Training: Secrets to a Soft Mouth
Horsemanship and proper bit selection combine to create a horse with a soft, responsive mouth. In this first of a two-part series, discover the functional subtleties of the wide variety of bits used in the barrel racing industry.
A soft mouth means different things to different people.
Some people want a horse “on the bit,” meaning the horse actively carries the bit in the mouth neither pushing beyond nor hiding behind it. Reiners and reined cowhorses are ‘on the bit’ responding to each subtle cue. Most of these horses are trained to do their job with little guidance from the rider.
Others want a horse “just beyond” the bit, meaning the horse isn’t super responsive to every subtle move a rider may make with their hands, but isn’t pushing through the bridle and rider’s commands. Most of these horses are used to being ridden with more contact from the rider. They tend to be more forgiving of mistakes a rider may make with their hands in the heat of battle, but they have to be reminded from time to time to not be too pushy.
No matter your preference, barrel racers can all agree we don’t want a horse that’s running through the bridle or that’s constantly forcing us to pull.
A soft, responsive mouth is developed through proper horsemanship. And, the first part of horsemanship is choosing the right communication tool for the task, given the horse’s level of training.
“You could have the most elaborate bit collection in the world, but if you don’t know how to use them, they’re worthless,” says bit maker Troy Flaharty of Tryon, Okla. Here Flaharty, reined cowhorse legend Les Vogt and barrel racing bit maker William Crutcher of L&W Bits explain the basic principles of how bits work and how choosing the right bits help keep your horse soft in the mouth.
“Bits aren’t severe,” says bit maker Troy Flaharty. “The people pulling on them are severe. It’s about feel, and what bit gives you that feel as quickly as you want it. I want to get a response right now. I don’t want to have to pull three, four, five times and then get a response.”
According to Flaharty, people should judge bits by the response a rider gets from the horse rather than how the bit looks. What is better—a horse ridden in a light bit that’s pulled on constantly or a horse ridden with a “severe” bit that gets a quick release from a correct response?
It’s a big misconception, Flaharty says.
“People think that their horses are so light and ride in light bits, but then you see them wrestling with their horses and pulling on their mouths—that’s what makes hard mouths,” he says. “They get numb to it. In my opinion, if you would use a bit that gets the response you’re looking for immediately so you can release pressure—that’s what keeps the mouth soft.”
Attempting to save a horse’s mouth by under bridling is “hogwash,” says veteran horseman and reined cowhorse hall of famer Les Vogt of Arroyo Grande, Calif. Trying to save a mouth by using bits that the horse can push on and ignore just programs him to become evasive.
“You always want to use enough bridle,” he says. “By enough bridle, I mean right below the fear zone. That preserves the mouth because it commands respect.”
Vogt says using the right bridle versus one that lets a horse learn bad habits is like the difference between the easy-going and tough teachers you had in school.
“There were teachers that let you do what you wanted and then there was the one that you didn’t like very much because they demanded your attention and respect,” he says. “Which one did you learn more from? You learned from the one that said, ‘You’re here to learn, dude, and there are consequences if you don’t show respect.’ The right bridle is like a good teacher.”
Bits are designed to work on different pressure points to communicate with the horse. The corners of the mouth are often the first point pressure is applied. Bits also provide pressure on the on the inside, outside and top of the bars of the mouth, the tongue and the palette (or roof of the mouth). Outside the mouth, you can have pressure on the nose, at the poll and curb. Some bits and hackamores also have side pull pressure on a horse’s face.
“Your bit is like a telephone that translates your thoughts to the horse,” says Vogt. “Each bit is designed to hit a different pressure point and intervene in different order. A well-designed bit will focus on a single pressure point at a time and in the same order every time.”
Snaffles, or ring bits, are often the first bits introduced to horses. They work by applying direct pressure on the corners of a horse’s mouth. Depending upon their size and shape, they can provide some side pull, too.
Technically, a snaffle can have any type of mouthpiece and still be called a snaffle because it works on the corners of a horse’s mouth. However, all broken-mouth bits are often referred to as snaffles, when some are indeed “curb” bits that provide leverage. (For the purposes of this article, snaffles will refer to O-ring and D-ring bits.)
The difference between an O-ring and D-ring is contact, Crutcher says. In the region around his hometown of Columbia, Tenn., a large number of horses are run in some type of snaffle.
“An O-ring will gag a little bit and let them know it’s coming, where as a D-ring is a quicker response,” he explains. “An O-ring within stoppers (to prevent it from sliding the entire length of the ring) is going to give quicker response, plus it’s going to give you a little more lift.”
