Last Updated on February 28, 2023
If you’re considering a new bit for your horse, consulting a horse bit severity chart is a good place to start. Let’s take a look at some popular horse bits and see how they compare in terms of severity to help you choose.
Have you ever been overwhelmed by the numerous horse bit types available on tack websites or at tack stores? You are absolutely not alone! Even experienced horse riders and trainers are frequently confused or uneducated about the best types of bit to use.
There is also a lot of media hype about the use of bits in horses and the degrees of bit severity. There is a big trend towards riders going ‘bitless’, while some trainers still strongly advocate the use of bits.
To help decide the best bit for your horse, we’ve ranked the most popular horse bits in order of harshness. This horse bit severity chart will help you understand why some types of bit are more severe than others, helping you to decide on the best option for you and your horse.
The more you can learn about bits, the better equipped you are to make educated decisions when deciding how to and whether or not you are going to use a bit on your horse, and what type of bit to use. Our main focus will be on discussing the different categories and severity of snaffle bits, curb bits, pelham bits, and gag bits, to help compile an English horse bit severity chart.
But what about western riding? Well, a lot of the theory behind English bits also transfers to western riding equipment! So, where relevant, we’ll be comparing English and western bits, as part of a western horse bit severity chart.
Why Use A Horse Bit Severity Chart?
The bit is essentially a piece of metal that sits inside the horse’s mouth, in the gap between the horse’s incisors and cheek teeth. The bit is attached to the cheek pieces of the bridle, which hold it in place. Attached to the bit are the reins, which are held by the rider to communicate with the horse.
So, if a bit is so simple, why are there hundreds of variations and options of bits to choose from? The answer to this question is that every horse is unique, and different bits have been developed to meet different training needs.
Every horse’s brain is unique, every horse’s build is unique, and the way that every horse feels and responds to the bit is unique.
Riders use a bit as a psychological aid – it is used to communicate with the horse, rather than physically make them do something. Horses can weigh well over a tonne – a 5’ piece of metal in their mouths is not going to stop a horse from doing something it wants to do! So, we need to persuade the horse to listen to the instructions we are giving it via the bit.
The bit of a horse is used as a communication tool; the communication flows from the bit in the horse’s mouth to the rider’s hand, to the horse’s brain. And, because each horse is going to process this contact differently, different types of bit are needed.
Some horses seem to be oblivious to the presence of a bit. They ignore cues from it, lean into it, hang on it; sometimes horses like this need a stronger bit which exerts more pressure or a stronger signal
Other horses are extremely sensitive to the presence of a bit. Any movement of the bit or give or release of pressure will cause a severe reaction from the horse. Frequently, these horses will need a softer, less harsh bit. This is often the case with younger, inexperienced horses.
Finding the right bit is always a trial and error process. Many riders focus on using the most gentle bit possible, but if this means you need to use strong hand aids, a more severe bit may actually be kinder for your horse.
It is also not uncommon for riders to use a different bit depending on the riding activity taking place. For example, a gentle bit may be sufficient for schooling in the arena, but you may need something stronger for fast trail rides or jumping.
Read about Types Of Western Bits
Horse Bit Severity Chart: Popular Horse Bits Ranked
To help compile our horse bit severity chart, we’ve grouped bits together into several key groups. There is some variation in severity within each group, which we’ve attempted to explain as we go along. Understanding how each group of bits works will help you to figure out what is the best choice for you and your horse.
Least severe: Snaffle bits
Snaffle bits are notoriously the most simple and least severe type of bit. However, this is a very diverse category of bits, and certain types of snaffle bits can be particularly severe.
The reason that snaffle bits are so gentle is that they do not have any leverage action. They act “directly on the corners of the mouth, tongue, and jaw without any leverage, and have the effect of drawing the head upwards and inwards,” according to TheBitGuide.com.
Snaffle bits have three different components that can be altered to change the effect and severity of the bit. These are the joints, the ring, and the mouthpiece.
The joints break up pieces of the mouthpiece of the bit; there are traditionally one, two, or no joints on a snaffle. One of the gentlest types of the mouthpiece is a mullen mouthpiece, this is not jointed but curves slightly to reduce pressure on the tongue.
The rings are at the ends of the mouthpiece and connect the mouthpiece to the rest of the bridle. Loose ring snaffles are considered to be the gentlest type, followed by eggbutt or D-ring snaffles.
Any type of snaffle bit that has a twisted mouthpiece is very severe, and should never be used by a novice or inexperienced rider.
Mid-range severity: Pelham bits
Pelham bits are frequently used for equestrian pursuits such as hunting and jumping. They have two sets of reins, attached to one bit. Pelham bits encourage the horse to soften its pressure on the bit and seek the rider’s guidance from the hand.
