If a love of horses means doing everything possible to make sure a horse lives a happy, healthy life, then it only makes sense that every horse trainer knows the basics of horse mouth care. Your horse’s teeth and mouth are among the most active parts of their bodies, and play a major role in both their nutrition and how they interact with the world.
For most equestrians, this also means learning the basics of horse bits. Every part of the bit, from the mouthpiece and rings to the curb chain and chin strap, has a direct impact on the well-being of a horse’s mouth. Used correctly, horse bits can help prevent injury to their mouth area while riding, while horse bit accessories like a gel curb guard can increase their comfort with the bits.
In this article, you’ll learn these basics of horse oral care:
Types of horse bits
How to measure a horse bit
Creating a bit seat
Using bit guards
As a general rule, consult with a horse veterinarian or dentist before making any major decisions. You wouldn’t want to take any risks with your horse’s oral health, so always make sure you’ve working with an expert’s advice.
Just like humans, horses should see their dentists at least once a year, even if there doesn’t seem to be any apparent problem. A check-up will help you nip issues like cavities and mouth ulcers in the bud, which is important considering horse rehabilitation from dental complications can be long, expensive, and tiresome.
Your veterinarian or equine dentist will also be able to check the alignment of your horse’s teeth, and determine whether or not any corrective procedures are needed. This is especially important for foals and yearlings, as tooth alignment plays a major role in your horse’s quality of life. It affects their eating behaviors, mouth injury risks, and temperament.
Be on the lookout for symptoms of dental problems, such as excessive salivating, bad breath, and difficulty chewing. Another sign that something is wrong is if they keep dropping their horse treats from their mouth. If these symptoms appear serious enough, don’t wait for your horse’s yearly dental appointment. Booking them for a checkup immediately will help keep matters from getting worse.
Floating your horse's teeth
Out in the wild, a horse’s teeth get naturally worn down by the roughness of the soil and stones they pick up while grazing at a pasture. A stable horse, however, usually has softer, finer food to eat. As a result, the enamel grows further than normal, which in turn leads to sharper points of growth on the teeth.
“Floating” refers to when a horse dentist smoothens out the teeth using specialized tools. This is necessary because horses normally chew in a sideways motion, which brings their cheeks and tongue into contact with their lower molars. If the teeth aren’t floated, the sharp points can actually cut the insides of your horse’s mouth, leading to ulcers and possible infections.
Depending on the horse’s age and health, floating may be necessary more than once a year, so make sure that your vet checks your horse’s teeth at least every six months. In general, the older a horse is, the slower the rate at which their teeth grow, and the less frequently you’ll need them floated.
Choosing the right type of horse bit
Many of a horse’s oral health issues can be the result of using the wrong bit for their activities and unique mouth shape. Since a horse bit is designed to strategically place pressure at key points inside your horse’s mouth, using the wrong kind could prove to be very painful.
Each type of bit, from the snaffle bit to the Kimblewick, applies pressure on your horse in different areas inside their mouth, and at different strengths. Since the bit uses this pressure to help you control your horse while riding, you’ll want to go with a type they feel comfortable with. While some folks might use trial and error to determine their horses’ preferred bit data-styles, you also have the option to hire a bitting expert to examine your horse’s mouth and make recommendations based on what they see.
In general, you’ll want to go with the gentlest possible bit for your horse, depending on their comfort levels. Here’s what you want to look out for when picking a bit:
Snaffle bits are horse bits consisting of a horizontal mouthpiece and one ring on each side. The mouthpiece is placed inside your horse’s mouth, resting on the bars between their front teeth and molars, while the rings attach it to the rest of the bridle. A single-jointed mouthpiece will apply more direct pressure on your horse’s tongue, while a straight or double-jointed mouthpiece will generally be softer. Mouthpieces with a twisted or corkscrew design tend to increase pressure on the bars of the mouth.
Curb bits have shanks or levers instead of rings on each side. The reins are attached to these shanks, which swing back when you pull. This creates indirect pressure on the your horse’s tongue and bars, with longer shanks resulting in greater pressure. A chin strap or curb chain attached to the shank distributes some of that pressure to your horse’s jaw and softens the impact on their tongue, cheeks, and bars.
Kimblewicks are like modified curb bits in that they have shanks, but these shanks are designed as D-shaped rings. Most kimblewicks also have a curb chain, making it a relatively low-pressure bit.
Some bit designs can also help horses overcome other issues. A bit with a roller on the mouthpiece, for instance, gives nervous horses something to fidget with, which in turn helps distract them from whatever’s triggering their nerves. A happy mouth bit, on the other hand, rewards your horse for using a bit with a little flavoring on the mouthpiece.
