Are you confused by the different common types of horse bits? I have two fussy green horses who I’ve been bitting up, so I feel your pain.
Domestic equids have been wearing bits as far back as the early Bronze Age. Archaeologists in Israel found evidence of bit usage in donkeys from 2600-2800 BCE (1).
Whole books have been written about bits for horses.
I’m not going to write a book, but I’ll provide a guide to the most common types of horse bits for English and Western riding.
- There are hundreds of types of bits, and they all exert pressure in different ways. It may take time to find the perfect one for your horse.
- Snaffle bits apply direct pressure to the mouth, while curb bits apply indirect pressure or leverage to the mouth and to other points around the head.
- Curbs are generally much stronger, so they should be used with care.
- The most important part of any bitting setup is your hands. Any bit can be harsh if you ride with heavy hands, but horses will tolerate a serious bit if the rider has light, skilled hands.
- Ride in the gentlest bit you can.
What is a Horse Bit, and How Does It Work?
Whatever the material or type of bit, all bits (or bitless hackamores) work by exerting pressure on various points around the horse’s mouth.
Many bits work on the mouth in combination with other sensitive nerves around the head.
The Equine Science Department at the University of Georgia explains that these points are
“the tongue, bars, cheeks, lips, palate, nose, curb area and poll.” Some pieces of headgear may be able to affect nearly all of these points, while some may only affect two or three of these points.” (2)
Bits can be roughly divided into two categories – snaffles and curbs.
There are hundreds of types of snaffles, curbs, and bits that utilize elements from both, but it’s a useful shorthand for understanding the differences between bits.
A snaffle bit transmits pressure to the bars, lips, and tongue using direct pressure from the rein.
A curb bit, however, uses indirect pressure or leverage, with the reins attached to shanks that act on the horse’s bars and lips, as well as the poll, jaw, and chin groove.
Some bits employ both direct and indirect pressure, like Pelhams, gags, and Kimberwicks.
They are often (but not always) used with roundings, leather cords that connect the shanks to the cheek rings, or double reins.
Any indirect pressure bit has the potential to be far more severe than a direct pressure one.
With a snaffle bit, if a rider exerts one pound of pressure on the reins, the horse feels one pound of pressure in its mouth. (3)
But with a curb bit, the horse feels the rider’s one pound of pressure as two, four, eight, etc. pounds, depending on the length of the shanks and increasing on a logarithmic scale. (3)
Additionally, a thinner mouthpiece is more severe than a thicker one because it concentrates pressure.
However, horses with small mouths or low palates might find a thicker mouthpiece rather uncomfortable.
Wire mouthpieces are the most severe and not recommended, as they always cause pain to the horse.
Where do you start when basic types of mouthpieces vary endlessly?
You can have roller bits with rings or barrels that a busy horse can move with its tongue.
There are also curved mouthpieces, straight mouthpieces, French links, key links, twisted mouthpieces, shallow ports, and tall ports.
Some offer more control options than others, but ultimately you want to ride in the gentlest bit that works.
The cheapest bits are made out of stainless steel, but advanced designs like sweet iron, manganese, and other types of metals are becoming more popular.
They are thought to encourage salivation and relaxation.
Rubber bits are also popular. Most types of English bits come in a rubber version.
Because it’s much softer on the mouth than metal, it’s frequently used on youngsters.
Ultimately, the degree and type of pressure depend on the width of the bit, the material, the length of shanks, the shape of the bit and cheekpieces, and the rider’s hands.
Which bit style is the best one? There’s no simple answer.
It depends on your horse’s mouth conformation and his preferences, your discipline and riding style, the horse’s level of training, and your experience level.
Disciplines such as dressage have strict bit rules, which also dictate peoples’ biting choices (4).
For more information, check out Olympic coach Bernie Traurig giving detailed personal insights about English bits and bitting.
Western riders might watch this video instead, although most of these bits show up in both English and Western riding, and the principles are the same.
Common Types of Horse Bits
You’re quite likely to encounter these basic bit types in most barns and tack shops.
Without a doubt, the snaffle bit is the most common bit for English riding disciplines. Nonetheless, many Western riders use them, especially on green horses.
Snaffles can either be single-jointed, double-jointed or have a straight bar.
The straight bar, or mullen mouth, is a mild style of bit.
It exerts very little pressure on the corners of the horse’s mouth or tongue. However, they are easy for the horse to lean on or run through.
