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The Basics of Different Kinds of Horse Bits and Hackamores

Updated on November 3, 2018
Rick Benningfield profile image

Rick Benningfield is an old-time horse trainer and farrier with over 50 years' experience.

All Bits Are Built On A Few Basic Concepts

Bits for horses have been around for thousands of years. They have been found in digs in China, Europe and all other places, and most of these ancient bits resemble what are used today to a great extent.

There are many types of bits that are in use today for reining, roping, western pleasure and the list goes on. There are also quite a few blacksmiths who custom-make numerous types of bits, but it’s smart to remember that, no matter where you get your bit, it is sure to resemble one of the two basic types which are the D-ring snaffle and the curb bit with minor changes to enhance the usability and appearance of the bit.

Many horse owners like to have a pretty rig, and this leads to many types and styles of bits which may really cost lots of money with all types of exotic materials but can easily be replaced with a common curb type or snaffle bit costing much less.

The training of the horse is what matters and how well he performs his tasks. In this article, I’ll share some basic information about bits and introduce the concept of the hackamore, which is a traditional bitless bridle.

Why Do We Use Bits?

The bit is used to control the horse's head during the reining process of riding. I was told as a child that to control the head of the horse is to control the entire horse. Each and every horse is different and requires different types of control or bits. The bit is located on the bridle assembly fitted for the horse's mouth. A correctly fitted bit doesn’t contact the horse's teeth and pinch his lips.

The D-ring snaffle is usually used for training purposes when first training the horse to saddle. After 40 good saddles are accomplished (good workouts every day for 40 days the horse might be ready for a change in bits.

From this point on, the curb bit can be used if desired, and you can make changes as needed. Personally, I prefer using a hackamore rig at this point.

After starting with a D-ring snaffle, I train from then on in hackamore. Sometimes, depending on the horse’s temperament, I start out with the hackamore and never change. That way there is no bit in the mouth which may cause damage or even a chipped tooth!

Are Bits Ever Necessary?

A horse that is not easy to control needs a properly fitted bit. If the horse is not easily controllable then the shanks of the bit can be changed. The shanks are the metal pieces that run down the outside of the mouthpiece, and when purchasing the bit assembly they are termed short or long shank.


The long shank is utilized for more control of the head during the reining process and control in general. This is because a longer shank provides more leverage and more pressure on the horse’s mouth. For this reason, a long-shank bit should only be used by an experienced, light-handed rider on a well-trained horse.


For those horses that have a nervous mouth, a copper bit or a bit with a copper roller gives off a sweet taste and helps the horse keep his tongue busy. This gives the impression that the horse is champing at the bit, but really he's just working off nervous energy. This can calm an anxious horse and make him more responsive to your cues.


The rise in the center of the bit is called the port and they come in many sizes, mainly short, medium, and high. The port comes in contact with the roof of the mouth when the reins are pulled back and the bit rotates. The port can give more room for tongue movement, but it can also hurt the horse‘s mouth when used by a heavy-handed rider.


Major Wasn't Hot! He Just Had The Wrong Bit!

Major was a problem horse with a severe bit. With a hackamore, he gives a quiet ride.
Major was a problem horse with a severe bit. With a hackamore, he gives a quiet ride. | Source

The Wrong Bit In The Wrong Hands Causes Behavior Problems

My horse, Major is black and white paint, 16.1 hands high (each hand equals 4" to the shoulder). He was sold to me as needing a severe bit, but I can tell you that he greatly prefers the hackamore.

The people that I bought him from showed me the ridiculous bit that they were using on him. The bit piece traveled all the way up his mouth past the rise in his tongue, they said to lunge him before getting on because he was supposedly fiery and high spirited.

When I saw that rig I told them right up front that I'd change that! The hackamore came to mind in a heart beat and he loves it and has no behavior problems with it. In Major’s case, just changing the bit made all the difference in the world between an uncontrollable horse and a quiet riding horse.

