Making a happy mouth

A modern version of the spade bit, associated with vaquero tradition, and best used on a finished horse with an expert rider.

A Facebook friend shared an interesting online magazine about bits and bit fitting.  This was following a conversation around a very old style bit (pictured at right), and whether it was appropriate or not.  All of this got me to thinking about my own experience with bits, and how finding the right bit for the horse can make all the difference in their comfort and training.

When I started riding, there seemed to be little consideration in choice of bit – at least, by the adults around me.  You used whatever the bit of the day was, and if there was any modification it was only for “hard mouthed” horses.  Of course, looking back, those adults didn’t seem to understand what made a hard mouth.  It seemed to be regarded as a personal trait in a given horse, rather than a result of any faulty training.

The standard eggbutt model of bit that Wicki carried.

In those days, the “bit du jour” was the egg butt snaffle – the thicker the better.  That was when I was riding Wicki, and he used his little, thick, former-stallion neck against me to full effect on the flat.  My instructor was a Swedish import – and in hind sight, thinking of all the fine horsemen I’ve known from that country, not a good representative.  She was definitely a hold-and-kick style of Dressage trainer.  My guess is that Wicki’s mouth was not much better off than my hands, in that equation.

Several years later, when I started to ride with some higher class Dressage instructors, the “bit du jour” was becoming the loose ring snaffle.  This was followed, somewhat closely, by the double-jointed loose ring.  So, all of my horses were put in one.  Ben was not a terribly picky boy, and we were still negotiating our way to a place where he didn’t use me to hold his head up, so that bit seemed fine.  We had a few other bits in our arsenal, to keep him a bit more light in the hand for jumping.  Again, the only discussion around bitting seemed to involve control.

It was not until I was trying to train my mare, Dani, that I finally came to understand just what a difference the choice of bit can make – far more than just how soft or strong its affect.  Dani was a sensitive soul, prone to reacting to the most minor irritant, earning her the nickname “Princess” in reference to “The Princess and the Pea”.  I’d started her myself, taking much time and care to avoid issues I’d encountered in other horses – so, she had a very soft mouth.  But she was never settled with the bit.  It was something to clank and chank as she traveled around the arena.

The bit that served Dani and I well for twenty years.

Another issue was that she would not stretch the reins.  I rode with contact that equated to the weight of the reins – but she was still inclined to stay behind the contact.  I do not remember what finally tipped the balance, but one day I set out to see if a change of bit could make the difference.  I tried several options before finding the solution – a Mullen mouth rubber snaffle.  I do not know if it was the rubber, or the stillness of the Mullen mouth – but that bit worked magic!  Her mouth quieted and she began to seek the contact.  That bit served throughout her training – including piaffe and pirouettes – and was in her mouth the day she stood stock still as two horses bolted across the ring midway through our test.

Fast forward nearly twenty years, when I started working Tally.  Here was another hot, sensitive mare – so why not try the rubber snaffle again?  Tally hated it!  I don’t know if it was the taste of rubber, or the thickness of the mouthpiece (her mouth is a good bit smaller than Dani’s), but after several session she would not stop mouthing and making faces.  However, a change to a metal snaffle (double jointed) and she seemed much happier.  Then there was the experience with the horrible trainer, and she came back with the hardest mouth I’d ever encountered.

Tally’s bit for the past few years – double-jointed Happy Mouth with rubber guards.

During Tally’s rehabilitation, I worked her first bitless.  Many people now prefer bitless, and for many purposes it is sufficient.  However, having tried various versions of it, I still prefer the bit for the subtle communication it affords.  So, when the time came to transition Tally back to a bit, I watched carefully for her reaction.  The first time back with metal, and she was clanking nervously.  Knowing rubber wouldn’t work, I turned to the Happy Mouth – perfection!  She was comfortable carrying it, and I was able to reestablish a soft response.

The Happy Mouth worked so well for Tally, and winter was coming, bringing the dreaded cold metal bit, so I decided to try Happy Mouths for the two boys – Nash and Coffee.  Nash loved it!  Though he’d never had an obvious bit problem, the change made him softer and quieter than ever.  But, just to prove that finding the right bit is never simple, Coffee hated the Happy Mouth!  He not only mouthed the bit, but he flung his tongue out of his mouth, flipping it around in circles!

The loose ring Coffee has warn for a year or more.

Apparently the apple flavor they enhance the bit with did not meet Coffee’s taste – at least that is my best guess.  The bit was a double-jointed full cheek, exactly what he’d been in.  Only the material of the mouthpiece was different.  So, back to metal we went.  That was a couple of years ago.  This year, I decided to switch Coffee to a loose ring snaffle.  The full cheek is rarely seen outside of the hunter arena, so the traditionalist in me came out, and I went to my “normal” Dressage bit.

Coffee has done fine in this bit, and for most people that might be the end.  But the lesson of Dani has never left me.  I noticed that when initially bridled, and at idle times under saddle, Coffee would spend a good bit of time clanking the bit.  He was quieter when working, but it never stopped bothering me how busy he was at other times.

I knew, from the other experiment, that material wasn’t likely the issue.  It had to be the “noise” of the bit.  A loose ring snaffle, particularly double jointed, has a lot of movement and vibration.  For a horse with an overly still mouth, this can be more comfortable – for other horses, it becomes a distraction.  I could go back to a full cheek – but that tends to be a very still bit.  Besides, I had that traditional side of me to contend with.  So, I decided to try a compromise, and go back to the egg butt snaffle of my youth (with the modern double-joint to it).

Coffee’s new bit.

Success!  From the first time he wore it, Coffee seemed very comfortable with this new bit.  Whether idle or in work, his mouth is quiet, save for the occasional soft licking or chewing. We have both ridden him with the bit, now, and are pleased with the result.  All signs are that we have found the fit for him.

It can be an expensive proposition to experiment with different bits – I have a box full of bits to prove it.  But the difference it can make in your horse is well worth it.  Tack swaps or used tack stores can be great places to pick up some standard model bits for cheap.  Or, if you have your horse at a public stable, ask some of your friends if you can borrow bits.  Perhaps your horse goes beautifully in his current bit (or even bitless), but if you have any doubts, or are dealing with any training issues, perhaps it is time to experiment.  You might just find the secret to your horse’s happy mouth!

Be good to your horses!


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