This article is courtesy of the Alberta Horse Industry Association
By Carolyn Willekes, Ph.D.
The bit is an essential part of our equine equipment. No matter what discipline you ride, chances are you have at least one bit tucked away in your tack room. Most of us bridle our horses without entirely understanding the purpose of the bit, let alone why we are using a specific style of bit, or even how the bit came to be in the first place. When you stop to think about it equines are the only animals we control by placing something in the mouth. All other pack/draft/riding animals are controlled by forms of nose pressure, nose rings/pegs (oxen, water buffalo and camels), or canes/staffs (elephants). So then, where on earth did the bit come from?
When humans domesticated the horse around 5,500-6,000 years ago they were already familiar with the concept of riding and driving animals, thanks to the earlier domestication of donkeys and bovines. It makes sense that these early riders and drivers transferred familiar ideas of control to the horse. In the ancient Near East this took the form of the nose ring, but this did not work due to the shape, placement and delicacy of equine nostrils. In Central Asia and Eastern Europe early horsemen played around with a different control mechanism, one that took the shape of the equine jaw into consideration. They discovered a fleshy gap between the molars and incisors on the lower jaw (the bars) and realized they could place something directly in the mouth to control the horse by means of pressure on this area. These prototype bits were not made of metal, instead they were leather thongs, bone or wood tied to cheek pieces made of antler. Early evidence for the use of bits comes from the site of Dereivka in the Ukraine where archaeologists have found 5,000 year old equine remains with evidence of bit wear on the second pre molar teeth. The wear patterns on these prehistoric teeth have been tested against wear patterns crated by both metal and organic bits on modern horses and the results are remarkably similar. The first metal bits appeared around 1300 BCE and were made of bronze, and later this changed to iron.
The first metal bits are all what we would term a simple single jointed snaffle, but the cheek pieces could be very elaborate. The bits of Luristan in ancient Iran were made in the shape of fantastical beasts and equines. These cheek pieces often had a pair of small spikes on the inside surface- early examples of bit burrs. As bit technology traveled west into Europe the style and variety of mouthpieces changed dramatically. Amongst the nomadic populations of the Near East and Central Asia, the simple loose ring snaffle reigned supreme (and still does today). Such was not the case in Mediterranean Europe. The Greeks continued to use a snaffle, but in some cases spiked rollers termed ‘hedgehogs’ were added to the mouthpiece. Xenophon recommended that every rider have two bits- one smooth and one rough, to be used based on individual situations. The Romans created the first curb bits, which evolved into the large and elaborate curbs of Medieval Europe and the Renaissance period. There is no way we can look at most of the bits and not make automatic judgments of cruelty, BUT we also need to take into account their purpose- namely the job the hose performed. When looking at the history of bits, we must always remember the adage that ‘a bit is only as mild or harsh as the hands that control it.’
These bits evolved when the primary use of the horse was for war. In combat the horse had to be perfectly attuned to the riders aids; miscommunication could result in serious injury or death for horse and rider. Add armour and fighting tactics to this, and you might begin to understand the purpose of these bits. The cavalry of Central Asia rode to war in the loose ring snaffles partly because of the expertise as horsemen- they did spend the majority of their lives of horseback- but they were also horse archers who wore lightweight, flexible armour and rarely engaged in close combat. Their horses did not require the same degree of control and trainability as their European counterparts. The European cavalryman rode to war in metal armour that evolved from a short chain mail shirt to the full-scale plate armour of the medieval knight that encased him from head to toe. Helmets were heavy and in many cases covered the entire face with visibility provided by small eye slits that only allowed you to see straight ahead. Thus, the armour added a greater degree of protection but it severely hampered mobility in the tack. Add to this swords, spears and a shield and you start to get an idea of how encumbered the cavalryman could be. The cavalrymen fought in hand-to-hand combat, wielding their weapons in close quarters. They could not ride with the same consistent contact that we use today, rather they rode ‘on the buckle’ controlling the horse with the lightest touch of the reins. Xenophon mandated that the cavalryman must ride with a loose rein. Take a look at any painting or etching of the European horse being schooled or ridden in one of these bits and you will notice the loop in the reins. The saddles of the period also influenced hand placement and contact as they forced the rider to carry their hand quite high above the raised pommel.
These curb bits became the predecessor to the western curbs we have today, while the snaffle evolved to have different cheek pieces and mouth shapes. Both styles of bits are available in a wide range of sizes, materials and shapes. As our understanding of the equine mouth and dental structure continues to grow it in turn continues to influence bit design and our personal choices of bits for individual horses. At the root, though, the bits of today are identical to those found by archaeologists all over Europe and Asia.