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Bits and Pieces - by Lorraine Jennings

Advice on what sort of bit to use on a horse or pony is one of the most common questions we get asked at Horse and Pony Info. For this reason, we decided to ask Lorraine Jennings to help us out. Lorraine writes our 'School Your Horse Help Desk' and also for other magazines and websites. She has her own Schooling Guides to help riders on www.schoolyourhorse.com. Nothing beats correct schooling but this takes time and, if you feel out of control, safety is most important for both rider and horse. 

A bit about bits
Although good schooling will help you to slow down and control a strong pony it won’t happen overnight. In the mean time you want to get out and about hacking, jumping and riding cross country and a different bit might just give you the control you’re looking for. It’s important to remember ‘different’. No one bit is the same. They all have different actions – on the bars, corners, poll, chin groove and tongue. All ponies are different too. What works well for one can be a complete disaster for another! Remember that a bit is only as severe as the hands on the end of the reins. A rubber snaffle can be severe if you’re always tugging on it: a pelham mild if you never need to squeeze.
 

Before changing bits remember to check your pony’s teeth, his saddle and the rest of his tack. Sometimes a sharp edge on a tooth, a lump in the underside of a saddle or a rough edge on your bit can be enough to cause him to misbehave. Ask your vet to routinely check his teeth when you have the annual injections done - when you clean your tack run your hand over your bridle and the underneath of your saddle - and these things will never become a problem.

 

Everybody has to learn sometimes and unsteady hands can’t always be avoided. Using rubber or plastic mouth pieces can make life more comfortable for a pony while the rider learns to get control of his own body as well as his pony’s!

FAQ 

It’s common for ponies to behave beautifully in a ménage or enclosed area only to transform into a devil when they hit grass! Something stronger than their ordinary snaffle is needed. Here are just a few ideas on the type of bit that might help.

Remember that a bit is only as severe as the hands on the end of the reins.

 

1. Forward going/ strong ponyyoung rider 

Young riders have small hands and more than one rein is not an option. A Dutch Gag (bubble bit) or a Kimblewick are the obvious choice for a strong pony.

 

Snaffles work in the corners of the mouth and a single joint works by squeezing the tongue when you use both reins together. Any snaffle with rings above and/or below the mouthpiece will work on the top of the pony’s head (the poll). A snaffle can have any number of joints too – the more joints there are the less your pony can lean. These three actions combined work well on ponies that put their heads down and tank. If they open their mouths then a flash or drop noseband can be used too.


A Dutch gag (bubble bit or three ring gag) can be ridden with two reins but it’s more common to see them used with one rein on any ring or with leather roundings which join the top and one of the lower rings together so one rein can still be used. Roundings can be useful but do reduce the amount of poll pressure so the stopping power is less effective. Using a single rein on the lower ring increases poll pressure but the further away the reins are from the mouthpiece the less effective the steering! If the Dutch gag isn’t enough try a hanging snaffle which has the poll pressure and the steering – combined with a solid side piece to help stop the bit sliding through the pony’s mouth. Hanging snaffles have an added bonus too! If your pony goes well in one – you can use them in a dressage test.

 

Kimblewicks are great for ponies. They are a scaled down version of a pelham that are perfect for young riders and ponies as only one rein is needed. They work on the bars of the mouth (gums and lower jaw), the poll and the chin groove. These three actions work well on ponies that lift their heads up or poke their noses forward and try to run off. When you pull on the reins the bit presses down on the poll, the lower jaw, and the back of the chin bringing the ponies head down and back towards their body.


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Dutch Gag (also called Bubble Bit or Three Ring Gag)

Dutch Gag (Bubble Bit or Three Ring Gag) - Use for No. 1 - Forward Going/Strong Ponies

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Kimblewick Bit

Kimblewick - Use for No. 1 - Forward Going/Strong Ponies

2. Napping/ lack of steering 

This is common with ponies and young horses. Often a pony will open his mouth to avoid pressure from the bit so use a flash or a drop noseband to help get more control. They also stop the bit sliding through his mouth as you’re trying to turn!

