Barrel Horse News caught up with some of the best trainers in the business to discover their preferred progression in bits as colts evolve from new to the pattern to seasoned campaigners.
Barrel racers are bit fanatics. Even though the bridle rack is full, there’s a bucket full in the back of the tack room and a box hidden in the trailer, most barrel racers only have a select handful they use religiously.
Barrel Horse News caught up with 2018 leading futurity rider Brandon Cullins, multiple rodeo, world champion and futurity winner Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi and leading futurity rider Ashley Schafer to ask them their bitting preferences, from patterning a colt through the competition stage.
While all had their favorites, it’s not surprising to learn each had a horse or two take them out of their comfort zones when it came to bit choices.
What is your go-to starting bit for a colt?
CULLINS: Usually when I get the colts, they have 30 to 90 days on them. They’re usually started in an O-ring, and I go right to a smooth-mouth Loomis. They’ll stay in that for a long time, usually until I have to take them out of it. I use that every day, all day on almost everything.
SCHAFER: When I get my colts from the colt breaker, a lot of the time they will just have had a ring snaffle. I will usually go to either a junior cowhorse or a little Neil Merrill three-piece with a dog bone in the middle and twists on the sides. I really like the Merrill, because it’s not quite as much shank as the junior cowhorse so I think it’s a good transition bit. It also has a little more curve to it than the junior cowhorse, so I think the transition is a little easier.
A lot of times I will go back to that bit and run in it. I’ll train a lot of my horses in it and then go to the junior cowhorse.
Another bridle I’ve been using is a Dave Elliott that’s got a threepiece, dog-bone with a roller and then a twist on the sides with some copper. I really like that bridle. It has a similar feel to the Neil Merrill, but it has a little more shank and purchase. It also has the same length of shank and purchase, which I like. It’s a good transition from the Neil Merrill that I like because it’s a similar bit, but just has a longer shank.
Those are the three bits I train in the most—the Merrill, the junior cowhorse with a two-piece twist and the Elliott three-piece with the twist and copper roller.
I like a three-piece because I train a little stiffer. I don’t like a super round horse. Since I don’t ask for a lot of shape, I want a bridle that gives them a little shape. I also don’t like a lot of gag.
POZZI TONOZZI: When I get horses back from the colt breaker, I start them in an Ed Wright lifter with a threepiece twist. I have a smooth too if a twist is too much. I don’t start them in a Loomis or an O-ring because I feel it gives you a false sense of reality.
Personally, I don’t prefer a Loomis because it gets them really bendy and really snappy, and that feels really good until you start going fast. Once you start going fast, it’s hard to get them out of the Loomis.
I don’t like an O-ring for the same reason. If you need any shoulder control you don’t really have it, and when you start to run in it, they feel really flat. I don’t like to drag a horse around a turn.
What is your typical competition bit for a futurity colt?
CULLINS: It depends on the colt. I have two Slick By Designs this year and they’re both running in the smoothmouth Loomis. I tried some different things on them but ended up going back to the Loomis.
I also like the Dave Elliott Spur Up 02. It pitches forward a little and has a bit of slide in the mouth. I use that one a lot. It’s probably my favorite bit on an older horse. I ran “Mister” (RR Mistakelly) in it for a little while. VQ Sucker Punch runs in it; he’s run in it since Fort Smith his 4-year-old year.
A Cornerstone runs in an Elliott Spur Up 06. It’s a long slide. I use that one mostly on him, but I’ve used it on a couple other ones. The mouthpiece depends on the horse, but in the Elliott bits I like three-piece twisted with copper wrapped around it and it has a roller in the middle.
I also like a chain mouthpiece on certain horses, the round ones actually. It varies. Like Foxy Stinson, I ran her in a Loomis for a while and then played with a couple different things on her for a while. What I liked best on her was a fixed chain (no gag) mouthpiece. She rode great in that. With her, she didn’t want you to handle her. You had to stay out of her way, but then be there to help her. With a twist, she’d be too reactive to it, but with the chain, it took a little of the “right away” from it.
On a stiffer horse, I like the chain because they can’t grab a hold of it. They can’t brace their bars against it because it folds around them.
SCHAFER: It varies, but for some reason that Neil Merrill fits my hands really well, so I go back to it often to run in it.
I tend to compete in the bits I use for training. Right now, the only horse I’m running in the Neil Merrill is HP Fiesta Fame, but I have several that I will probably end up going back to running in it. Right now, I feel like they need a little more so I’m running them in the Dave Elliott. It’s really similar but has a little more. A lot of times I’ll go back to the Merrill if I feel like they’ve gotten more solid and don’t need as much help.
