The Real Deal About Bitting Your Horse

Sep 6, 2019



Here at Maryland Saddlery we spend lots of time talking to our customers about their horses. Much of the discussion revolves around the equipment and bit choices they are making for their level of training. Many of us use whatever bit is in the barn or whatever bit the horse we purchased came with. I have come to realize that most people choose a bit based on convenience rather than what the horse really needs. 


Can a bit cut down our training time? Or is it just a piece of metal that we use to stop and turn our mounts? The answer is yes to both. But if you think a bit by itself can stop a horse you are sorely mistaken. Can you stop a moving car, by pulling on the steering wheel? Of course you can’t. Horses stop because we train them to stop when we pull back on the reins. If a horse is truly determined to run away, no amount of pulling back will actually bring it to a stop. You cannot physically stop a moving object that you are sitting on. Only by running into a fixed object, like a tree or a wall, will a runaway horse stop if they have chosen to continue running.


So my point is that training your horse is more important than  any bit you or I could choose. What kind of training am I talking about? Circles and transitions. Lots of circles and transitions… You have to train your horse through repetition so that they understand that your action will elicit a specific reaction from them.

You close your leg on their sides, they move forward, you brace your back, they slow down, you lay your rein on a western horses neck, they turn. These behaviors are only achieved through repetition.

After our foals are born we wait just a few days and most people put a halter them. They are led in and out everyday along side their mothers.

They learn that when we pull against their nose it means stop and wait. Foals learn to turn by the pressure on the sides of their face as we navigate through open stall doors and gates.

By leading them in and out every day we have introduced them to their first lessons on transitions and circles.  


It’s when young horses are first being broken to ride, the real trouble begins, we humans change up the game. We throw a snaffle bit in their mouth hop on their back and expect them to have a clue about stopping and turning from their mouth. What happened to all those years of training off of their nose? Most people just forget about it. So what can we do to solve this issue? A simple solution might be:


Riding with a halter and reins under your young horses bridle. This means two sets of reins. That way you can translate to your horse that stopping from a bit is the same as pulling back on his nose. You probably will only have to do this for a few rides before your horse will catch on.

The transition to using a bit can be less complicated if you can tap into the knowledge that they may already have. OTTB Of the track thoroughbreds are great candidates to use anything other than a traditional bit. Most race horses have been trained to “run against the bit”. The have to be on their forehand in order to obtain the speed to race. The switch to a different riding career can be fraught with complications if an inexperienced rider begins to pull back to stop and is promptly taken off with. The action reaction a race horse has learned is

- the harder you pull the faster I run.

At the end of a race jockeys always drop their reins and stand up. Signaling to their horse that the race is over. Another action reaction learned connection.

Thoroughbreds have an amazing capacity to learn new skills.  When we are trying to teach a new behavior, we need to find a fresh place on their face that will not trigger an old racing response. One of the most successful ways is to tap back into their nose training from when they were a foal. The same training we use everyday to lead them everywhere we need them to go. Using a hackamore or a combination bit has had very good results when we are retraining thoroughbreds. You could even try the young horse method I mentioned earlier by using your halter under your bridle with two sets of reins.

Once you have your horse calm and listening by not unintentionally triggering old responses, you can begin the real work of training. Riding six days a week and doing a million circles and transitions.  The exercise below is a great one to use...


Back to Back D Exercise

  • Choose one end of your arena.
  • First travel away from the wall.
  • Make two Ds back to back by turning alternate directions each pass down the center.
  • What is most important about this exercise is the strides of straightness before you turn the opposite direction.
  • Passing the bend through the horses body one side – straight then the next.
  • Then try towards the wall.