Crutcher advises using hobbles with all snaffles.
“When you pull an O-ring, especially one that has stops, it’s going to turn sideways and go through the mouth,” he says. “If you’ve got the hobble on back, it prevents the O-ring from going through the mouth, plus the ring is doing its job pushing against the jaw, while you’re pulling on the other side.”
Weight is also an important feature for snaffles, according to Flaharty, who wants to translate clear-cut signals to his young horses. Weight makes the bit go back to the neutral position quicker so the horse receives a very clear-cut release.
“I’m a big believer in my snaffles having a lot of weight to them,” he says. “I believe a horse learns through the release of pressure, so the quicker that snaffle will move away when you release the pressure, the quicker the horse will learn to give to it.”
Flaharty also likes his snaffles to arc, or bend, to conform to the horse’s mouth and to distribute pressure over more points. This bend in the mouthpiece is often called mullen relief, meaning it provides more room for the tongue.
“Straight mouthpieces put all the pressure on the bars when you pull with both reins,” he says. “With the mullen ones, when you pull with both reins it distributes it [pressure] over the bars and tongue, and it won’t poke them in the roof of the mouth like a straight snaffle (broken) mouthpiece.”
Shanked bits, bridles, correction bits, roper bits all refer to the same thing—a leverage bit which provides rate and lift in the shoulders. As you pull on the shanks, the mouthpiece rotates in the mouth until the curb hits, thus giving you leverage.
“Lower leverage gives you more lift in the shoulders and high leverage gives you more rate,” says Vogt.
The amount of leverage in a bit is determined by the ratio of shank (from the mouthpiece to the reins) to purchase (from the mouthpiece to where the headstall attaches). A bit that has four-inch shanks and one-inch purchase will have 4 to 1 ratio.
“I have to move the bottom four inches to get one inch of rotation above the mouthpiece to the curb strap,” Vogt explains. “The 4 to 1 gives you a lot of rate.”
Vogt’s Elevator Bit, which is similar to the bits in Charmayne James’ 9” Cheek Leverage Series, has a 1 to 1 ratio because the shank and purchase are equal in length.
“We use it a lot in the cowhorse world to bring the shoulder up for lead changes and such,” he says. “If you get one right in the Elevator Bit and then put your contest bit on, they’ll be right there. They don’t get scared in it and it’s pretty user friendly.”
Gags, lifters and more
Gag bits, especially those made for barrel racers, are often the combination of snaffle and curb bits. They are used to lift the shoulders and encourage vertical and lateral flexion.
Gags work on the corners of a horse’s mouth by slipping upward on a steel or rope draw, and they come in countless varieties, from draw gags like the Loomis, to lifter gags like Ed Wright’s or Sherry Cervi’s.
The slip of mouthpiece on a gag’s shanks gives a horse a lot of warning. Some bits like a C-Draw Gag or Carol Goostree’s Double Gag have two-sources of gag. The horse has the opportunity to respond to the first lesser gag and then the longer, more powerful draw.
On other bits, like some of Sharon Camarillo’s Lifter Bits and L&W’s 179 Lifter, there’s very little gag before curb pressure intervenes. This makes the response very quick.
“A shank will generally give you more rate, while a longer purchase with have more lift,” advises Crutcher. “Shanks that have more bend, or sweep back towards the shoulder, encourage flex more than a shank that goes straight down that rides a little more stiff and square.”
For more quick action, Crutcher’s gag bits also feature an off-set or swept-back curb that’s anchored by a straight bar off of the purchase of the bit.
“It also keeps one more square going into a barrel,” Crutcher adds. You may have noticed that many lifter-type bits have this feature. “If you’ve got a horse that’s kind of leaning on you, it’s good for helping to keep them square longer.”
Another conglomeration of bit types in the gag category is the combination bit that adds nose pressure. Combination bits are good for horses with too much bend or young horses just learning to hold their frame through a run.
How these bits are designed affects which pressure point is engaged first—the mouth, noseband or curb. The lower the noseband is placed on the bit, the more nose pressure you will have, says Crutcher.
“A lot of the ones we (L&W) have, the nose will hit first, then the mouth and then the curb chain,” explains Crutcher. “Some the mouth will hit first. If you have one that’s a little pushy, I’d rather the mouth hit first as opposed to the nose.”
Unfortunately, one of the reasons that gag bits come in so many variations is horses tend to get “pushy” with them. Other bits and aids like German Martingales may need to be employed to keep a horse responding well in a gag.
