Bits, Headstalls, and Reins for Western Riders – Common Headgear Misuses

Like everyone else, springtime finds me cleaning tack and making repairs. Trusted tack is like an old friend. I remember each piece, where and why I bought it, and the horses who wore it best. Over the years I’ve gotten less flashy and increasingly functional, but well-made equipment is timeless.

When it comes to headgear, there are some staples I cannot live without. I will always have at least one of each of these hanging on my tackroom wall:

  • Snaffle – a Tom Balding smooth and a slow twist snaffle on a harness leather, one-inch headstall with ¾ inch leather, and 7-foot reins.
  • Hackamore – I will always have a soft spot for a Bill Black made Hackamore and a Colorful Cowgirl Mecate.
  • Broken leverage bitsa quality made correction, Billy Allen and a junior cow horse on a split-ear headstall. Used with either rawhide romel reins or my ¾ inch leather reins.
  • Fixed leverage bitsa Tom Balding spoon bit and a spade bit with a split-ear headstall and rawhide romels.


A well-made bit is a work of art. The balance and weight, the design and décor are all carefully crafted. Over the years I have turned into a collector. Many bits can be found as decoration throughout my home and barn.

But headgear must also be practical and operational; it needs to be used as designed and intended. Training problems can boil down to ill-fitting or improperly used tack and equipment.


Common Headgear Misuses


Chin strap misplaced on a leverage bit:

For a leverage bit to work properly, it must be balanced between the shank of the bit, the mouthpiece, and the chinstrap. Many leverage bits have another extra loop on the shank where the mouthpiece connects.

I often see the chin strap hooked to this loop, which is intended for the reins, or a second set of reins for more direct rein if needed. The proper place for the chinstrap to be hooked is the same loop as the headstall.


Bit too loose or too tight

This is most often seen in a leverage bit. The bit is designed to sit in the horse’s mouth either resting at the corner of the mouth or leaving one wrinkle. If it is tighter or looser than this, it can apply uneven and unpleasant pressure.

I see a lot of leverage bits hanging in a horse’s mouth—kind of rattling around in there. This can be even more damaging for the horse with a ported bit because the pressure is applied at the wrong position on the roof of the mouth.

A snaffle bit is designed for the horse to pick up the bit in his mouth and pack it. As a result, there is a larger range of appropriate fitting, but for practical purposes, a small gap between the bit and the corner of the mouth is a good rule.


Snaffle bit chin strap misuse

A snaffle bit is meant for direct rein pressure. There is no leverage in this bit, and it is crucial that it open laterally.

I see many people attaching the chin strap behind the reins, as it would be on a leverage bit. This effectively anchors the rings of the bit together. When attached properly, in front of the reins, the chin strap on a snaffle bit is to keep the bit from pulling through the horse’s mouth.


Snaffle bit used with a split ear headstall

The snaffle bit is best used with a brow band headstall. A leverage bit works on the poll of a horse, so a split ear is appropriate. When the bit is activated, the cheek pieces tighten. In a snaffle bit there is no poll pressure, so when used the cheek pieces lift away from the horse’s face making it possible for a split ear headstall to come loose.

A brow band headstall may be used with a leverage bit, but it’s not a common practice. It’s a good idea to check for proper fit from the ground—activate the bit and see how it works.


Use a critical mind and common sense to observe tack “at work” and the horse’s response. Remember, the softness or harshness of any bit rests in the hands holding the reins. Any bit can be cruel in the wrong hands, and seemingly harsh bits can be harmoniously used in a trusting relationship.


June 2020


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