If the Bit Fits
Look Your Horse in the Mouth
Bit mouthpieces come in all shapes, weights and sizes. Whether using a snaffle, grazing bit, half-b reed or spade, the ideal approach is to find a bit that generally follows the contours of your horse's mouth. This keeps the pressure evenly dispersed so that one small area of the mouth doesn't bear all the weight of your hands.
A bit rests behind a horse's incisors and across the tongue and bars-the gums located behind its teeth. Most riders, including Murphy, adjust the bridle so that the bit creates a wrinkle or two at the corners of the horse's mouth. Farther back in the horse's mouth, the tongue is thicker and the bars are wider apart than they are toward the front.
To assess the contours of a horse's mouth, Murphy slips his finger across the horse's bars and tongue.
"Every horse is a little different in the mouth," he says. "You'll find horses with thicker tongues, narrower bars, sharper bars. So when you fit a bit to a horse, [inspecting his mouth] is the starting point.
"If you put your finger across the horse's tongue and your finger fits down on the bars pretty easily, that's a thin-tongued horse. If you have a thick-tongued horse, you have to go with more of a tongue-relief bit."
Tongue-relief bits are designed to fit over a thick tongue and still make contact with the bars. Bits with ports offer varying levels of tongue relief. Low ports offer a mild amount of relief to the tongue, while high ports apply no pressure on the tongue and also make contact with the roof of the mouth. Snaffles with a slight curve in the mouthpiece also offer some tongue-relief.
Murphy typically starts his 2-yearolds in a tongue-relief snaffle, whether they have thick or thin tongues. Despite their mouths' conformations, Murphy says that young horses are more likely to respond positively to curved snaffles before they accept straight ones.
In any case and with any type of bit, the trainer advises keeping a close eye on how the bit affects the horse, because one solution could create a new problem.
"If you have a tongue-relief bit, you have to make sure you don't get the bars sore, because that type of bit puts more pressure on those bars," he says.
To take pressure off the bars, consider using a leverage bit with a wider port, which gives relief to both the tongue and bars. At the same time, be sure the port doesn't make the roof of the horse's mouth sore.
Another option is to use a straight mouthpiece, which takes some weight off the bars by shifting a little more pressure onto the tongue than does a tongue-relief bit.
A horse with a thin tongue often works better with little or no tongue relief. In this case, a straight mouthpiece makes contact with the thin tongue and the bars. Bear in mind that it takes many horses a while to get used to a bit with no tongue relief.
Murphy stresses that evaluating a horse's mouth is just the first step in finding the right bit. Essentially, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule when selecting the right bit. The only rule that applies to every situation is "pay attention."
"A horse will, most times, respond to pressure on the tongue," he explains. "But some horses don't like any pressure on the tongue. So, looking at the horse's mouth just gives you a starting point [for evaluation].”
Murphy also keeps an eye on his horses' teeth, especially young horses that might be growing wolf teeth or shedding caps, which can make carrying a bit quite painful.
As a young man, Murphy followed the vaquero tradition of training, which uses mild snaffle bits and hackamores during a horse's first two or three years of training, thus mostly avoiding problems with teeth. Today, his young horses benefit from the services of an equine dentist or veterinarian.
"The way I was raised, we didn't put a 'big' bit in a horse's mouth until its 4-year old year," Murphy says. "But now we have dentists and veterinarians. We're farther along in taking care of a horse's teeth, so there aren't so many problems."