Horses,  The Cowboy Chronicle,  Western History

Just a Bit About the Bit

A good relationship between the horse and his rider is all about communication.  A horse can sense fear, anger and competence, and will react accordingly. However, a good ride whether for work or pleasure, requires effective communication between the horse and rider.  Since ancient times the bit, in one form or another, has been the instrument to help send these messages.  

The horse is the only animal we control by putting something inside their mouth. The ancient man’s experience of controlling a pack or riding animal before the domestication of the horse, was by various forms of nose pressure. This method would not work for the equine as its nose is too delicate and sensitive for that kind of pressure.  The bit attached to the bridle fits in the space between the horse’s incisors and molars.  While the bit has clearly changed over time, the change is surprisingly not as much as one might think would occur over thousands of years.  At its root, a bit today is indistinguishable from those found by archeologists.  Wear patterns on prehistoric teeth are remarkably like the wear patterns created in the mouth of the modern-day horse. The basic material hasn’t changed much either.  Most bits are still made of metal, although other materials such as plastic can be used or incorporated into the design. In the past twenty years or so copper has come into use because properties in copper help keep the horse’s mouth moist.

While it is believed the horse was first controlled with a rope around its neck, the use of some kind of bit is shown by archeological evidence to have been a part of horsemanship as far back as 4000 BC. In addition to evidence of bit wear in prehistoric teeth, rawhide and sinew mouthpieces have been discovered. The metal bit is thought to have originated in the Near East around 1500 BC. 

Over the centuries different kind of bits have been developed for the varying needs a rider may have. For example, a snaffle bit flexes in the middle and is easier on the horse’s mouth. If the horse “listens and learns” with this kind of bit, the rider will continue to use it. If more control is needed the switch to a curved bit might be made. Bits also come in a myriad of sizes and mouthpieces shapes. The choice is trial and error and learning what works best for the horse and his rider.

The history of the bit in North America started with the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500’s. Elegance and style were important, not just functionality. The British colonists also influenced bit making in America, but theirs was a much more utilitarian style.  The Spanish tradition spread out from California and the Southwest, while British influenced tack spread westward from the Eastern colonies. In time the demand for tack was met by large manufacturers that made fairly standardized designs. Smaller producers would create more intricate and artistic designs. 

New to NDCHF this summer is a stunning display of over 100 bits in various sizes and styles. This collection was donated by Ron Heller and is surely worth a visit and a bit of your time.


Mr. Steven Vitt, Sioux Pass, MT

Sporting Collection: About Horse Bits

Horse Industry of Alberta; A Brief History of Bits

Spurs Collector: History of Bits and Spurs

A “Bit” About Bits by Deb Eldredge DVM

Equisearch: History of Bits, Evolution of the Double Bridle

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.