How to measure a horse bit
As always, comfort is the main concern when it comes to fitting a horse bit. While the measurements depend heavily on what type of bit you use, there are a few rules of thumb you can follow.
First, you want to make sure that the mouthpiece sits comfortably across the corners of your horse’s mouth, with about an eighth of an inch space between your horse’s lips and the outer rings or shanks. The bit should just barely touch the corners of your horse’s lips, and shouldn’t cause any serious wrinkling when it’s in.
If the bit is too long, it can slip around during your ride and end up in an uncomfortable position for your horse. On the flipside, a bit that’s too short can result in the rings pinching the corners of your horse’s mouth, which can be quite painful.
To get the right length, you can either use a bit sizer, which is a tool used specifically for measuring the width of a horse’s mouth; or you can simply put a piece of rope across your horse’s bars and mark where their lips start on each side.
The next measurement you’ll need to get is the width of the bit, which refers to thickest part of the mouthpiece. Thicker mouthpieces tend to exert more pressure on your horse, while thinner ones are gentler. The proper width, however, is also relative to the height of your horse’s palate and the size of their tongue.
You’ll want to make sure that the bit isn’t too thick that it barely leaves any space inside your horse’s mouth, which makes it apply pressure even when you’re at rest. An excessively thick bit could also make it harder for your horse to swallow, and may lead to other health or behavioral problems in the long run.
Finally, you’ll want to make sure that any curb chain or chin strap you end up using has just enough slack to be comfy, but is taut enough to hold the bit securely. This will again depend on how wide your horse’s jaw is, and what sort of material your curb chain is made of.
You’ll know that your horse’s bit is the right size when they seem comfortable with it being in their mouth. There won’t be any odd head movements or stomping because of the pain. If you notice any wounds or bruising near your horse’s mouth, stop using the bit immediately. Wait a few days, and then try getting a more accurate fit after injury recovery.
Beveling a bit seat
If your horse seems to feel discomfort even with a properly fitted bit, you may want to examine how the bit moves in their mouth. There’s a chance that the bit comes into contact with the teeth closest behind it, which can lead to irritation.
In cases like this one, some horse owners resort to creating a “bit seat” by beveling their steeds’ upper and lower front molars. This helps reduce the chances of the bit rubbing up against the teeth, giving your horse relief from a very distracting sensation.
Don’t attempt creating a bit seat by yourself, as any mistakes might end up causing more harm to your horse. Consult a horse vet or an equine dentist to weigh your options, and let them handle the bit seat if it’s what your horse needs.
Using bit guards
Sometimes, a little chafing and pinching is unavoidable, even if your bit is perfectly fitted. The weather can cause slight increases or decreases in the size, your horse might grow a little more, and changes in his diet might affect the measurements of his mouth. In extreme cases, the skin around your horse’s mouth may develop calluses or cracks from the chafing, which might lead to more serious problems like infections.
That’s why many horse owners recommend using a bit guard with your horse bit. Like gel pads for saddles, bit guards work as a soft, protective layer between your horse and their tack. They’re fitted onto the part of the bit that sits between their cheeks and the cheekpiece of their bridle.
The extra cushioning they add to the bit helps keep the mouthpiece straight and stable, while also acting as a shock absorber during rides. When used regularly, they can help prevent wounds, injuries, and other mouth problems. Just make sure that the bit guards you use are made of a safe, non-toxic material, as these will be spending a lot of time near your horse’s mouth.
What to do when your horse won't stop chewing the bit
Horses will occasionally give their bits a chew, but this isn’t something to be alarmed about outright. If the chewing is gentle, they’re probably just playing with the mouthpiece. If they’re chewing aggressively, however, you’ll need to correct the behavior as it could lead to tooth damage.
The most common cause of aggressive bit-chewing is discomfort. If you notice that your horse seems to calm down after you take their bit off, it might be because they don’t like how it feels in their mouth. Check its fit and make adjustments where necessary. You might also want to try changing the material; some horses may dislike the taste of metal, but are fine with rubber or plastic.
If they exhibit discomfort even without the bit, you might want to contact your vet. It’s possible that the bit was applying pressure on a cavity, or that they were chewing on the bit to distract themselves from the pain of a sore tooth. You should also check for ulcers and other issues while your horse’s mouth is being examined.
Some horses will also chew on bits simply because they aren’t used to having one in their mouths yet. If this happens to be the case with your horse, all you need to do is let them grow accustomed to wearing a bit without any other distractions around. That means skipping on any training and letting them hang around the stable doing nothing but keeping the bit in their mouth. After a few days, your horse should stop excessive chewing.
Good oral health is a big part of giving your horse a long, happy life. With regular checkups and the right equipment, you can give your trusty steed the smile they deserve. Check out our line of bit accessories if you want to give your horse the very best in mouth care.