Writer’s Deep Dive: Horse Bits
Most people know that the primary way that a horse is steered is by using a bit. However, there is a lot more to it.
Now, let’s dive in!
First, the bit is not the only way a rider communicates with their horse. Weight shifts, leg cues, verbal commands, and sometimes whip cues are all used with the reins and bit.
Before we get too far into the subject of bits, there is sometimes you need to understand about horse’s mouths. Horses have two sets of teeth: incisors and molars. The incisors are the front teeth that are used for cutting grass when a horse is grazing, although they can also be used for defense or attack. The molars are the large flat-topped grinding teeth that chew the grass before it’s swallowed. Unlike our teeth, horses have a gap between the two where there are only gums. It is in this gap that the bit sits. It is not resting on the teeth themselves.
Occasionally, horse will have wolf teeth that grow in that gap between the incisors and molars. It can be painful for the horse to have a bit hit their wolf teeth. Nowadays, wolf teeth are commonly removed surgically. The corner of a horse’s mouth lines up with the gap between the incisors and molars, which is known as the interdental space.
The bit applies pressure to the tongue, gums, and sometimes the roof of the mouth. If the bridle is too loose, the bit will bang against the back incisors. If it’s too tight, it will press against the front molars. The horse can become desensitized, which is known as “hard mouthed” if a rider is too harsh with the bit.
There is some specific terminology when discussing bits.
Bar or Mouthpiece – The piece that sits across the horse’s tongue and gums. It can be a solid piece of metal or twisted wire and can be straight, jointed or curved. It’s believed that thicker bits are gentler while thinner bits are harsher.
Cheekpieces – The cheekpieces connect to the bar at either side outside the horse’s mouth. The rest of the bridle is attached to the top of the cheekpieces, while the reins are attached to the bottom. There are several styles of cheekpieces, including D-ring and eggbutt.
Shanks – Shanks are pieces that extend downward from the cheekpieces. When the reins are pulled, they rotate the bit in the mouth and apply leverage. The longer the shanks, the stronger the leverage and the less pressure is needed on the reins to create it.
The Write Angle
Proper fitting of the bit and handling of the reins can be a way for a writer to point out that a character knows what they are doing with horses. Also, one trick to get a horse to open its mouth for the bit is to put your thumb in the gap and wiggle it around. Most horses open their mouths and you’re in no danger of being bit. Show instead of tell, right?
It is possible for a horse to get the bit between their teeth and take control away from the rider. This is an opportunity for some moments of drama or tension, especially if it involves a runaway horse with the rider hanging on for dear life.
If a character is tacking a green horse, you can point out that they are choosing a gentle bit with a thick bar and no shanks. In converse, a character could be forced to choose a thin bit with long shanks to control an unruly hard-mouthed horse.
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