Most barrel racers are constantly searching for knowledge to improve performance. Most have acquired a tack room full of bits or are well on their way to owning a significant inventory. However, putting these pieces of equipment to use properly through knowledge of bit function, purpose and proper adjustment make bits useful tools and will help you select the best bits for barrel racing.
Parts of the Bit and Their Purpose
Purchase. The purchase attaches to the headstall and curb strap. The length and shape of the purchase vary, affecting the leverage (lift) of the bit and timing. Sometimes called upper shank.
Shank. The shank attaches to the reins and adds leverage. The length of the shank determines the amount of leverage given. The shorter the shank, the less leverage and the longer the shank, the more leverage the bit provides.
Bars. The part of the mouthpiece that lies on the sensitive bars of the horse’s mouth. The bars are between the shank and the port.
Mouth. The distance between the shanks; basically the width of the bit.
Cheek. The side of the bit including upper and lower shanks.
Port. The raised portion of the mouthpiece that relieves tongue pressure. The port varies in size.
Quality over quantity
With nearly 20 years of custom bit making under his belt and a lifetime spent riding horses in various disciplines, from reined cowhorse to tie-down roping and barrel horse training, Troy Flaharty of Flaharty Bits and Spurs has developed functional bit making into an art.
“When it comes to looking for a quality, well-made bit, it’s actually hard to judge by looking at them,” Flaharty said, who emphasizes the importance of finding a reputable American-made bit. “American steel is made differently than Chinese steel, which makes a difference in the quality of what you purchase. Also, look at the finish or polish of the bit and if the maker took the time to remove marks and such. Obviously, when one does this, they take some pride in what they make, which speaks to the quality.”
Flaharty sticks with the adage that “form follows function” and says that for his purposes, when he makes a bit, first the bit has to work well before it’s worth making it look pretty.
—> Read more: Secrets to a Soft Mouth
Investing in quality bits and headstalls is just that, an investment in your horse. However, if used incorrectly, a bit will not function properly.
“Distributing the pressure evenly across the bars and tongue and using snaffle mouthpieces that are mullened, or curved, allows for the best fit and comfort for your horse,” Flaharty said.
Additionally, if a bit is too narrow in a horse’s mouth, it will pinch.
“Generally, 80 to 90 percent of the time, a 5 and 1/8-inch mouthpiece will fit a Quarter Horse, you just have to pay attention to pinching or any other discomfort and change bits if need be. You want a bit to fit the contours of a horse’s mouth,” Flaharty said.
A bit must be adjusted in the horse’s mouth in such a way that adequate release of pressure is provided.
“I get this by having the bit barely touch the corners of the mouth,” Flaharty said. “If there is constant pressure in the corners, this can cause anxiety and produce undesirable results.”
Legendary rope horse trainer and veteran competitor J.D. Yates opts to keep quality bits in his tack room because he says having the right tools makes for a better horse, and with bit quality, you get what you pay for.
“Every bit feels different to every rider; the adjustment truly depends on the hands of the rider,” Yates said.
Horsemen come in all different skill levels, which means the feel of their hands working with the bit alters with the use of different styles of bits.
As a general rule, Yates likes the mouthpiece of the bit touching the bars of the horse’s mouth, not hanging too low or placed too high. A bit adjusted too high in the horse’s mouth offers little or no release, while one that is adjusted too low makes no contact and cannot work effectively to cue your horse.
“Try to pay attention to the horse’s comfort as well when adjusting your headstall and bit placement,” Yates said.
When looking at the side of a bit from where the headstall connects to the bit down to the reins, also pay close attention to the sweep of the cheek.
“Straighter cheeks react more quickly, and a mouthpiece with more sweep, or curve, will react more slowly,” Flaharty said. “Recognizing the difference in action between straight and more curved cheek pieces can help you determine which type of a bit you need to use in order to help you get to the pay window on each particular horse you ride.”
Both horsemen agree the curb strap is an extension of the bit and should work in harmony with the bit. A looser adjustment is recommended for riders with quick hands. The tighter the curb strap is set, the quicker the reaction produced for the horse. Riders should constantly work to develop good hands and make the release of pressure on the bit a reward. The initial pull, of course, depends on the feel at that moment on that particular horse.
Yates rides many of his horses in a hackamore, which tends to suit his preference for staying out of a horse’s mouth. However, Yates suggests hackamores only for riders who have developed a good feel for the hackamore. Proper adjustment of the hackamore is above the breathing nostrils (about 3 to 4 inches) to the solid part of the nose, leaving at least two finger widths between the chin and the curb strap.
Both trainers note the severity of any bit and its adjustment ultimately depends upon the hands of the rider. An uneducated rider with an incorrectly adjusted bit can easily do damage to the sensitive tissue in the horse’s mouth.
“There is no such thing as a severe bit, it’s the person pulling on it that makes it severe,” Flaharty said. “A rider can run around pulling on an O-ring snaffle bit all day and not get a response and put in something different, pulling lighter and releasing more quickly and get the ultimate effect we all want.”
Just the Right Bit
When searching for just the right bit, Yates emphasizes that finding a winning tool depends upon the rider’s ability to evaluate every horse as an individual. No single bit will fit every horse or every rider’s hands, for that matter.
“It’s so important to ride each horse as an individual and make a connection with them and how they respond to the bit and the pressure the hands of each rider apply,” Yates said.
Not only does Yates make a conscious effort himself to do so but encourages other riders to study every situation looking closely at the responsiveness of their horse on a day-to-day basis. For example, if a rider has a tendency to balance on their reins during competition, adjust the bridle accordingly—perhaps opt for a lesser bit with a low port or a modified snaffle. Keeping a soft, flat curb with a loose adjustment is also advised by Yates when it comes to novice riders who need time and work to improve their skill set.
Like Yates, Flaharty says riders must constantly analyze their performance in order to improve. “Keeping it real” to what your riding capabilities are—or are not—is a critical factor that allows the right decision to be made for your horse’s welfare.
“Sometimes, we have to step back and be honest with ourselves,” Flaharty said. “Are our hands getting too fast or heavy? Are they a little slower? These are just a couple of the questions we can ask ourselves when deciding on which bit to use and evaluating proper adjustment in the horse’s mouth.”
Yates says proper bridling of a horse is one of the hardest things to master, because horses are continually evolving in their training.
“You can go six months and everything is great with the bridle you’re riding and then it changes. I wake up every day and think about what is going to work best in each horse’s mouth,” Yates said. “Don’t get stuck on saying, ‘I need this bit or that bit.’ Instead, find a bit that works for each particular horse.”
He suggests that sometimes, if a horse has a tendency to get a little nervous, it might be time for a bridle change, transitioning to a bit with a copper roller or one with a wider mouthpiece.
“Just like anything, we need to keep learning. Don’t be afraid to ask someone reputable if you’re not for sure. We as riders can’t quit learning about horses, bits or horsemanship because somebody is always learning more. Ninety percent of the people in our industry will be glad to help; it’s an industry that’s more giving than taking,” Yates said.
Flaharty adds there are exceptions to every rule, and every horse is different.
“Never say ‘never’ and never say ‘always’ when it comes to horses. Applying this concept to our tack room full of bits can sometimes help get riders out of a rut,” Flaharty said. “Generally, a horse that is naturally low-headed will work well with a bit with a longer purchase to lift the front end, such as a gag. On the other side, naturally high-headed horses may work better with a shorter purchase to help bring the neck down by breaking them at the poll. Experimenting with the different bits on the market can sometimes lead to that ‘right’ bit at the given time.”
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