About Horse Bits

Chomping at the bit?

Bits have been made by men in order to control & steer horses, both for riding & driving, for thousands of years. The first methods of control were believed to be by means of a rope passed around the lower jaw, a primitive type of hackamore or even a nose ring (!) as used with oxen. In some early cultures, bridles were not used, but horses were controlled by the rider’s seat alone. Other bits used were probably made of leather strips, deer antlers or sinew.

Metal bits are thought to have originated in the Near East around 1500 BC. Plain and jointed mouthpieces appeared at the same time, often with highly ornamented cheek pieces .By the nineteenth Century there was an enormous number of bit designs. Most of these would have been made of plain steel. Their biggest drawback was that they were not rustless, but, with plenty of stable staff available, keeping bits, stirrups & fittings sparkling was not a problem! They would be polished with a burnisher & a little sand, then swung in a stable rubber (remember those?) until spotless.

The most popular metal used in bit making since the 1920’s has been stainless steel. This quickly became popular due to the ease of care of the materials & its strength, also, once stainless steel became popular in car manufacturing, the volume produced increased & so the price came down, making it an economical material to use.

One problem with stainless steel is that it is a very cold material & quite a lot of horses dislike mouthing it or going forward to take a contact.

Over the past few years, different metal mixtures have come onto the market that have a high copper content. Copper is a soft, warm metal which encourages horses to salivate & thereby be softer in their mouth. Unfortunately, being a soft metal, copper wears more quickly than stainless steel & so various other metals are added in varying amounts to strengthen it. These are usually known by their trade names - e.g. Kangaroo, Sprenger & Neue Schule As an experiment I always get people to hold in one hand a stainless steel bit & in the other a copper mix metal bit. To their amazement the hand holding the copper mix metal bit becomes warm, whereas the hand holding the stainless steel bit stays cold (honestly)

The Kangaroo range of bits has been made in this country now for well over 100 years. Whilst certain trace elements of the material remain a trade secret, the basic consistency of “Kangaroo Metal”, is 70% Copper and 30% Nickel. It is surprisingly silver in colour and to the uninitiated eye, it appears for all intents and purposes, to look like Stainless Steel, but there the similarity ends. Bits made from this metal are very strong & durable with excellent mouthing properties due to the copper content. This encourages the horse to accept the bit & go forward into a softer contact. There is a good range of bits available in this metal.

Another well known make which is popular with the dressage fraternity is Auriganwhich is used by Herm Sprenger for their bits. This is 85% copper & 4% silicon & zinc. Aurigan is guaranteed nickel free, as some horses are believed to be allergic to nickel, which can appear as pimples in the mouth. Although the percentage of copper is very high, Aurigan is a robust material.

Neue Schule. Again similar in composition to the others, this composition again states that the high copper content assists horses to accept the bit & thus lead to more successful schooling.

Sweet Iron is different in appearance to the other bits as it is made from black iron and copper, creating a metal that promotes moisture in the horse’s mouth. The black iron and copper compound slowly oxidizes and rusts. Slow acting and harmless to horses, the oxidation has a sweet taste that horses like and which encourages salivation. This metal will almost always discolour. The cheeks and all the joints of the bits are made from stainless steel and will not rust or bind.

Whereas copper, also used to encourage salivation, is soft, prone to wear and expensive, sweet iron is inexpensive and strong. A mouthpiece made of Sweet Iron will last years and years and the rust will not flake off or harm the horse.

Bits are not always made of metal. There is an infinite number of rubber, plastic, synthetic & vulcanite bits on the market today, all aimed at making our horses lives more comfortable. Soft bendy rubber would not be everyones choice for a gallop in exciting company, but can be ideal for a stroppy youngster that needs a little extra control while being led around or while learning to load. It exerts more control without hurting or damaging a young horses tender bars of its mouth. Some horses need a stronger bit for hunting or cross-country but are not hard mouthed. This is when a Gag with a Nathe mouthpiece, for example, would exert control without pain. Don’t forget that a horse can run from pain as well as excitement.

There is nearly always the right bit made of the right materials, out there to suit all horses & ponies, whatever they are doing. It is down to the rider to find the kindest, as well as the most effective!

Sue Paine - Dragonfly Saddlery freephone o8oo 374878 www.dragonflysaddlery.co.uk

(A shorter version of this article was published in “Horse Health” The UK’s leading equine health & well-being magazine. June/July 2006)

Available from Wharncliffe Publishing Ltd.,
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