A Bit About Bits: Bit Materials
I learned so much by putting this bit collection together. I initially intended to write one post about bits, but as I put everything together, I realized I had so much wonderful information to share with you all so I decided to create a series, "A Bit About Bits"! Also, if you are here just for the fun part (shopping) scroll to the bottom of this post for a link to my favorite bits on Amazon :)
Part 1 of “A Bit About Bits” is an introduction to bit materials. Choosing the right bit material matters and picking the suitable metal or alternative bit material for your horse will lead to a horse that is more accepting of the contact and a more willing partner. Some bit materials are softer or harder, warmer or colder, sweeter or neutral in taste. Ideally, you want the horse to seek the contact of the rider's hands, gently chew the bit while at work, and salivate.
There is ongoing research (and opinions) on the properties of various metals and how they act on the horse's mouth. Iron oxidation (rust) and Copper are sweet in taste and generally accepted metals that promote salivation. However, the crucial element when it comes to bits is the education of the hands that are holding the reins. A skilled rider can help a horse relax its jaw, flex at the poll, and round through its topline, naturally activating the horse's salivary glands.
Many bit companies have scientifically-backed proprietary alloys used exclusively in their brand of bits. An alloy is a metal made by combining two or more metal elements (or a mix of metals) to enhance the desired properties of those metals.
It's important to briefly mention that there are also trepidations over whether Nickel, found in some bit alloys, can cause an allergic reaction or metal sensitivity in some horses. Allergic reactions to Nickel in jewelry, for example, is not uncommon in humans and can cause itchy skin, rash, redness, and blistering.
Below is a list of some of the most common bit materials, alloys, and their benefits:
For Stainless-steel bits, Chromium is added to Steel to reduce corrosion and make it shiny and strong. At the same time, up to 10% Nickel can sometimes be added for even more durability. There is no way for a person buying a Stainless-steel bit to tell how much Nickel is in it unless the manufacturer puts the alloy information on the label. It is essential to replace Stainless-steel bits as soon as significant wear appears on the mouthpiece.
With all that being said, hands down, the most common training material for bits is Stainless-steel and should definitely be considered when it comes to picking out bits for your horse. It's durable, attractive, moderate in price, and neutral in taste. It is a harder metal which is a good option for a horse that needs straightforward communication.
When considering Stainless-steel, it's important to note that it has one of the lowest thermal conductivities for a metal alloy, which means it is much slower to warm up than other metal alloy options such as Copper. This means it takes longer for the bit to warm up in the horse's mouth, especially in cold weather. Almost all bits have Stainless-steel cheekpieces or loose rings. The bit's mouthpiece can be Stainless-steel, coated, or inlaid with other materials like Sweet Iron and Blue alloy, or it can be a completely different material such as Copper.
Horse bits made of Copper are widely accepted to increase a horse's saliva production. Copper is a soft, sweet-tasting metal with a high thermal conductivity which means it warms up very quickly in the horse's mouth making it "neutral" to the horse. Because it’s such a soft metal, I recommend choosing a Copper mouthpiece that is mixed with other metals to make it more durable. Copper is an excellent metal choice for encouraging acceptance of the bit or for a horse who needs to be encouraged to seek the contact more.
German Silver alloy is a warm, soft metal that stimulates salivation and helps prevent dry mouth. German Silver bits are generally formulated with mainly Copper up to 60%, Zinc, and Nickel. It promotes salivation and softening of the horse's jaw. German Silver has a sweet taste and heats up quickly.
Titanium has excellent properties as a Stainless-steel alternative. Titanium bits are sturdy and sit steadily in the horse's mouth despite the low weight compared to conventional bits. Due to the Titanium Dioxide layer on the bit, it also has antimicrobial properties. Titanium has high thermal conductivity, so it quickly adapts to the temperature of the horse's mouth compared to Stainless-steel. It is an excellent choice for horses with sensitive mouths. It's considered an inert metal and does not contain Nickel or cobalt. I recommend a Titanium bit for sensitive mouthed horses who develop red marks or sores despite soft contact from the hands. Titanium is recommended for horses who throw their heads around to evade contact, which could be a possible sign of metal sensitivities.
