2009-06-13 / Columnists

Bits Function as a Brake and Come in a Variety of Styles

by Candice C. Dunnigan

When it comes right down to it, there isn't really anything highly technical used in controlling a horse when one is behind him in a carriage or riding on his back. Nothing except what is in his mouth or over his nose. The basic "tool" used by all of us who drive or ride is a form of brake that is called a bit. It's a simple idea.

It is believed that horses were controlled first by some means of a woven rope or leather around the animal's lower jaw, or even a nose ring, like oxen. There have been cheek pieces made from antlers that were used as toggles for rope found in areas of the Black Sea, as well as hide and sinew mouthpieces. A common type of brake used on early horses is essentially the same kind of nose brake (that cuts off the animal's air supply around his nose) is called a hackamore. It is also referred to as a bit-less bridle, which is not put into the horse's mouth.

Metal bits are believed to have been developed in the Near East around 1500 B.C. There were both plain and jointed mouthpieces with ornamented cheek pieces. Some of the mouthpieces were also made with an extremely high port, which when inserted into a horse's mouth, put pressure onto his poll (top of the head), an effective form of control. Bits have been used all over the world.

This Hackney horse has a butterfly bit, which is a variation of the Liverpool bit. This Hackney horse has a butterfly bit, which is a variation of the Liverpool bit. Cultures developed, along with horses and carriages. Harness bits also evolved because horses were used in commerce and in war. By the 19th century, there were scores of bit designs. Horse bits developed into several classifications, such as snaffle, curb, and gag. Each style of bit works on a different part of a horse's mouth, and has a different action.

When it comes to the carriage horses on Mackinac Island, driving bits really fall into two main categories, although there are "variations to the theme." I managed to get a good look at a type of driving bit used on a pair of lovely dark Hackney geldings owned by Mike Young, named Willie and Charlie. They are driven and cared for by Buck Sharrow. What caught my eye the other day was the type of driving bit he used. It is called a "butterfly," and when you look at its design, one can understand how it got its name.

Another driving bit used in draft horses is the snaffle or round ring bit Another driving bit used in draft horses is the snaffle or round ring bit In the world of driving essentials, the most widely used bit of all is a Liverpool. A Liverpool can be made in a variety of mouthpieces with swivel or fixed cheeks. What does that mean? Having fixed cheeks does not allow the cheeks of the bit to swivel, and these are designed to be used with a pair of horses. This helps to avoid pinching the horse's lips, which can occur with the coupling reins. The mouthpiece on swivel cheeks, on the other hand, can be made to slide up or down. You see, a sliding mouthpiece is often advocated by drivers because it tends to keep a horse's mouth more responsive. Liverpool bits also often have a back lip chain, and offer a variety of rein settings, which in turn help to set the horse's head, and thus work as the basis for controlling the animal. The butterfly (or post bit) is a variation of the Liverpool with differently designed sides.

The other major driving bit used on most of the horses in draft work here is a bit called a round ring snaffle. The sides of these bits are circular rings. The mouthpiece determines what type of bit it actually is. Most round cheek snaffles are simply two pieces of iron or steel joined in the mouth of the horse over the tongue. The bit acts on the tongue and bars with a nutcracker or pinching action. Pressure then is transfered to the horse's mouth from the reins held by the driver.

There also are many types of mouthpieces, straight bars, Mullen mouths, French links, cherry rollers, nag butts, and figure eights. Add to this the types of mouthpieces that have ports. The port design doesn't really work on tongue pressure, but on the action-reaction of the roof of the equine's mouth.

The Hackney horses of Grand Hotel sport another type of Liverpool, called a Buxton bit. Actually, the hotel has quite a collection of different bits, and so does Mackinac Island Carriage Tours. I have not even scratched the surface when it comes to other bits, such as riding bits, Western and English.

I have often thought of bits as I think of shoes, not horses' shoes this time, but my own collection of footwear. I have a variety of them, for different purposes; a few for vanity, and the majority for practicality, especially here on Mackinac. Some horse owners also seem to collect bits that way. Sometimes it's necessary to try many bits before keeping with just one style.

It is important to realize that "no bit" translates to no brake. Take the time to take a look at the horses here on the Island, and see what they're wearing in their mouths. Is it just fashion, or function?

Have a great week, and enjoy the lilacs.

Candice Dunnigan is an active member of the American Equestrian Association, the Waterloo Hunt, and Mackinac Horsemen's Association. Seasonally she resides at Easterly Cottage.

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