank Bits are the most commonly used bits for gaited horses. Why? Because the pressure created with the shanks prevent the horse from pushing through the bit and if a rider drives the horse into the bit then it seems much easier to get a good gait from them. Does this mean that I am against long shank bits? No, but it does mean I am against using them to hold back horses that should have been trained better and had they been they wouldn't need long shanks! Also, I am against people using these types of bits simply because they are not willing to take the time to learn to ride correctly or have their horse trained well, along with them being taught to have correct seat and hands...which ends up creating a lot of people riding poorly and roughly and also poor riding horses that often become pushy & disobedient! The bad behavior comes from people inflicting pain on the horse to get what they want and the horse getting sick of it. So what is the correct use of a long shank bit? It is NOT meant to hold back the horse, but to create refinement in the posture and movement of a horse with the smallest movement of the rider's wrist or little finger... to be able to control a horse with subtle cues and have a horse that literally dances with you as if rider and mount are connected in the brain, and all with the nearly indiscernible touch of the reins. I admit that Long Shank Bits are sometimes the last resort, and necessary when a horse was poorly trained and handled badly in the past and no other bit will slow it down or stop it well. Going back to elementary training is a better option, but often is very expensive for older, previously mishandled horses and using a "strong" bit makes some of them pretty fair riding horses. Once again, good horsemanship is needed to determine what is best for both horse and rider in each situation and circumstance. In summary, a long shank bit is not needed to make horses gait well or be obedient if they have good training. But, these bits can be used properly with a well trained horse to do high level of performance and make communication between horse and rider nearly uncanny, as if their minds are connected. The shanks, along with the port and curb chain, put pressure on a horse that is supposed to cause them to raise their head while bending at the poll, thus lowering their nose. This allows the rider to push the horse from behind and engage the rear end. I like to call this collecting the horse so you feel them carrying equal weight on the front and back ends. These bits can do this well, but forcing a horse this way and skipping their being trained to do this with a softer bit first, often creates hard mouthed horses that lose their supple feeling and become harder and harder to hold back. These bits should be used AFTER the horse is trained to do these things already, in order to refine the movement and allow the rider to give very small, soft cues.
Tom Thumb Bits are a combination bit, blending the snaffle and the shanked style of bit. Usually they are short shanked, but still long enough that everything I mentioned, both good & bad, about long shanked bits still applies. This bit can be used to give the same cues as a snaffle or a shanked curb style bit, or a combination of both cues and can be a very excellent training or lifetime riding bit. I have read more negative opinions about the tom thumb online than any other bit...much of which is inaccurate but definitely with some truth too. The #1 complaint I have with this bit is that it is often sold or represented as a "beginning bit" either for beginning the training of a horse or for a beginning rider. THAT is the problem with this bit. My earlier example of listening to a beginner play the violin probably applies to this bit more than any other. When used roughly, even unintentionally, this bit can cause the horse a lot of pain and create many behavioral problems. Even if a horse does not react in a negative way, if used wrong then the horse will be slow in its education and will have learning issues regarding the simplest of cues. Often a beginning rider on a learning horse, using a tom thumb, will end up developing problems like rearing, bucking, backing to escape pressure, head tossing and many other issues that could have been prevented. They could have been prevented by either using a different bit or having the rider learn how to use the tom thumb correctly. As far as using one correctly goes, I have to say that this style of bit is very effective at teaching a horse to move laterally or diagonally, to listen & obey soft touches, to be flexible and supple, to carry themselves with great balance, posture and power, and to gait extremely well. The Tom Thumb is one of the best bits ever invented, but it is a PROFESSIONAL level bit that should be used by those with butter soft hands that know how to feel the horse's mouth as if a spider web thread connected it to their fingertips! I personally use this bit on 90% of my own horses and 50% of horses I train for others, either as the bit they will stay in all their lives or as a transitional tool to set their posture and gaits in preparation for their soon to be riders. In all the numerous articles I've read that slam the tom thumb, I've never found one complaint about it that pertains to using it correctly. They always speak of how bad it is and then list how it causes problems or doesn't work well and then describe various incorrect usage of the bit. I am guessing that most of these authors do not understand this bit themselves. To truly know what I mean, they would have to hear the Touch of The Master's Hand playing the violin, or in other words watch someone using a tom thumb properly and really communicating with the horse as it's meant to! I recommend this bit to many people for their horses, but ONLY if they are willing to spend the time and money to learn how to use the bit properly!
Hackamores and bosals, side-pulls, rope halters (with knots) etc are another excellent type of headstall for some horse/rider combinations. I often put them on my horses when strangers I've not seen ride yet want to ride, just to protect the horses' mouths in case the riders are too rough. "Hacks" with shanks can put a lot of pressure on the bridge of the nose and under the chin, but even so are considered a very soft headpiece because the pressure is not inside the mouth, but on the outside. With a hack you can either direct rein or single rein to turn and the untrained rider can "hack" on the horse more strongly without causing problems. The con to these headpieces is that a poorly trained horse (or belligerent one) can much more easily push through the pressure and run off, ignoring the rider's cues. Some folks really like hacks so their horses' mouths can be free. In rare cases horses are extra sensitive to every bit of any kind and a hack style headpiece makes their riding experience good again. I often find that horses who have had hurt mouths a lot in their past learn to gait well and be calm and obedient when switched to a hack...but some take advantage of the softness too, so good horsemanship is again needed to make this determination. There is nothing wrong with starting a horse in a simple rope hackamore and keeping them in a hack, if you are happy with them this way. I end up training probably 5% of horses this way and in many cases they are ridden that way all their lives.
Other Bits are available by the hundreds, and many of them work well...but many more are just attempts to find a solution for problems, when the real solution is simply better training for both the horse and rider. With the proper use of a snaffle, tom thumb, long shank curb, and hackamore you can train every gaited horse to be soft, supple, obedient, responsive and to gait as nicely as their genetics will allow. You do not need fancy, new-age experimental bits to solve your horse issues. One or more of these basic 4 styles of bits will fit every horse/rider combination...the key being education and proper horsemanship. In most cases, a hackamore or a snaffle bit is all you need, and you can produce a super trained gaiting horse. As you become a better rider you can learn to ride with a tom thumb...and if you become a professional level high performance rider you may want to ride with long shanks on a few really nicely finished horses.
It is a sad but common misconception that the better trained your horse is the softer your bit can be and the more "control" you need the harsher your bit! In reality, it is the opposite... The worse your horse is, the more it (and you) need to go back to school and learn to ride well...and the softer your bit should be, until gentle obedience is achieved...and the more well trained your horse is the closer it is to being ready to increase it's refinement with a bigger bit and your softer touch and intricate cues through your seat as well as the reins. (That "seat" statement is another subject all together!)
The Most Common Question: Do I Have the Right Bit for my Horse?
If you are gaiting up the road and you pull back on the reins rather firmly, and at the same time you squeeze your heels into the horse's side, what does he do with his head? If he raises his head where you want it, bends at the poll softly to your touch, lowering his nose till you relax a little on the reins, then you probably do have the right setup. If he shakes or lowers his head or raises his nose then most likely you do not. ... This is just the beginning step of determining what bit to use on your horse. For step by step instructions or lessons with your horse, contact Alma DeMille to schedule a horse evaluation and lesson. This is offered both in person or via email, phone and video correspondence.
It will likely be the most valuable investment you'll ever make in your gaited horse!