Common barrel racer perception says jointed mouthpiece bits are generally mild and ported bits are more severe. Many barrel racers ride in bits with a jointed mouthpiece, often opting for gag bits, assuming they are the best option for barrel racing. But you might be surprised by bit maker Jim Edward’s advice. Having equipped top competitors in reining, cutting and performance classes, Edwards has begun fitting barrel racers with his unique line of ported bits—and trainers such as Dena Kirkpatrick and Jane Irick Fambro are seeing excellent results.
Many barrel racers choose a bit with a broken mouthpiece, a shank and a curb chain. Some may use a gag-style bit. There are different varieties of gag bits on the market, some with the mouthpiece attached to the shank in a way that allows the bit to slide before engaging the corners of the horse’s mouth. Some gags slide up and down the headstall on a length of rope or leather, with additional pressure on the poll.
After years studying performance horses as well as barrel horses, Edwards has seen some jointed bits induce resistance in the horse, because they can put pressure on the horse’s tongue without a way for the horse to escape it, especially in certain hands.
“I don’t want to affect the tongue, because if you do that, it creates an instinctive bad reaction,” Edwards said. “Regardless of the discipline—reining, cutting, roping or barrel racing—the horses all have that same inherent instinct. Pressure on the tongue makes some horses push against it.”
For a barrel horse, this can surface as anxiety, the horse stiffening its front end or turning into the barrel, as well as resisting the bit’s pressure. Edwards says the fast-speed nature of barrel racing and other timed events means the rider’s hand is often quicker than a judged event rider’s hand, heightening the bit’s effect.
The Ported Bit Solution
Edwards feels strongly that the bits he has designed with both palate and non-palate pressure ports in the mouthpiece are ideal for many riding situations, because the shape of the mouthpiece provides relief for the tongue.
Non-palate pressure mouthpieces are less than 2 inches in height and provide ample amount of tongue relief without interfering with the roof of the horse’s mouth. For barrel racing, he recommends only the non-palate pressure line. He says many barrel clients prefer the 4-1/2-inch slider shank bit.
“I want the horse to relate and follow bit cues, not just react to them,” Edwards said. “There is a big difference in relating versus reacting when it comes to your horse’s response to direction. The slower and smoother your hands are, the better the connection between you and the horse. Barrel racers are cueing their horses in the heat of battle, and they have to pull on their mouths. My bits help compensate for that by softening the blow. On every horse we’ve put my ported bits on, they all soften and have less anxiety and less trouble.”
Edwards shared story after story of horses with a history of pulling against jointed and mullen mouthpieces, resisting the rider and having a bad attitude, but after finding the right non-palate pressure ported bit, the horse relaxed under the rider’s hands.
“A ported bit gives the rider an advantage, because it’s pressure the horse can understand,” Edwards said. “I’ve seen a horse be so stiff when we start fitting it with my bits—the nose was just straight out. By the end of the day, he would start to soften and break at the poll as he began to understand what was going on.”
There are many factors contributing to the severity of a bit: diameter of the mouthpiece, angle of the port, length and sweep of the shank and tension on the curb chain. Edwards’ non-palate pressure ported bits put these elements together in a way that is acceptable to the horse while still getting the message from your hands across, no matter the event.
“The best way to describe what I’m doing with my bits is that they are user-friendly,” Edwards said. “You don’t have to be the superstar horse trainer to get good results with these bits on your horse.”