Bits as a general topic can be extremely overwhelming, even addressing types of western bits. There are hundreds of industry-standard bits on the market, with endless variations depending on a horse or rider’s preferences. Although the types bits discussed here are more common western bits, keep in mind there are unlimited variations. There is also a multitude of bitless and combination options too!
Types of Western Bits
The lack of industry standards in the equestrian community leaves experts arguing over specific tack characteristics and qualities. The actual dictating source for discipline-specific bits is from competition organizations.
At home, a rider may choose to ride in a jumping saddle with a grazing curb bit (shown below), or a pelham and roping saddle. However, competition groups have rules and regulations, setting the standard for bit categorization. There is some historical and functional significance as well, especially in reference to single-hand western riding styles.
It isn’t possible to swing a rope out of the gate while juggling two sets of reins in a double bridle! As a basic overview, we will categorize the types of western bits as curb bits– bits that have shanks and operate on a curb chain and poll pressure.
But What About Snaffles?
Referencing “western” specific bits generally implies a style of shanked bit, but it would be irresponsible to leave the snaffle category out of any discipline.
Finished western horses typically use curb bits, but most horses begin in snaffle bits due to their simplicity and direct rein cues. Unlike curb bits, snaffles do not operate based off of poll pressure or leverage. Snaffle bits are very versatile and come in a multitude of variations.
Mouthpieces can be single or double-jointed, smooth or twisted, and use different rings. Many include different metals such as stainless steel, copper, or sweet iron. Although there are popular western bits with jointed mouthpieces referred to as “shanked snaffles”, these are not true snaffle bits (see Argentine Snaffle below). Snaffle bits do not technically offer any leverage.
Grazing bits are one of the most popular curb bits available. They have fixed shanks with a slight curve and typically feature a low or medium port. Although horses should not eat in the bridle, the name comes from the curved shank pieces that allow a horse to “graze” while bridled. Popular variations include copper or sweet iron mouthpieces to increase salivation and fun decorative shanks. This is a bit for finished horses that neck rein.
Correctional Horse Bits
A correctional bit is a training bit only meant for use by advanced riders. When engaged, the mouthpiece applies pressure to the tongue and bars of the mouth. Although the high port does provide some degree of tongue relief, it can also have a “nutcracker” effect on the roof of the mouth. In the wrong hands, this bit can make problems worse (rather than correct them), and create a “hard-mouthed” horse.
The Tom Thumb- an extremely popular and basic horse bit, used by many and recommended by few. Tack store owners and trainers alike say this tends to be the number one pick among new horse owners, but both are perplexed as to why.
Sometimes called a “western snaffle”, this bit has a single joint mouthpiece that creates a nutcracker effect when engaged. The Tom Thumb has medium to long straight shanks and provides no “pre-signal” to the horse before fully engaged. It works off both direct pressure and leverage, and can extremely severe. A common nickname is the “no-purpose” bit.
Junior Cow Horse
Junior cow horse bits are a particularly popular option for various rodeo events. It can be a single or double joint, frequently with a center “dog bone” or copper roller. Mouthpieces are smooth or twisted and frequently made of sweet iron or another metal for salvation encouragement. It features short contoured shanks and slight gag action, as seen on in the small circular cheekpieces. It works both on poll pressure and the horse’s lips.
Argentine Horse Bits
Argentine bits, referred to as Argentine snaffles (we warned about the verbiage confusion!), are lower leverage shanked bits with a broken mouthpiece similar to a snaffle. Unlike the Tom Thumb, Argentines have a slight contour in the shank and can utilize two sets of reins. These are a popular choice for horses that may be transitioning from a regular ring snaffle or horses that may still need some direct rein aid and pressure. Argentines are in the same family as Tom Thumbs (although not as severe), and have multiple variations.
Although you won’t see these in the western show ring, gag bits are commonly utilized in speed events such as barrel racing and for training purposes. Some are “sliding” gags with a mouthpiece that moves on a rope or cable, while others have a shank that connects directly to a ring.
Gag bits create lateral leverage and work well for elevating horses in abrupt turns. One of the most popular designs is a wonder bit- a modified gag with a slight shank. The floating mouthpiece allows some pre-signal before the curb and mouthpiece completely engage on the horse.
Spade bits are complex and advanced, only for the most skilled riders and highly trained horses. In vaquero tradition, they are a final stage in training- as many finished bridle horses won’t ever make it to a spade bit. It takes 5-7 years of extensive training to prepare a horse for a spade bit. Spades are highly decorative, and a work of art. They have straight ornate shanks, a straight bar mouthpiece, and a high narrow port with cricket and spoon supported by braces on each side.
The spade functions primarily inside the mouth, rather than on the mouth corners or from curb pressure. A horse must learn how to hold a spade bit properly in their mouths- a slight flutter of the finger is more than enough to signal a properly trained spade-wearing horse.
The world of bits may be overwhelming at first, but a basic understanding of bit mechanics can help you choose the right bit for your horse. There is a vast market of western bits, but you will likely become familiar with a specific category depending on your chosen discipline. If you are competing, make sure you read your organization’s bit rules and regulations. In fact, many show employees a “bit checker”- someone tasked solely with checking horse bits! Be sure to also check out these English bits here.
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