 

Rubber or leather bit guards can have more of an effect than you might think. These can sit under or over your noseband and will put pressure against your pony's face when you use the opposite rein. Remember though - you can’t use them in a dressage test – although you can use a variety of snaffles with cheeks.

 

Napping is often more about turning than it is about good brakes. This is where the snaffles with cheeks come in. These come in various varieties; some only have half-cheeks ( the top half) but there are two main types. The Full Cheek snaffle has two ‘arms’ that are fixed to eggbutt rings. The Fulmer snaffle has two arms that are fixed to the mouthpiece of the bit and a loose ring attached to the outside. The arms on these bits are usually round and thin – special loops can be bought that thread onto your cheek pieces. The arms are slotted into them and this stops the bit swivelling in the pony’s mouth.

          

The arms/ cheeks of either bit put pressure against your pony's face when you use the opposite rein. Don’t forget you need to use your legs and body to turn too. Your pony won’t turn just because you've turned his head. He needs to turn his body too. Keep your contact even in both reins, look where you want to go, turn your body in that direction and push him round with your outside leg.

 

Fixed rings are ideal for ponies that are fussy in their mouths; those that shake their heads or tip their heads up when you ask them to stop or turn. Loose rings are perfect for ponies that lean down on a bit – the loose ring means the mouth piece of the bit never stays still. He can’t lean on anything if it’s not solid.

 

Snaffles with cheeks or fulmers have the added bonus that the mouthpiece can come in a variety of metals and with multiple links. The more links you have the less your pony can lean on it. The added movement in it also means he’ll move it around with his tongue and that will stop him setting his jaw.

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Half Cheek Snaffle

Half Cheek Snaffle - Use for No. 2 - Napping/Lack of Steering

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Full Cheek Snaffle

Full Cheek Snaffle - Use for No. 2 - Napping/Lack of Steering

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Fulmer Snaffle

Fulmer Snaffle - Use for No. 2 - Napping/Lack of Steering

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Standing Martingale

A standing martingale works really well on ponies that are more sensitive in their mouths. The strap is attached to the back of a cavesson noseband (never a drop) and so when your pony puts his head up it’s his nose that feels the pressure not his mouth. (See No. 3 - It's not just about bits)

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Running Martingale

A running martingale fits over your reins and puts pressure onto the bit when your pony tries to lift his head up too high. Use a martingale stop on each rein between the billet (the catch by the bit) and the martingale ring to avoid them getting hooked up. (See No. 3 - It's not just about bits)

3. It’s not just about bits 

It’s not always the bit that needs changing. Nosebands and martingales are really useful aids. A running martingale fits over your reins and puts pressure onto the bit when your pony tries to lift his head up too high. Use a martingale stop on each rein between the billet (the catch by the bit) and the martingale ring to avoid them getting hooked up. A standing martingale works really well on ponies that are more sensitive in their mouths. The strap is attached to the back of a cavesson noseband (never a drop) and so when your pony puts his head up it’s his nose that feels the pressure not his mouth.


 

Sheepskin nosebands are often misunderstood. ‘Cute’ they may be (!) but their real purpose is to stop the pony putting his nose up too high. If he does he can’t see where he’s going. It’s that simple and it doesn’t affect his mouth.


A well fitted flash or drop noseband can make your usual bit ten times more effective. It stops your pony opening his mouth to avoid any pressure from the bit. Ponies often do this when they put their heads down to tank off so it’s well worth a try. When you fit a flash noseband the top strap should sit one finger’s width below the cheek bone. Make sure it’s done up tightly enough so that it lies flat and straight around your pony’s face. You should just be able to push one finger between the strap and him. Do the drop strap up so the buckle lies flat against the side of his nose and tight enough so you can just fit your finger underneath it. Never fit a drop so it lies over the soft part of his nostrils as it will interfere with his breathing.

