Always interested in learning more about horse care, I was delighted to get the opportunity to discuss horse bitting with renowned expert Sue Gilliatt. Here she discusses her life to date and how horse bitting is so important to achieving best performance results.
Tell us about you
I grew up in a small town in the UK, and later I moved to South Africa. It was here that I discovered horses. I began riding and owning horses, and eventually my two daughters got into riding as well. They have competed at top level, and this whole journey began through them and their horses.
Tell us about what you do
My job is to make horses as comfortable as possible. People have spent a lot of money on saddles and saddle fitters, and I believe that the same logic should be applied to the mouth. The mouth is such an important part of the connection to the rider, and it is so sensitive. We aim to figure out each individual mouth and to find the perfect bit.
How did you become a bit fitter and what made you choose this as a career?
One of my daughters had a particularly difficult horse to bit. He was a successful ex-racehorse, but he was mouthy and was fussy with the bit. I began the process of delving deeper and looking at the inside of the mouth. We called for the help of equine dental technicians as well as a reputable bit manufacturer. We combined the knowledge of the anatomy of the mouth and teeth, the horse’s temperament, the rider’s hands as well as the functions of different bits to narrow down the choice of bits we could try.
Today we have founded a system of moulding the bars of the horses’ mouth so that we have an exact impression of where the bit sits. This way we can find any abnormalities or anything else that will be taken into consideration when finding a bit. We look at many other parts of where pressure is applied, such as the tongue, pole, and curb, and we find which is most tolerable and comfortable for each horse.
What is it that you love about what you do?
I love passing on knowledge about what I’ve learnt, and ultimately making horses comfortable.
What are the most common mistakes or problems that you see when it comes to bitting?
The biggest misconception I come across is that difficult horses need strong bits. Many naughty or fussy horses I’ve worked with are over-bitted. Pressure equals resistance, and the more you pressure a horse, the less likely they are to comply. There are bits out there that will give you more than enough control without the pressure of the typical, turn-to “strong” bits.
Another misconception I often see is the belief that the single-break snaffle is a soft or forgiving bit. It is quite the opposite. The nutcracker action squeezes the bars and pinches the tongue, and the joint pushes up into the soft palette. It is a bit I avoid using, unless it has a lock-up action that reduces the pinching action. Even then it will only be for horses that tends to dive down with its head. There are much kinder options out there.
What should we be aware of when bitting a horse?
Try and avoid strong bits from the get-go. The aim is always to be in as soft a bit as possible. Horses grow and strengthen, and just as a saddle would be checked, bits can be too. A horse that needs a strong bit may be able to get a softer bit after a few months of training, and it does not need the same bit for its whole career.