Understanding bit issues

Before you run out and buy an expensive new bit, it’s essential that you understand why your horse is resisting, says Kim Dyson.

Bits are a complex and fascinating subject. But things can become very complicated, as everyone has their own ideas and theories. So before you decide to buy a new bit, here are some reasons why your horse may be resisting.

Teeth & saddle
When last were the horses’ teeth checked? An equine dentist or horse vet should check your horse’s mouth once a year. Start at around the age of three. If there’s a problem with the teeth, the tongue and cheeks can be badly bruised and cut, taking time to heal and causing unnecessary mouthing and bit problems.

Signs to look for include general resistance to the bit, obvious discomfort when a nose band is done up tightly, reluctance to have its face handled and quidding (partially chewed food falling out of its mouth). Does the saddle fit? This needs to be checked regularly. Young horses change shape dramatically, as do older horses and those returning to work after illness. An uncomfortable back can lead to ‘bad behaviour’ that has nothing to do with the bit!

Diet & exercise
If your horse is at a livery yard, it’s essential you are quite sure what it is eating. Most horses only require 10% protein in their diets. Anything higher will just cause problems. Enough freedom and exercise, meanwhile, will eliminate almost all behavioural problems that might lead you to think your horse needs a new bit. A horse needs stimulation. One hour of lunge work or two hours of schooling is nowhere near enough.

Turn the horse out all night in summer and all day in winter, and you’ll definitely have a better-balanced horse. Is your ‘champion’ cut out for that gold medal? You can feed, school and do everything by the book, but if your horse isn’t fit for the job, it will never cope. If it’s not possible to part with your best friend, change direction, do something both of you will enjoy and maybe even excel at.

Schooling and conformation
Is your horse not ‘too big for its shoes’? No bit in the world will bring a youngster into shape, or force it to maintain a head carriage. If you want years of pleasure out of a horse, it’s essential that you bring it on slowly. A young horse’s muscles are underdeveloped and it is unaccustomed to the weight of the rider. It needs time to learn to carry you. If you make this learning experience unpleasant, you’ll end up with far more problems in the end.

It takes years of gentle schooling before a young horse can cope mentally and physically with the demands of competition. Choosing a bit to complement your young horse’s shape and way of going must make life easier for it. Conformation of the head, jaw and neck will all influence the type of bit your horse will need. A short neck, coupled with thick jowls, makes flexing difficult. A long, under-developed neck is weak and will need long, slow, careful schooling. Also remember every breed, type and shape of horse will have a different shape of mouth.

Fitness
Is your horse fit enough? Resistance due to being unfit shows itself in different ways. Horses get very upset and use speed and agitated behaviour as a way of saying they’re uncomfortable. A strong bit makes the situation worse. A horse not fit enough to carry its neck will learn to avoid the ache at all costs.

Pain
Is your horse in pain? A horse’s natural instinct is to run away from fear and pain. An open mouth, a tongue over the bit, a dry mouth or an over-frothy mouth are all signs of pain. The bars of the mouth are very sensitive and can be easily damaged. Finally, do you have enough experience? Be honest! And if need be, take a few riding lessons. Severe use of the bit won’t make you a better rider or driver.

Contact Kim Dyson on 082 888 6511 or at [email protected]. Please state ‘Horse therapy’ in the subject line of your email.