What makes me decide what to run them in is really based on how much I feel like they need help. I’ll tend to ride them in something more and make sure they’re backed off of it and then switch back and run them in something a little more forgiving. I think when we run, we tend to get heavier handed and sloppy. Some horses are more forgiving of that than others.
POZZI TONOZZI: When I get out of the Ed Wright with the threepiece twist, I go to my bit, a short-shank lifter made by Professional’s Choice. It doesn’t have a lot of gag, so I get a lot of immediate response. I like the two-piece twist and the three-piece twist.
The Professional’s Choice bits are made with a narrower mouth so you’re not going to pull it through the mouth. You know how on some bits you pull and you can see it sticking out the side of the mouth? You get an immediate reaction without seeing your bit sticking out the side of their mouth, and I like that.
If they don’t do well with no gag, I go to a gag bit made by Professional’s Choice. Those are my second choices in bits.
When do you make the transition from a starting bit to competition bit?
CULLINS: Usually throughout their 3-year-old year I’ll have different things on them and move them up through different bits so I do have that option once they start competing. Once they start competing, things tend to change and I don’t want to put something on them I’ve never had on them before in a competition for money. Usually when I’m exhibitioning them throughout their 3-year-old year I’ll play with different bits to get them used to different stuff.
SCHAFER: Something I’ve been doing lately is experimenting with different bridles throughout the year to make sure my horses will ride around in just about anything. There may come a time during their futurity year where things aren’t going really well and I need to change headgear. I want to know that they already know how to ride around in it. Jolene (Montgomery) actually told me that I needed to do that last year.
You need to put a tiedown or bonnet on them at different times, just in case you need it down the road. I hardly ever ride in a bonnet or tiedown, but it’s nice to know you’ve already tried it before you get to a futurity and are in a bind.
I’ll pick a bridle I’m going to use for the day and ride pretty much everything in it. Sometimes they’ll hate it so bad that I won’t try it again, but most of the time I’ll just ride until they get soft in that bridle, whatever that might be.
This also prepares the horse for the next owner, who may have a totally different feel with their hands. I have bridles that fit my hands and that I love, but the next person to ride that horse might hate that bridle because it doesn’t fit their hands.
POZZI TONOZZI: When I start adding speed at home, I switch out of the Ed Wright. I will switch through bridles as the need arises [with speed and hauling].
Have you seen my trailer? It’s full of bits. But I usually go back to the same five or six that work really well in my hands.
I have some harsher-type bits I ride that someone else wouldn’t use. I want my horses to be super light. I want to just bump them a tiny bit going into the turn and then give it back to them, and then barely grab them on the backside. I ride something like a roping bit, a port or a bigger shank, and it’s not that I need it, but I like the way it feels and that I don’t have to do much.
I have a bit made by Randy Reid; it’s a type of lifter bit. It’s got really heavy shanks and a pretty rank mouthpiece. I have it in a slow twist and a smooth mouthpiece. I love that bit. It’s a lot of bridle, but I have a lot of people ride in it who end up ordering it from me. It’s really good for backing one off and picking up a shoulder.
It was a total accident that I even rode with it. [My husband] Garrett bought it for a head horse and said I should try it. I said, ‘I’m not riding with that thing.’ I put it on Steele Magnolias, and she instantly went to winning with it. I ended up buying it with several different mouthpieces. You just have to have light hands with it.
What issues make you look at a headgear change first?
CULLINS: Usually if they’re getting too pushy. I think that’s what everything goes back to. Training-wise if I run into an issue, I almost always go back to the smooth Loomis and start over.
SCHAFER: A horse being too stiff or too round in their turns. A lot of times if a horse is getting too round, meaning I run up there and sit down and ask this horse to come through its turns and follow its nose around but it gets balled up and gives me too much nose and floats to the outside, then a lot of times I’ll put a mullen mouth on them. It’s a stabilizer—it helps keep them between your hands and legs.
A horse that wants to get really stiff and stick that rib cage out at you, I’ll put a three-piece mouthpiece on them to loosen them up a little. I’ll work them a little different too. I’ll get a tick more nose and make sure they’re staying soft through the rib cage going around that turn.
More than doing a lot of bridle changes, I’ll change the way that I work them for that and make sure they stay between my hands and legs.
