Most riders use a saddle fitter’s service to ensure their saddle fits their horse correctly. But what about the bit?
While bit-fitting – or lorinery science – has been around for decades in Europe, it’s relatively new in North America. There are now four certified bit fitters in Canada, including two in Ontario, one in Quebec and one in British Columbia.
Tania McDermott has been certified since November through the Canadian program, On the Bit, created by Tammy Levasseur of North Bay, Ontario. Levasseur is the only Lantra Certified Bit and Bridle Fitter in Canada, who did her certification in the United Kingdom. McDermott sees clients in eastern Ontario while Levasseur covers other parts of the province.
“There’s definitely more and more demand for it,” says McDermott, also an Equine Canada certified coach and owner of Black Copper Equestrian in Kingston. “In Europe, it’s a much-sought after service. Through education and information, people are starting to understand the benefits of proper bit fitting. We use the saddle to communicate to the horse with our seat and weight, and the next big communication component is the bit and reins.”
“While there is an up-front cost in having a bit fitting, in the long run there’s benefit because you won’t have to keep buying different bits.”
McDermott says the bit-fitting courses and practical training were eye-opening. “I’d been riding my mare for more than five years in a bit that was half a size too big for her.”
Not every horse’s mouth is conformed the same and can vary drastically between animals. They may have low palates, sensitive tongues or sharp bars. A bit may not be a miracle cure that fixes all of a horse’s training issues, but it can help with contact and optimize communication with the rider.
Until now, most horse owners would walk into a tack shop and make an educated guess from bits on display, says McDermott. “Most shops have a wall full of bits and that can be intimidating. Most riders have tack boxes full of bits they don’t use. While there is an up-front cost in having a bit fitting, in the long run there’s benefit because you won’t have to keep buying different bits.”
McDermott charges $200 for a fitting that takes 60 to 90 minutes. She begins with the horse in a halter and does a physical assessment of the oral cavity, manually feeling inside the mouth (she wears gloves) and taking measurements. She’ll check the tongue, a horse’s facial symmetry and check for poll and TMJ (temporomandibular joint) sensitivity, then ask the rider to bridle the horse. Then she checks the bridle to see if the bit tension and noseband tightness are set correctly and where the buckles are sitting.
A common issue she sees is bits that aren’t properly tensioned in a horse’s mouth. While many people believe the tension is right if the horse has two wrinkles at the corners of its mouth, that’s not the correct method, says McDermott. “Sometimes it may be only one wrinkle. I notice that many people have bits set too loose and it just needs to go up a hole or a hole and a half. A bit is designed to function in a certain manner and if it’s too low or too tight, it can’t work properly.”
A horse’s tongue is strong and agile, she says, and the animal can use it to pull a loose bit back and chew on it with their molars, which leads to less contact and control. A loose bit can also damage enamel on the teeth or allow a horse to put its tongue over the bit, another evasion tactic.
Another common problem she sees is overly-tightened nosebands and she carries a noseband gauge with her to measure tightness. The old rule of thumb has been to allow two fingers to fit under the noseband, but McDermott says everyone has different sizes of fingers. She notices many people check tightness at the side of the noseband, when it’s supposed to be checked at the top of the nose. There is considerable research that shows too-tight nosebands and flashes can cause damage including stress fractures in teeth and damaged nose cartilage, and create stress for the horse.
After checking bridle fit and bit tension, McDermott observes a client rider working the horse in its usual bit. She’ll then suggest a bit or bits for the rider to try from the selection of 15 to 18 Neue Schule bits she brings. But there’s no obligation to buy a bit from McDermott and she’ll certainly tell a rider to keep using their current bit if it’s the right fit. She has bits for dressage, hunter and jumper horses and while Neue Schule doesn’t have specific western bits, some western clients have gone with D-rings.
Usually, a horse’s response to a bit that’s correct for it happens within a few minutes. “I had one horse that was notorious for curling behind the vertical to its chest and very busy in the mouth,” says McDermott. “It would throw its head up and it was difficult to get steady contact. I did an assessment and tried a trans-angle eggbutt. Normally, it takes a couple of minutes for them to get the feel of a new bit, but he closed his mouth and was completely steady in the contact. He wasn’t curling behind, not throwing his head up. The rider was quite happy as it was a much more enjoyable ride with his head quiet.”
McDermott likes Neue Schule because they have done a lot of research into bits and provide a lot of information on their website. Their bits have been designed to cover a range of issues such as sharp bars and low palates and are made of copper alloy, which is more forgiving than stainless steel, she says.
McDermott can be reached through her Facebook page, Black Copper Equestrian. For information on Levasseur’s services or to learn about becoming a certified bit fitter, click here.