The single-jointed snaffle gives the rider more control as it puts additional pressure on the corners of the mouth.
But, it can have a nutcracker effect on the tongue and palate, so many horses don’t like it.
Some single-jointed snaffles have twisted mouthpieces or even twisted wire. These are correction bits and very severe.
The double-jointed snaffle solves the nutcracker problem.
You have an endless choice of center joints that vary widely in severity and pressure distribution on the tongue and bars.
The most popular are French link bits, which have a flat centerpiece with curved edges that put some mild pressure on the tongue.
One of the sharpest is the Dr. Bristol bit, a flat plate of metal sitting at an angle that sharply increases pressure on the tongue.
The softest double-jointed mouthpiece is the lozenge, a round or egg-shaped piece that creates an even pressure across the tongue.
A. Loose Ring Snaffle
The loose ring snaffle bit mouthpiece is attached to free-moving rings that allow it to rest in the most comfortable position in the mouth.
It encourages the horse to come off the forehand and work from behind.
It’s very mild, so it’s ideal for horses with sensitive mouths or beginner riders.
That said, some horses find the excess movement of the loose rings annoying. Also, the rings can pinch the corners of the mouth of horses with fleshy lips.
Pinching can be solved with bit guards and large rubber washers which fit between the bit rings and the horse’s cheeks.
B. Eggbutt Snaffle
This mouthpiece is welded onto oval-shaped fixed rings.
It is more stable than the loose ring bit, so may suit horses who prefer a bit that doesn’t rotate or move too much.
For this reason, it’s also a great bit for beginner riders who are still learning independent seat and hand control.
It’s easier for horses to lean on the hands than a loose ring, and the horse won’t feel as many subtle hand movements.
For some horses, that’s a good thing, but others will be less responsive.
C. D-Ring Snaffle
The D-ring snaffle is similar to the eggbutt, but the cheekpieces are D-shaped rather than round.
It adds some lateral pressure on the sides of the mouth, providing a stronger steering aid, and it can help a green horse learn lateral flexion cues.
Like with all fixed ring bits, you sacrifice finesse because there’s little warning for the horse that the rider has taken up the reins, and the release isn’t as quick.
D. Baucher or Hanging Cheek Bit
It is similar in construction to the eggbutt, but it has separate rings above the main bit rings, which attach it to the bridle cheekpieces.
When looking at the shape of the bit, it is easy to assume it exerts mild poll pressure. However, this is a common misconception. It has no leverage action.
Bit maker, Neue Schule, decided to put this misconception to bed by carrying out a study. They found that it actually relieves poll and TMJ pressure with rein contact.
“As the baucher reduces the forces which act up through the bridle to the poll, it has the added benefit of relieving pressures acting on the Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ).” (5)
This is a good bit for sensitive horses. However, it’s not as useful as a loose ring for getting a heavy horse off the forehand or stopping a horse from leaning.
E. Full Cheek Snaffle Bit
It has long, vertical arms attached to the bit rings. This reinforces turning aids and is especially useful when breaking in young horses.
They work like D-ring cheekpieces but spread the pressure over a wider area.
If fitted snugly, the full cheek bit stops the mouthpiece from sliding back and forth across the bars.
Full cheeks can be helpful for young horses but hazardous. The arms can be easily caught in clothing, equipment, gates, or anything else you might encounter.
2. Curb Bits
Curb bits are common in Western disciplines.
They form part of the double bridle in dressage. English riders often use them to control a strong horse while hunting, going cross-country, showjumping, or hacking.
Many western curb bits consist of a solid mouthpiece with a port or arch in the middle that provides tongue relief.
Some, such as the Tom Thumb, have a jointed mouthpiece and no port.
They all have shanks, which work by applying leverage to the poll, curb groove, and bars.
Tall ports act on the roof of the mouth. Low ports should offer tongue clearance, so long as the bit fits.
The level of severity depends on the shape and size of the shanks.
Longshanks will have a stronger effect than shorter shanks.
Curb shanks with a backward curve will give the horse more warning when the rider picks up the reins and decrease the level of severity. (6)
They also have a curb chain or strap, which hooks on the bit rings and goes under the horse’s chin.
It acts on the sensitive chin groove and prevents the rider from pulling the shanks more than 45 degrees. (6)
Curb bits have hanging cheeks, which are called purchases. The ratio between the purchase and the shanks determines the strength and the balance of the bit.
