“A golden bit does not make a horse go any better” – Old Proverb
Bitting for polo is a delicate art. Each horse’s mouth is unique: the space of the bars, size and shape of the tounge, the height of the palate, and sensitivity of the lips. All bits that have movable parts next to the horse’s lips should have a bit guard or bit donut put on, to prevent the horse’s lip getting pinched during play.
Up until around the 1940s, nickel was the preferred material for making bits. Now the majority are made out of stainless steel, but bits can be found in copper, sweet iron (cold rolled steel) or a combination of metals. The idea behind these metals is that they encourage salivation in the horse’s mouth, creating a lubricated and more communicative surface. Bits can also be found in plastic or rubber, which do not rust and are thought to be more gentle than metal bits.
Whether a gag or a curb, the longer the curb or the bigger the ring on the gag, the more pressure it will inflict on the horse’s poll. Every bit, in the wrong hands can be painful to the horse, but even the most severe bit, in the right hands, can be a delicate tool.
Most polo bits are broken into two categories: Gags and Pelhams.
- Simple Gag
The simple gag is just that. It consists of a single bar, jointed in the middle to allow it to follow the curvature of the horse’s tongue. There is generally a fabric or leather piece that runs from the horse’s cheek piece through the middle of the ring of the bit and out the bottom to connect to the second rein. This gag portion acts as a lever, and when pressure is applied, it cantilevers against the horse’s mouth and applies pressure to the poll, just behind the ears. This encourages the horse to lower his head as he slows down. A thin mouth piece is more severe than a thick one. You can also buy twisted single gags, in which the metal mouth piece looks like it’s been twisted into a corkscrew. This increases the texture over the horse’s tongue and is less severe than a double gag, but more severe than a simple gag. There is also a difference between a fast twist and a slow twist.
- Double Gag/Barry Gag
In a double gag, or Barry gag, there are two metal pieces over the horse’s mouth, articulated at opposing places. These joints bend the bit around the horse’s tongue and also will hit the roof of the horse’s mouth, adding extra strength to the rein aids. Just as in the simple gag, a double gag bit can have a twist in it as well.
Curb bits have a shank, or straight metal piece coming off the mouthpiece that the second rein attaches to, creating leverage. Curb bits also have a curb, or metal chain or leather strap that goes underneath the horse’s chin, also creating leverage against the horse’s chin, encouraging more stop. Pelhams are a type of curb bit, and can have straight bar mouthpieces or raised port or arch in the middle that relieve pressure on the tongue and some that are high enough will actually press against the roof of the horse’s mouth. The length of the shank determines the severity of the leverage applied to the back of the horse’s poll and chin.
If at all possible, buy or borrow many different kinds of bits to see what your horses prefer. When all is said and done, a bit is only a tool, and only as good as the hands that manipulate it. Next week we will go over what your left hand should be doing during a match and how to best get whichever bit you use to work best for you.