              


Reins are also important when it comes to control. If you’re having trouble holding your reins try some continental reins. These have notches on them that you can hold onto so you don’t let your reins get too long. They’re made of webbing so unlike bulky rubber reins they absorb sweat and fit into the smallest of hands. Make sure you wear gloves as they can be sharp if your pony tries to pull them through your fingers.

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Drop noseband

A drop noseband can make your usual bit more effective. It will stop your horse/pony opening his mouth to avoid any pressure from the bit. (See No. 3 - It's not just about bits)

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Flash noseband

When you fit a Flash noseband, the top strap should sit one finger’s width below the cheek bone. Make sure it’s done up tightly enough so that it lies flat and straight around your pony’s face. The drop strap should never be so low that it limits your pony's breathing. Keep it above the soft, fleshy part on the nose. (See No. 3 - It's not just about bits).

4. Cross Country 

Going cross country requires nerves of steel – and good brakes! While it’s great to cover the ground at speed it’s also essential that when you get to a fence you can get your pony back under control. Before you reach for the Dutch gags and pelhams though take a look at some alternatives.

 

Martingales and nosebands are a common sight cross country. Coupled with a roller bit or double jointed snaffle they can be a winning combination.

 

French link snaffles are often thought to be one of the mildest bits but they can be very effective if your pony likes to pull. The more joints a mouth piece has the harder it is for him to lean. The single joint in the middle encourages him to move the bit with his tongue. This slight movement in his jaw stops him setting it against you.

 

If your pony goes well in a French link on the flat but you need something stronger for cross country why not try a Dr Bristol? It still has the double joint that your pony prefers but the plate in the centre is square and tilted. When you use both reins together the plate pushes into the tongue and up into the corners of his mouth. It can be enough to get the control you’re looking for. These work best with an eggbutt ring but can also be found on gags and snaffles with cheeks.

 

D-ringed snaffles with copper rollers can be very effective on ponies that lean. The rollers encourage your pony to move his tongue. The copper encourages him to ‘salivate’ (makes his mouth water!). These two things stop him setting his jaw and leaning on the bit. These are most often seen with a single joint that presses on his tongue in a nutcracker action when you use both reins. D rings put pressure on the sides of his mouth when you ask him to turn.

 

Cherry roller snaffles are often confused with the D-ring copper rollers. Cherry rollers have large round rollers that spin if your pony tries to get hold of them. These are very effective on ponies that put their heads down and try to tank but make sure your pony has room in his mouth for one! Some ponies have small mouths that just can’t take such a fat mouth piece. Check the roof of your pony’s mouth too – if it’s very flat you could find these bits make him uncomfortable.

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French Link Snaffle

French link snaffles are often thought to be one of the mildest bits but they can be very effective if your pony likes to pull. Use for No. 4 - Cross Country or, if you need something stronger, try a Dr. Bristol bit.

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D-Ringed Copper Roller Snaffle

D-ringed snaffles with copper rollers can be very effective on ponies that lean. Use for No. 4 - Cross Country.

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Cherry Roller Snaffle

Cherry rollers have large round rollers that spin if your pony tries to get hold of them. These are very effective on ponies that put their heads down and try to tank but make sure your pony has room in his mouth for one! Use for No. 4 - Cross Country.

5. British Dressage Rules - equipment for pony/ horse and rider 

Many shows state in their rules – ‘to be ridden under British Dressage Rules’. What you and your pony can and can’t wear is all here - http://www.britishdressage.co.uk/uploads/File/Equipment%20and%20Dress%20Rules.pdf   

And finally…

With so many bits on the market it’s understandable that many people get confused. Remember to check your pony's teeth and tack – and your position before you resort to changing a bit. Ask your instructor for his or her advice too – he/she knows your pony better than a well meaning friend at the yard! 

Bits and various bits of tack often follow fashion but the most important thing is your pony is comfortable and settled in whatever you choose. His comfort is more important than anything. If he’s happy there’s every chance you will be too!

Good luck!