Any curb should only be used by experienced riders with soft hands. Because of their leverage action, the effects of rein pressure are magnified exponentially.
Reining and cow horse trainer Larry Trocha talks about his favorite (and least favorite) curbs, and he explains how the complicated parts work together.
This type of curb bit is usually found on the double bridle, used in conjunction with the bradoon, a small snaffle.
The rider holds four reins, one set on the curb and the other set on the snaffle.
It’s used in the most advanced levels of dressage, refining the rider’s aids and the horse’s self-carriage when performing upper-level movements.
The snaffle and curb act separately.
The Weymouth has a low, wide port (some are just straight bars without a port) and straight shanks between 5 and 10cm long.
It should be used with the lightest pressure on the curb rein.
B. Western Tom Thumb
This bit shares the same name as the English Tom Thumb (discussed below), but it’s much harsher.
It has a single-jointed broken mouthpiece and straight shanks around 10cm long.
Because it combines the nutcracker effect inside the mouth with leverage and a curb strap, it is a severe bit that should only be used by an experienced rider with gentle hands.
It’s most likely to be seen in Western disciplines like reining and barrel racing.
C. Western Correction Bits, Ported Curbs, and Jointed Angle Shanks
These best western bits have high, narrow ports which apply palate pressure.
These are often known as correction bits because they were originally designed to deal with horses who were not responding to rein aids.
Adding a roller underneath the curb encourages the horse to loosen his jaw because he can move his tongue around and play with the roller.
The curved shanks on some designs make the horse lighter to the aids because he knows when the rider touches the reins before the lever kicks in.
Jointed shanks allow for more lateral movement in the bit, which is useful for reining, barrel racing, and for introducing well-trained snaffle horses to the curb.
Both fixed shanks and straight shanks make the bit less forgiving.
D. Western S-Shank or Cavalry Bit
It has a high port and shanks shaped like an ‘S.’ That creates even more leverage than a straight shank.
This is a severe bit and should only be used by riders with light hands.
However, with a well-trained horse and an experienced rider, they can add refinement.
E. Western Grazing Bit
The grazing bit is a popular choice for Western riders.
It has a wide, low port for tongue relief and angled, often decorative shanks. The swept-back angle reduces the amount of leverage.
However, it is still a bit for finished horses.
While it was made for cowboys letting their horses graze on the range, I would not recommend that your horses graze while wearing a curb bit since they could catch themselves on the shanks.
F. Spade Bit
This is a decorative, complex bit for the most highly trained horses and riders.
It has a tall, narrow port called a spoon, a straight-bar mouthpiece, and straight, ornate shanks.
California bridle horse trainer Jeff Sanders explains,
“The spade is not a leverage bit in the way that many others are. It does not work off of the leverage from the mouthpiece and the curb strap.”(7)
Rather, the spade is the pinnacle of bridle horse or vaquero training, working as a signal bit.
The bridle horse has gone through extensive work with the snaffle bit and the bosal hackamore before graduating to a spade.
He holds the spade in his mouth and responds to the smallest twitch of the rider’s hands.
“The spade bit is used as an aid in cueing the horse, not as a means of forcing the horse into compliance.”
It should only be used by accomplished riders on finished bridle horses.
3. Pelhams, Kimberwicks, and Gags
These bits combine the direct action of the snaffle with the indirect actions of the curb.
You find them in both Western and English disciplines, although none are legal in dressage competitions.
The Pelham mimics the action of the double bridle’s bradoon and Weymouth, but with one bit instead of two, and the leverage effect is somewhat muted.
It can have either a single or jointed mouthpiece, with snaffle D-rings attached directly to the bit and shanks approximately 5cm long.
Some riders use double reins, just like a double bridle, but others use one set of reins attached to leather roundings that connect the snaffle rings to the curb rings.
The snaffle rein puts pressure on the bars of the mouth and tongue. It raises and flexes the head and should be the primary riding rein.
The curb rein activates the poll, jaw, and chin groove. This lowers the head and puts it vertically.
Together, they encourage a soft jaw and correct head carriage.
The Pelham isn’t as refined or effective as the double bridle, but it can be useful for horses who pull, need help with learning self-carriage, or have small mouths.
As with any curb bit, it requires gentle hands and light pressure.
The Kimberwick is similar to the Pelham, but it’s milder, and it is only ever used with a single rein.
The mouthpiece can be single-jointed, double-jointed, or a straight mullen mouth.