Unlike snaffle bits, Pelham bits also allow for additional leverage to be applied to the horse. This not only sends a signal directly to the horse via the mouthpiece of the bit but also puts pressure on the headpiece of the bridle. In the right situation, this can enable the rider to apply less pressure on the bit to get the desired result.
In the wrong hands, a Pelham bit can be very severe, particularly if the reins are used on the lower end of the shank. Many Pelham bits also feature a curb chain that applies pressure under the chin; again, this should always be used with extreme care.
A sensitive and competent rider will be able to use a Pelham bit very much like a snaffle, and only bring the leverage action into play when absolutely necessary.
Mid-range severity: Gag bits
Gag bits are kind of a happy medium between curb bits and pelham bits, in terms of severity. Gag bits appear to look like snaffle bits, but they also provide the opportunity for the use of a second rein.
This second rein encourages downward movement of the horse’s neck and poll, versus the softness of contact that the Pelhams encourage.
Read about Types of English Horse Bits
Most severe: Curb bits
Curb bits are known for being very severe, but also for being used for very specialized purposes. The Curb bits are frequently used in upper-level dressage. This is where a rider has to be able to communicate many different movements to a horse, in subtle cues.
Curb bits have a shank and a chain that connects under the horse’s jaw and chin area. They present the horse with significantly more leverage than almost any snaffle bit.
According to TheBitGuide.com, “…the effect of this leverage is to increase pressure on the tongue and jaw, and add pressure to the poll, which encourages a lowering of the head and increased flexion in the jaw. These bits are more severe and require a sensitive touch to be used correctly.”
How to Make a Bit For a Horse?
The task of making a bit for a horse should only be carried out by a professional. A badly made or ill-fitting bit can cause significant and long-lasting damage to a horse, potentially leading to the end of its ridden life.
The bit is a key point of communication between a horse and its rider. A badly made bit could cause pain, resulting in unexpected behaviors from the horse. This is such a vital piece of equipment that making a bit is one of those tasks that is not advisable to carry out yourself.
What is The Average Horse Bit Size?
The size of a bit is measured according to the width of the horse’s mouth. The measurement is taken from the mouthpiece of the bit, not including the bit rings or shanks.
Most horses have a bit size of between 5 and 6 inches. The size of the bit roughly equates to the muzzle size. So, a small Shetland pony with a thick muzzle may well need a larger bit than a fine-nosed Arabian.
What do you do with old horse bits?
If you’re a fan of recycling, there are numerous things you can do with old horse bits! Horse bits do not last forever, and they may develop rusting or sharp edges that make them unsuitable for use.
Along with horseshoes and outdated pieces of tack, old horse bits can make nice wall decorations for an equestrian household or horse barn. If you are good at metalwork, they can also be welded to create novelty items such as toilet roll holders, kitchen hangers, drawer handles, or coat hooks.
What is The Best Training Bit for Horses?
When a horse is being broken to ride, training bits are often used to help the horse get used to the feel of a bit in its mouth. Many trainers like to use a lozenge bit, which has a double joint in the center of the mouthpiece. Others use a loose ring snaffle, which helps to teach the horse not to lean on the bit.
Never be tempted to use a strong bit such as a pelham or kimblewick on a young horse. If a young horse does not respond to aid from the rider, it is normal because it does not understand them properly. Time should be spent educating the horse on how to understand the aids from the rider, rather than switching to a stronger bit.
How long does it take for a horse to get used to a bit?
Horses are remarkably adaptable – we put saddles on their backs, bridles on their heads, and bits in their mouths, and they seem to get used to it very quickly.
When training a horse ready for ridden work, it is normal to put the bridle on them several times first. This gives the horse the chance to get used to the feel of a bit in its mouth.
It is also a good idea to do some groundwork with the horse to get it used to the commands given using the bit. By combining the bit with familiar voice commands, the horse can be taught the aids to turn and stop before they are asked to carry a rider.
What bits are good for young horses?
Finding the right bit for a young horse is one of the most important things you can do to get its ridden life off to the best possible start. Horses have soft and delicate mouths, and putting an overly-harsh bit inside the mouth of a young horse can cause considerable damage.
The best bit for a young horse is a gentle one, and also encourages the horse to work with the bit. Horses should not be scared of having a bit in their mouths, and time spent getting a young horse to accept and communicate with the bit will reap rewards in the future.
One of the most popular bits for a young horse is a snaffle bit. These are very gentle and come in a range of forms that can suit many different horses.
What is the softest bit for a horse?
If your horse has a very sensitive mouth, you will want to choose a soft bit to make it feel more comfortable. Metal bits are not necessarily uncomfortable for horses, and copper and sweet iron bits may encourage your horse to salivate more.