Mouthpieces are widely variable—dog bones, Dr. Bristols, chains, twists, squares, square twists, donuts, double twisted wire, ports, mullens and almost every variation you can think of in between.
The larger the diameter of the mouthpiece the softer the bit generally feels to the horse.
“The smaller diameter the mouthpiece, the more feel it will have,” says Flaharty. “It’s touching less area, so the horse is more sensitive to it.”
Solid mouthpieces are stiffer and can be used to square a horse that has too much bend. Conversely, the more breaks in a mouthpiece, the more flex it will have.
Take Vogt’s Sidewinder with its ported chain mouthpiece. He points out that a lot of chain mouthpieces are longer than the horse’s mouth, so the first break in the chain is just inside the lip, and when you pull, you’ll get lift.
“With broken or chain mouthpieces, I find that a horse is going to give me more bend in his neck up behind the poll area,” says Vogt, who also advises horsemen to consider the old adage that less is more when it comes to choosing a mouthpiece for an edgy, aggressive working horse. “With a horse that breaks or bends near the wither, he has all the power in the world to throw a shoulder. That horse isn’t getting that inside hip underneath it to turn, and it’s not going to be as near as good of a turn as when you’ve got bend in the horse’s neck up behind the poll area. The flexy mouthpieces give me the bend where I want it.”
Ports and donuts mouthpieces are designed to work on the tongue and roof of the mouth. In bits like Ed Wright’s Pretzel and the ported chains, the free-floating port allows the tongue to rise in the mouth so the mouthpiece can have greater contact on the bars, which gives the horse a chance to respond before the port reaches the roof of the mouth.
No wrinkles, a smile, a grin, two wrinkles—how you place a bit in a horse’s mouth greatly affects its feel. A bit with more “bite” might work more effectively set lower in the mouth, while a softer bit might have the perfect degree of communication with two wrinkles in the corner.
Take Flaharty’s square-mouth ring snaffles for instance. Because of the weight and “bite” of these bits, he wants it relaxed in the horse’s mouth rather than picked up in the corners. This allows the horse to pick the bit up when contact is initiated, and conversely, a correct response gets an immediate release back to an extremely neutral position.
“Again, horses learn from the release of pressure, and if that bit is always sucked up in their mouths, they never have any release,” he says.
Riders who prefer a more constant contact with their horses’ mouths may use a milder mouthpiece drawn up further in the horse’s mouth. Gag bits, too, generally require more wrinkles in the corner to work affectively.
However, there are no hard and fast rules.
“When people tell me they need just a little less bit,” says Crutcher, “but when they try to use less bit the horse gets away from them, I tell them to drop the bit in the horse’s mouth just one hole on the headstall.”
In some cases the opposite is true. Crutcher had a leading futurity rider go from hating to loving his 5-Bit simply by pulling it up a little higher in the mouth. He had been riding it adjusted too loosely to be effective.
Loading the arsenal
When Vogt heads to the arena, he takes at least three bits for every horse because he never knows when he might need to change his pressure points for better communication.
“If we have any kind of problem, its kind of hard to ride back to the tack room,” he quips. “It’s just not in our system. You get it in your mind that you’re just going to tough it out. That puts you in a contest on your horse’s turf. If you feel that situation coming on, or even if it has already started, switch bits. You’d be surprised how quickly the argument is over. You always want to have an arsenal of bits that will work on each horse.”
Vogt also suggests that riders have a competition bit (A Bit) and a complimentary schooling bit (B Bit).
“If you use your A Bit on a daily basis, your horse will get fairly used to it,” he says. “But, if you hang it up in your barn, you’ll find that it’s your happy bit. It makes you happy because you know it’s going to work when you get to the big races. If you used it daily, he’s going to get used to it and run through it under contest circumstances.”
Your B Bit, on the other hand, should allow you to fix communication leaks in your training.
“With the proper bit in slow work, you have plenty of authority and respect to create the form that you need,” Vogt says. “Warm up in something else, pull that bit off right before you go in, put your happy bit on, get the money and then take it off!”
No magic bits
For all that they do and for as many countless options as there are, it’s important to remember that bits aren’t the magical solutions to training problems. Bits are just one important aspect of basic, proper horsemanship.
“There’s no magic bit,” says Flaharty. “You can’t just put any bit in a horse’s mouth and expect them to do everything. You still have to teach a horse to give to pressure. You still have to teach them where to put their feet. You still have to train your horse no matter what bit you use.”
Next month, expert trainers Jolene Montgomery show how they use basic horsemanship techniques in conjunction with a variety of bridles to keep a horse soft and responsive in the mouth, and most importantly through the entire body.