We all know how important it is to have our saddles fitted by a professional. But fewer of us probably give our bridles and bits the same careful consideration.
In Europe, bit and bridle fitters are as in-demand as saddle fitters. Ontario-based Tammy Levasseur of On the Bit Lorinery Solutions has made it her mission to ensure that access to this service is readily available to all equestrians and their equine partners throughout Canada.
Trained in the UK, Levasseur, is a Lantra-certified bit fitter with a certificate in lorinery science and offers equine bit-fitting clinics and individual sessions throughout Canada. She sat down with Horse-Canada to talk about bits, bridles, and a new technology that can monitor your rein contact.
Horse Canada: Why is a properly-fitting bit so essential?
Tammy Levasseur: The correct answer is if the bit doesn’t fit properly, you can actually create contact issues with your horse [degrade the quality of your contact]. And that can start at a very early age. When you’re backing your horse, if you incorrectly bit them right off the bat you can create contact issues that you can’t solve later on. Once those habits and behaviors are established, they are very difficult to rein in later.
So, for instance, you put a big fat bit in your horse’s mouth, which we typically have done in the past. But that particular horse can’t accommodate it. In their oral cavity, they don’t have the space for it. What they tend to do is start gaping their mouth, opening wide to accommodate the bit. Or they end up with tongue evasion issues, either pulling their tongue back in the oral cavity, or wagging their tongue out to the side. Those are just two of many examples of contact issues that can be created.
Unfortunately, over the course of our history, what we’ve done with horses is put these big fat bits in their mouth, which often they couldn’t accommodate. And when they ended up with mouth issues, we’ve cranked their nosebands tight and often added a flash on top of that.
Are there other issues that can arise from poorly-fitted bits and bridles?
You will see tension in the poll and the throatlatch; those are also signs of ill-fitting bits. And that tension can run all the way through the horse’s back and can also cause lack of suppleness, which is a huge issue. I mean, if your horse isn’t supple, you’re never going to have that beautiful elastic contact that we’re all seeking. It’s a domino effect that plays from the mouth all the way back.
What are some signs a rider looks for that indicates they’re having a bit issue?
First of all gaping, but also excessive chewing in horses that have tongue evasion issues, tension in the poll, tension in the throatlatch. Some horses tend to snatch and grab at the bit. Some horses hollow out, some horses completely evade the contact by going behind the vertical.
They can also have physical signs such as abrasions, pinches, bruising, and in some extreme
cases splitting at the commissure of lips [corner of the mouth]. It important to inspect your horses’ oral cavity for signs of ill-fitting bits. Those are some of the main issues that I see.
What are the most common issues you find with bits and bridles??
I’d say incorrect bit tension is what I encounter most often. By that I mean the bit is unsupported and is literally hanging in the oral cavity. In the rider’s defense, they think they’re being kind by just dangling the bit, but it’s not actually sitting in the proper position in the horse’s mouth. But what ends up happening is this bit is dangling so low that when they take a contact, they’re not getting the immediate response that they want, so they pull a little harder to get the response. Having it properly tensioned is important to make sure that it’s situated properly in the horse’s oral cavity so that your communication is succinct.
The other common mistake I find is bits that are just too wide, too big for the horse’s mouth. They’re just pulling through the oral cavity and then the center lozenge/bean or the center joint, depending on whether it’s a double-jointed or single jointed bit, slides through the horse’s oral cavity and makes contact with the bars of the mouth, which is not where it’s designed to sit, which is in the centre of the horse’s oral cavity.
Can you walk us through the bit fit process?
The first thing that I do is take a variety of measurements of the horse’s oral cavity. I use some putty to get an impression of the bars. And I assess the palate [roof of the mouth] profile, because the palate varies from horse to horse. It can be high, shallow, wide, narrow, and all of the various combinations in between. And obviously the width of the mouth. What I’m looking for are the limiting factors that will drive my bitting selection. If a horse has an extremely low palate, I’ve got a bit that can help with that. If I find a horse that has really sharp bars and they’re curling up behind the vertical, I’ve got a solution for that.
If the bit looks okay, we watch the horse being ridden. Now I’m looking for contact issues that I can help solve. Is the horse curling up behind the vertical? Is he coming up above the vertical? Is he fussing in his mouth?
If I think that the bit the person is currently using is suitable, then that’s what I say. However, if I think that I can make an improvement, then we try the bits that I recommend and we see which one is most suitable. Sometimes there’s a huge, dramatic change in the horse. And sometimes the change is smaller, but still an improvement.
But at the end of the day, if I’m making a recommendation because of a limiting factor that I found in the horse’s oral cavity, ultimately I’m making a recommendation to make your horse more comfortable.
And where does the bridle fitting come into play during a session?
The first phase is the oral anatomy, then I do a what I call a head symmetry assessment. I’m looking for sensitivities on the poll and the TMJ [temporomandibular joint]. The third phase is assessing your bridle and your bit. And at that point, we’ll make some adjustments to make sure the bit is sitting properly and balanced in the horse’s oral cavity.
I also look at the noseband to make sure it’s not too snug, and at the crown to make sure there’s some clearance around the ears. After that, we go out into the arena and I watch the horse being ridden. From there I’m looking at contact issues and anything that I can see that I feel I can improve. The recommendations follow that, and the rider can try the bits during the session.
Can you tell us about the Rein Contact Analysis tool? It’s the only one in Canada, is it not?
It was developed in England, and I have the only one in the country. It’s a really fascinating tool: it consists of a set of reins that have highly specialized force meters built in, and those reins connect to a piece of data collection equipment that attaches to the pommel of the saddle. That information is sent via Bluetooth to my phone.
The assessment takes about 45 minutes over two rounds of walk, two rounds of trot, two rounds of canter all ridden in a figure-eight so you have an equal amount of time on both reins. It collects data on the force that go through the reins, and then the algorithm will gather that data and manipulate it so that it makes sense to us. It reports back four metrics: rhythm, contact, consistency, and balance. For rhythm, it will pick up if your horse is doing a four-beat canter. It measures if the contact is in an acceptable range, too strong, or too weak. Consistency is a metric that measures the elasticity of your contact. Finally, it measures balance.
When aiming for suppleness and straightness in our horses, we are seeking to minimize one-sidedness and reach a situation where both horse and rider are symmetrical and able to maintain a balanced, correct picture through a variety of exercises in both directions. One measure of this is the left-right balance in our rein contact. If we ride a symmetrical pattern, such as a complete figure eight, in an ideal world we would have the same average contact weight in our left and right reins.
If you’re looking for a new career in the equestrian industry, Levasseur offers certification training in bit and bridle fitting. Check out her website for more info.