The softest bits for horses are those made from plastic or rubber. These come in a range of different styles and are warmer and softer for the horse. They are a good choice for young or novice horses or those that have become head-shy due to the overuse of excessively harsh bits.
There are many bits to choose from, and the best thing you can do is educate yourself about all the different types available! If you are experiencing training problems with your horse, the best place to start is by consulting a professional; your trainer, a professional rider, or even your vet. Make sure your tack fits your horse and that you are riding in a manner suited for the type of bit that your horse is using.
Finding the right bit for you and your horse can be a long process of a lot of trial and error. You may have to invest money into bits that don’t work before you finally find the one that does. It can be a valuable learning process, and you can resell bits that you don’t use!
We hope that this article helped break up the categories of bits into a horse bit severity chart. If so, please share this article, and share with us your experience trying and learning about different types of bits!
What determines the harshness of a horse bit?
Several factors play a part in determining the “harshness” of a bit. As with many other pieces of equipment, much of the severity comes from the rider. This includes the rider’s hands (are they soft or hard?), understanding of the bit mechanics (do they know how it works?), and ability to cue or control the horse. However, factors affecting bit function include the amount of leverage, the circumference of the mouthpieces, the type of mouthpiece, and pressure points.
What is the gentlest bit for a horse?
Although it is largely dependent upon an individual rider’s hands and instruction, the gentlest horse bit is often considered to be a three-piece thick eggbutt snaffle. Regular snaffles are generally considered gentle bits, although they can be as severe as the hands controlling them. However, many horses prefer the gentle action of a loose-ring snaffle, and a straight bar mouthpiece can be less severe than a jointed one.
Even regular snaffles have a single joint, which can create a painful nutcracker effect on the horse’s roof of the mouth when engaged. A three-piece French link bit will have a flat oval centerpiece that does not apply excessive tongue pressure (unlike the similar Dr. Bristol mouthpiece). This prevents a single joint from popping into the mouth. Eggbutt cheekpieces are gentle without the pinch risk of loose rings, and thicker mouthpieces are gentler on the horse’s sensitive bars and gums.
What is the strongest bit for a horse?
There are many more “strong” bit choices than there are “gentle”. Although most competition agencies have strict rules against extreme bits, some industries such as barrel racing have many organizations without bit regulations or very loose rules.
Strong bits can be very controversial, as in the wrong hands they can cause considerable pain to the horse. As a rule of thumb, the more severe the bit, the more gentle and subtle the rider’s hand signals need to be. In terms of severity, a spade bit would be considered an instrument of torture on an untrained horse.
Vaquero-trained horses can take up to 7-9 years before they are ready for such an advanced bit, and the rider must also be trained to utilize this bit correctly. Aside from spade bits, factors in “severity” include twisted wire mouthpieces, jagged mouthpieces that will irritate the gums, ports that will hit the palate, chain or twisted wire nose pieces with combination bits, and types of gags. Popular Tom Thumb bits are also thought to be severe given they lack pre-signal with straight shanks and possess a single joint.
How do I choose the right bit for my horse?
If you can, it is best to first find out what type of bit the horse was previously ridden in and what training a horse has. With any new horse, it is a good idea to put any preconceptions aside and start at a place where the horse seems comfortable.
Putting a horse in an advanced bit beyond its training level can be considered cruel and severe. We recommend consulting a reputable horse trainer in your area or visiting a tack shop for bit information. Myler bits have a wonderful number system for training with a detailed book on choosing bits. Most horses start well in a basic snaffle, and owners can determine what bit to try based on results with a snaffle.
What are horse bits in order of harshness?
Horse bits cannot be ranked, because even severe bits can be gentle in the right circumstances. A simple snaffle can also be abused and in the case of thin wire bits, a horse can lose a tongue! However, from an industry standard, bits are viewed in the following order:
Snaffles are introduction bits and are considered mild.
Standard curb bits (such as grazing bits) are used in western riding for horses that are “finished” and neck rein. Little hand cues are needed with these bits.
Correctional bits are where added features can become very harsh. The possibilities are endless.
Spade bits are again classified as the harshest. However, these are only meant for elite riders and horses. Under the right circumstances, there is no cruelty or harshness involved due to the extreme levels of training.
Michael Dehaan is a passionate horse owner, horse rider, and lover of all things equine. He has been around horses since he was a child, and has grown to become an expert in the field. He has owned and ridden a variety of horses of different breeds, and has trained many to compete in shows and competitions. He is an experienced horseman, having worked with and competed many horses, including his own. He is an active member of the equestrian community, participating in events and teaching riding lessons.