Let’s start with some basic parts of all leverage bits. There are the cheeks, which are made up of the purchase and the shank. Then there is the mouth piece which is made up of the bars and – on many leverage bits – the port.
A snaffle bit has a 1:1 leverage ratio. This means that for each pound of pressure exerted on the reins, the horse feels one pound in his mouth. Shanks create more leverage with less pressure on the reins. The ratio of a leverage bit can be found by measuring the length of the shank and the length of the purchase. If you measure the length of the shank and get 2, then measure the purchase and get 1, that particular bit has a ratio of 1:2, meaning that for every 1 pound you exert on the reins, the horse feels 2 pounds in his mouth. A change in the ratio of purchase to shank changes how the bit works and where it puts the most pressure.
Length of Shanks
Generally, shorter the shanks means a milder bit. Shorter shanks magnify the rein cues less than with long shanks. Long shanks are usually more severe as it takes less rein to put pressure on the mouth. These are most commonly seen in events such as reining where a rider’s cues are expected to be nearly invisible. A long-shanked bit allows the smallest movement to translate clearly to the horse.
Angle of Shanks
But it’s not just the length of the shank that matters. The straighter the shanks are, the less warning the horse gets before the action of the bit is engaged. It takes less rein movement to move straight shanks. This, generally means that a straight shanked bit is harsher because there is little warning before the full pressure of the cue is applied. A swept back shank, on the other hand, allows more warning for the horse before the bit is engaged because you have to pick up more rein to contact the bit.
But knowing the length and angle of the shanks isn’t enough. Yes, you still have more options. To swivel or not to swivel, that is the next question.
Swivel Shanks vs. Solid Shanks
Swivel shanked bits have a joint where the mouthpiece meets the cheek. The entire cheek piece can move independently from the rest of the bit. These bits allow a more sensitive feel for both horse and rider due to the mobility of the shanks and allows for a one rein stop in case of emergency.
Solid or immobile shanks are some of the most common western bits you will find. They are designed for a horse that neck reins well. They don’t allow one rein correction and there is not as much feel in them.
What about gag bits?
So, we’re done…right? But what about those gag bits you see everyone running around with, you ask? What if I want one of those?
Short answer: you don’t want one of those…ever, for any reason. Just take my word for it. Been there done that, got the scars to prove it. DON’T.
Long answer: stick around to read my article on “specialty” bits that should be coming out in the next week or so and you will get to see a whole section dedicated to discussing gag bits.
My Recommendation for Your First Leverage Bit
Now, for those of you who are just stepping up into the curb bit from a snaffle and are now going into information overload, my recommendation for you would probably be a short-shanked bit with a nice amount of sweep, swivel shanks, and a mouthpiece much like your preferred style of snaffle. A good example would be a bit like this one: