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 Myth: A Stronger Bit Equals More Control 

The Myth: A Stronger Bit Equals More Control
By Kelli Paulson, Mid States Ranch Horses, LLC
The problem: Your horse doesn’t listen to you, he doesn’t stop the way you want, sometimes he even runs away with you. So your friend says, “go to the tack shop and buy a better (usually bigger, fancier and more expensive) bit”. A new wonder bit with a higher port and longer shanks – some leverage is what you need.

Usually the problem going on has nothing to do with the bit. The horse doesn’t understand what is being asked or has been taught to ignore or tolerate the bit.

A horse’s natural instinct is to move away from pressure. This includes a bit. The horse can be taught to respond to light pressure or a lot of pressure. If he is taught and trained to ignore the bit he will keep getting duller and duller.

There is no bit made that will stop a horse. If a horse gets scared enough he will break his own jaw or cut his tongue in half to get away.

Most riders agree that a horse should be started with a mild bit. Snaffle bits are used to get the horse started, to ride through the bucks, teach him to stop, to be soft and responsive. They understand with a mild bit what to do and how to do it. After we accomplish all of this – why do we go to a shank bit?

Originally the shank bit was used as a signal bit. The bit was ornately and precisely designed to be finer way to operate your well trained horse with less pressure and more refinement.

Progression to the shank bit should occur when your horse knows what to do, willingly and accurately. The bit will allow you to ride one-handed, move your hands less while applying the same (or less) amount of pressure as you did with the snaffle and you will have more refinement in your riding.

As the horse gets more educated it should take less pressure. If it takes more pressure your riding program is going in the wrong direction. The situation is getting worse instead of better.

It is important to understand leverage. The shank bit is in effect a nutcracker or a pair of pliers while a snaffle has no leverage. The horse with a snaffle bit feels the same amount of pressure in his mouth as you are feeling in your hands. The shank bit should be for the advanced rider who understand that if they are holding the reins with 2 lbs of pressure the horse may be feeling 10 lbs of pressure. Imagine you are walking around with a child and he is holding on to your finger with a nutcracker. If he gets excited or surprised you may wish he had a hold of your finger with only his hand as the pressure intensifies. If you use a bit with a four-inch shank, do only 25% as much as you did with the snaffle bit to get the same amount of pressure. A three-inch shank requires 30%, a five-inch bit 15% as much.

Traditional horsemanship stresses getting everything right in the snaffle bit. The horse should do anything you ask lightly, softly, with a good willing attitude and be a responsive horse. This takes time, at least a year of riding.

After this is achieved the shank bit should be used for refinement.

When your horse doesn’t listen, doesn’t stop, or runs away with you, don’t do more! Go back to the basics. Get the simple things right. Fix the problem rather than putting a larger ineffective bandaid on the symptoms.

If you need help, contact us. We offer private lessons, clinics, colt starting and problem solving.