Many horses will sour on a certain bit arrangement and require a change which leads us back to the round pen training. This is almost never the case when you train and ride using a hackamore.

Whenever any part of the rigging is changed, it should be done with the horse in a round pen of about 50' and have another person there for safety purposes. Change the rig and lunge the horse for at least 5 trips in both directions then mount and work him from the saddle to see how he responds to the new bit.

Where Do You Get A Hackamore?

It’s actually pretty easy to make a hackamore. It is just a series of wraps and knots in the Mecate, which is a long rein made of a single piece of rope. The traditional material for the Mecate is horsehair gathered from horse's manes. Modern versions are made of nylon rope.

The key to making your own is knowing how to take measurements and make the right knots and twists in the right places to make the reins and a lead line. Of course, if that sounds too challenging, you can just buy one!

The Basketweave Bosal Hanger bridle shown below is a good example of one you can get ready-made that would perform as I have described.

There are many versions of store-bought hackamores.

Tough 1 Basketweave Bosal Hanger/Bosal/Cord Mecate, Black
Tough 1 Basketweave Bosal Hanger/Bosal/Cord Mecate, Black

This is a good, traditional hackamore that matches the description I have given.

 

Is A Hackamore Pain-Free?

A heavy-handed rider can hurt a horse with any bit or bridle. It takes a sensitive combination of correct choice, proper fit, good training and skilled horsemanship to ride a horse effectively and pain-free.

Keep in mind that a hackamore made out of harsh materials can hurt just as much as a badly fitted bit. A hackamore nose piece should have a rawhide core not a cable core and may be wrapped in leather or rawhide on the outside, some people are now making them out of grass. Definitely don't use the type that uses chain for the nose piece.

The hackamore does require more training and repetitive training, but I don't mind especially when I view the finished product. I use verbal cues, leg and seat pressure, and reining techniques to guide the horse. Sometimes I use all three at once and sometimes individually. A lot of technique just depends on the day and how your horse acts.

Please remember that when you take your horse to a trainer, and the horse is there for 2 months and the trainer states that he is “broke” this means that you can ride him and that is about it!

Training continues for quite some time maybe even years! All of the time if the horse starts to be kind of slow in response then you may think of changing the type of bit that you use and there are many types out there or you may consider switching to a hackamore.

How Can You Learn About Riding With A Hackamore?

There are some very good books out that really do this topic good. They are by Ed Connell and the names are Vaquero Style Horsemanship and Hackamore Reinsman These are considered required reading for horsemen. I have listed links to these two books for your convenience. I have read these two books myself, and I recommend them.

I Recommend These Two Books

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    • Rick Benningfield profile imageAUTHOR

      Rick Benningfield 

      4 weeks ago from North Texas

      Thanks Kathy, the next article will be on Pancho, he's the Peruvian Paso!!

    • profile image

      Katherine E. Cobert 

      4 weeks ago

      Awesome information Really enjoyed the material. Looking forward to mote articles.

    • Rick Benningfield profile imageAUTHOR

      Rick Benningfield 

      6 weeks ago from North Texas

      Thank you very much Ellison, Blue the Leopard Appaloosa passed away last week he was 34 years old, I had him all of this time and I do miss him very much and now Major is number 1. Apache will require much to get him up and running. Apache was rescued from "Killer" and does have a lot of problems but he is coming along. I have worked with horses for about 54 years and I have been through it all! I have done Farrier work for 47 years along with training and have had good results so far. I want to pass some of the things that I have learned along to the people that will try and use them to assist with learning about this steed. If I can help with any type of training that you experience problems with let me know and I will try to help.

    • Ellison Hartley profile image

      Ellison Hartley 

      6 weeks ago from Maryland, USA

      Totally agree with you on the copper, sweet iron, think horses love it! There are so many people using bits that have no clue about them, their needs to be a lot more articles like this to educate people. Your horse major is so handsome by the way!

    working

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