It has hanging cheeks with very short shanks, which attach to the bridle, and large D-shaped rings.
The D-rings have two slots for attaching the reins. The lower slot gives the rider extra leverage. Like a Pelham, this bit has a curb chain.
It gives the rider more control than a snaffle bit without being as strong as a Pelham, but it still requires soft hands.
C. Gag Bit
There are many different types of gag bits, but they all have similar mechanics.
I could write an entire article on gag bits alone. Check out this silly game to see a small sample of the gags that are out there. (8)
At first glance, they might look like a loose ring snaffle bit, but they are actually a leverage bit because they add poll pressure and aid in lifting the horse’s head.
The cheekpieces have additional rings for attaching the reins and bridle cheekpieces.
The rein attachments combine the direct pressure of a snaffle on the lips and bars with the leverage action of the curb.
The cheekpiece attachments lift the bit in the horse’s mouth.
The bit’s action prevents the horse from leaning on it.
Consequently, it’s commonly used in fast work such as eventing, showjumping, polo, working cattle, or hacking excitable horses.
As with any snaffle, they come with a variety of mouthpieces, both straight and jointed.
You’re most likely to come across the Cheltenham or running gag. It’s popular with polo players and eventers.
This bit has small holes in the cheekpieces, which you run a narrow cord through.
The cord connects the bit to the poll, and a set of reins attaches to rings at the bottom. That’s where the leverage comes from.
The second set of reins attaches to the snaffle cheekpieces. You ride off the snaffle reins unless you need the extra brakes.
This is how it looks when used on a horse.
D. Elevator Bits
These are a subset of gag bits designed to help the horse become lighter in his front end and sit back on his hocks.
They either have shanks with rings on the bottom or one to three rings attached together.
Then another ring is directly welded to the mouthpiece (like on a snaffle), and has a hanging cheekpiece ring or purchase that connects it to the bridle.
Riders can use them with one or two reins.
Types of elevator bits include the American gag, the English Tom Thumb (different than the western one), the Universal, and the Dutch gag. (8)
As with all curb bits, longer shanks or more rings increase leverage. Short, swept-back shanks, as you see on the Tom Thumb, soften the leverage.
Trainer Richard Winters explains how elevators work.
These are often seen in show jumping, eventing, and working cow horse competitions.
4. Combination Bits
Are you still with me?
This last type of bit combines gag action with the noseband pressure of a hackamore.
It diffuses pressure between the mouth, lower jaw, noseband, and poll.
Depending on the design, they can be milder than a gag or hackamore because the pressure is not as localized.
Some, however, have long shanks, which make them fairly severe despite the wider pressure distribution.
You find these in showjumping competitions, often used by riders on strong horses who don’t like a lot of mouth pressure. (10)
The most widespread combination bit – and one of the mildest and most versatile – is the one made by Myler.
Watch how it works here.
Myler recommends them for green horses or for horses who have problems with bits.
I successfully used one on a horse who hated snaffles, and it worked well for him.
A Brief History of Bits
Early bits were made out of rope, wood, or metal. The metal ones, which have been preserved, look like single-jointed snaffle bits. (11)
A bit is one of the most important pieces of tack you will buy.
It’s your direct connection to your horse’s mouth, enabling communication between horse and rider.
Traditionally, the bit sits inside the horse’s mouth, resting in the space between the front incisors and back molars, known as bars.
It gives the rider control over the horse’s head.
Evidence of bit-wear from the archaeological site of Botai in northern Kazakhstan suggests that bit usage on the steppes might predate the Israeli site. (12)
The oldest Botai horse skeletons with dental wear patterns attributed to bit use were dated to 3400-2700 BCE.
These days, you can find bits made out of all sorts of high-tech composite materials, like Happy Mouth, Winderen, or Bomber Blue. Most of them are still metal. (13)
Bitless bridles like hackamores and sidepulls are also becoming increasingly popular.
READ MORE: Are Bits Bad for Horses?
What kind of bit is best for my horse?
The best bit is the one best suited to your horse’s mouth conformation, his training and personality, and your discipline and riding skills.
What is the least painful bit for a horse?
The one with the softest hands at the other end. Loose ring or eggbutt double-jointed snaffles with a lozenge, or mullen mouths, are some of the softest bits for horses in the market.
What kind of bits do racehorses use?
Most racehorses use the loose ring or D-ring snaffle bits.
As you can see, bits are complicated, and they get more diverse every day.