POZZI TONOZZI: Just the horse not responding to what I want. Shaking its head, or if it’s obviously not comfortable in that bit. I have a line of horses that are all out of the same mare and they all do better in a chain bit. I know going in that they all ride better with chains. I just let them tell me.
I’m always experimenting and trying new things. I love my bit line made by Professional’s Choice, but I also go outside the box and ride some roping bits. I have some of Danyelle Campbell’s new Kerry Kelley bits that I like. I’m always switching it up, just trying to make that horse the best it can be.
How did you find the bits that work best for you?
CULLINS: It was a lot of trial and error and just watching what other people used. I’d try it and if I liked it, I stuck with it. It’s just talking to people, asking why they use certain stuff and how they set it in the horse’s mouth.
SCHAFER: When I was working at the Jud Little Ranch with Jolene (Montgomery), she used the junior cowhorse. I really loved the feel of it when I was riding with her and that stuck with me. The rest of it was trial and error. In 2013, I ran “Can Man” (Freckles Ta Fame) in a junior cowhorse for most of the year. I had seen the little Neil Merrill; actually, Lynn Kohr in Gillette, Wyoming, had it on a horse and I really liked the look of it. She had the long-shanked one, so I ended up ordering both of them. I ran Can Man the rest of the year in it, and he still runs in it to this day.
POZZI TONOZZI: My knowledge of bits is total trial and error. You should see the boxes of bits I have in my tack room—bits I’ve bought, rode with two times and just chunked because it didn’t work for me. That’s not to say it wouldn’t work for someone else. It just didn’t fit my hands. It’s trial and error.
I know what feel I’m looking for, so now when I go to buy a bit, I know if it’s really not going to work for me or ‘Oh yeah, that would work.’ I just bought a bunch of bits from Danyelle Campbell, and I haven’t bought bits in years because I have my five or six that I know are going to work.
Brandon Cullins & RR Mistakelly (“Mister”)
With Mister, I had him in the Loomis and switched him to a clover bit made by Shallow Creek, because I felt like I got too much face with the Loomis and I needed more outside to bring his shoulders with me. [The clover bit] allows me to handle them a little more and place them.
Later in the year when he got to running harder and pushing hard, I put the Elliott shank bit on him to back him off and get him up off his front end. With something too light, if you go to handle them it will push them down too hard on their front end. It will let them load that front end instead of dropping them back on their hind end. With that shank bit, I can get ahold of them but then throw them away. It doesn’t really bind them up.
Ashley Schafer & KR Last Fling (“Laramie”)
I actually trained KR Last Fling in a junior cowhorse. I ran her as a 5-year-old, so her first futurity was the Barrel Futurities of America World Championship Futurity. She made two nice runs and came back in the finals and made a wild run. I had no idea how fast that horse was. We’d just been cruising through the exhibitions and really shutting the clock off. By the time I got to Arizona and am running in this giant pen, I’m asking her to run. The first day, I was first out and I was ready. I knew the mare was nice. I thought, ‘Let’s just win the round.’ We did not win the round. We ran really fast all over the pen. It was a disaster.
I had just bought this little bit for $30 from a girl that was staying at the same place (see photo on page 44). I knew I needed a little more bridle, so I put it on her. Out back in the warmup pen, I worked on really getting her to listen to my body. When I ran up to the barrels and melted into my saddle, I made sure that I could feel her set her butt down and rate back. I had run her off the day before and needed to make sure her throttle was in check.
When I ran her, I wasn’t trying to win anything. I just wanted my horse back. I put this new bridle on her and we cruised through like it was an exhibition. She ran a 17.1 and won the round. That’s when I realized how fast she was and that she really didn’t need to run to win.
I don’t even know who made this bridle. It looks like an L&W. It’s got a little more shank than purchase. The mouthpiece is like an octagon with a slow twist with a life-saver in the middle. She ran the rest of the year with it and she ran in it the rest of her career.
I actually have two Streakin Boon Dox colts that I’m running in it, too. It has a good feel for that style of horse, I guess.
Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi & Ima Famous Babe (“Katniss”)
I started her in an O-ring because she wouldn’t take the Ed Wright. It was too much for her. She threw a fit. When it was time to run, I put her in my short-shank lifter bit. That wasn’t enough.
When she started to run, she became a freight train, so I went to the long-shank lifter bit. She was really rough with that because it had no gag. I switched to a No Hit Bit and ran her in that some this summer. Now, I’m running her in a long-shank Ed Wright with a three-piece twist. I warm her up with my long-shank lifter bit to back her off. I went full circle. She’s still only 6, so it might change a few times.
This article was originally published in the March 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.