To get a sense of just how many there are, check out The Bit Bank, which will keep you busy for hours learning about far more bits than I could describe here. (15)
In any case, it is a common misconception that a more severe bit will solve fundamental training problems, so you should always aim to ride with a light hand and go back to basics if something goes wrong rather than just biting up.
But every individual horse and discipline has its own requirements and quirks. For example, I have a horse who prefers leverage action over direct pressure.
And if your horse feels like a runaway train hacking in a field or running a cross-country course, you need some form of brakes.
Hopefully, I’ve shed enough light on types of bits to get you started on your own deep dive into the complex world of bitting.
So, what types of bits do you put on your horse? Let us know in the comments section!
- 1. Greenfield HJ, Shai I, Greenfield TL, Arnold ER, Brown A, Eliyahu A, et al. Earliest evidence for equid bit wear in the ancient Near East: The “ass” from Early Bronze Age Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath, Israel. Hart JP, editor. PLOS ONE. 2018;13:e0196335.
- 2. Bits 101 [Internet]. extension.uga.edu. [cited 2022 Nov 8]. Available from: https://extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.html?number=B1379
- 3. Barnett LK. Callaloo. Callaloo. 2007;30:169–71.
- 4. USEF DRESSAGE CHAPTER: DR 121 ANNEX A [Internet]. Available from: https://www.usef.org/forms-pubs/96D17lSsaCo/annex—bits-saddlery-equipment
- 5. Neue Schule -» Benefits of the Baucher [Internet]. nsbits.com. [cited 2022 Nov 8]. Available from: https://nsbits.com/lifestyle/benefits-of-the-baucher
- 6. Selecting the Proper Bit [Internet]. Equine Science. Available from: https://www.extension.iastate.edu/equine/selecting-proper-bit
- 7. Reata, romal reins & spade bits – California Bridle Horse [Internet]. [cited 2022 Nov 8]. Available from: https://californiabridlehorse.com/reata-rommel-reins-spade-bits/
- 8. Types of horse gag bit Quiz [Internet]. PurposeGames.com. [cited 2022 Nov 8]. Available from: https://www.purposegames.com/game/types-of-horse-gag-bit-game
- 9. Bomber’s Tom Thumb Happy Tongue Bit [Internet]. Eaglewood Equestrian Supplies. [cited 2022 Nov 9]. Available from: https://www.eaglewoodequestrian.ca/product/bombers-tom-thumb-happy-tongue-bit/
- 10. Beris Ported Tandem Bit | Combination Hackamore [Internet]. www.equiport.co.uk. [cited 2022 Nov 9]. Available from: https://www.equiport.co.uk/products/horse/bits/ported-tandem-bit-bb13/
- 11. themes. Luristan Bronze Horse Bridle Bit – Near Eastern Antiquities [Internet]. Ancient & Oriental. [cited 2022 Nov 9]. Available from: https://www.antiquities.co.uk/shop/ancient-tools-equipment/horseriding/luristan-bronze-horse-bridle-bit/
- 12. Brown D, Anthony D. Bit Wear, Horseback Riding and the Botai Site in Kazakstan. Journal of Archaeological Science. 1998;25:331–47.
- 13. Bits [Internet]. www.winderen.com. Available from: https://www.winderen.com/en/page/658/bits.html
- 14. Bomber Blue | Bombers [Internet]. [cited 2022 Nov 9]. Available from: https://bombers.co.za/product-category/mouthpiece/solid/bomber-blue/
- 15. Horse bits, Neue Schule bits, Myler bits, Sprenger bits, Abbey bits, Reinsman bits, bitting accessories, and advice – HorseBitBank.com [Internet]. The Horse Bit Bank. [cited 2022 Nov 9]. Available from: https://www.horsebitbank.com/
Emily is a native of Colorado, currently living in Glasgow, Scotland, working as a freelance writer. She is a long-time horsewoman, having started riding at the age of 6, then competing in dressage around Colorado and Massachusetts, where she finished her undergraduate degree in psychology.
Following a move to the UK and a PhD, she worked for a few years as a freelance horse trainer in Central Scotland. She’s interested in holistic horsemanship, fostering better communication and understanding between horses and humans, riding with lightness and softness, and she’s forever seeking out the newest research into equine behavior and psychology. When not writing, she can be found at the barn with her two equine partners, Foinavon, an ex-feral Highland pony, and Hermosa, a young Andalusian.
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