Sweet Iron is an inlay or coating on top of a bit made of Stainless-steel or other metal. The purpose is to hide the "metal taste" of Stainless-steel and create a pleasant, sweet taste, encouraging the horse to accept contact and increase salivation. It is believed that Iron oxidizes (rusts), a 'sweeter' taste is released.
Blue alloy (or Blue Steel) is a technologically advanced version of Sweet Iron. The rusting process (or oxidation) will change the blue surface of the bit to a brownish-orange, grey color. Blue alloy oxidizes faster than Black Steel (or Sweet Iron). The surface rust produces a sweet taste that naturally stimulates the horse to increase salivation and accept the bit.
Salox Gold is a material developed by Neue Schule and is a scientifically developed (no Nickel) alloy with a high Copper and Aluminum content. It is a warmer, softer metal alloy. The unique Salox Gold alloy possesses a high thermal conductivity allowing the bit to warm to mouth temperature quickly and become 'neutral' to the horse. Why is this important? The horse is less likely to fixate on the metal mouthpiece and is receptive to the rider's aids faster. Salox Gold is a slightly softer metal than Stainless-steel or Copper, making the mouthpiece easier to accept for some horses who prefer a softer connection. Because this alloy is particularly soft it may wear quicker than other alloys.
Steeltec Sweet Copper
Steeltec Sweet Copper is a material developed by Stubben. It is a Copper metal alloy that encourages the horse to chew, accept the contact, and increase saliva production. It has a high Copper composition (90% Copper, 7% Iron + Aluminum, no Nickel). It is a high-strength alloy that is durable yet sweet and quickly warms in the horse's mouth.
Sensogan is a proprietary material developed by Herm Sprenger with a composite of Copper, Manganese, and Zinc (no Nickel). It has a sweet taste, encourages salivation, and promotes bit acceptance. Formulated to regulate the oxidation process, it allows the bit to maintain its beautiful color for longer. Compared to other alloys, a reduced Copper content allows some oxidation to occur, but the addition of Manganese slows oxidation, which in turn slows discoloration. Manganese is also an important micronutrient for horses, as a crucial component and activator of enzymes.
Plastic bits are an alternative to metal bits. The plastic is soft and is typically flavored to gain the horse's acceptance. Plastic can be a good option for extremely soft-mouthed horses or horses with metal sensitivities. However, horses can chew through the plastic, and sharp points can form. It is essential to inspect plastic bits regularly. Neither plastic nor rubber conducts heat like metal does. From a biting perspective, this means it takes longer for the plastic to reach the same temperature as the horse's mouth.
Rubber bits are often metal rings with black rubber mouthpieces. While they seem like an excellent option for sensitive horses because they are considered soft, take care that the bit isn't too thick for the horse's mouth. Below we will be discussing the hardness of bit materials in relationship to the Mohs Hardness Scale. Though rubber is not measured on the Mohs scale, it is considered harder than glass which measures in the middle of the scale. (harder than Copper, but softer than Stainless-steel.) A chemical process, which may include baking, hardened the rubber. Rubber bits are a good choice for horses who have developed ulcers or sores in the mouth due to metal bits, but still require very direct communication from the rider.
Let's talk hardness of bit materials. Hardness can mean resistance to scratching, indentation, bending, breaking, abrasion, cleavage, or fracture. It is easy to confuse durability or toughness with hardness. When assessing the hardness of bit materials, I found the Mohs scale to be the most relevant. The primary purpose of the Mohs scale is to measure the hardness of minerals by using the scratch method. "Hardness" is the resistance of a material to being scratched. Still, it's easy for us to see the relational importance of the hardness of materials of the bit composition in the horse's mouth. I want to reiterate that the most critical element when it comes to bits is the education of the hands holding the reins…! However, the Mohs scale can give trainers and riders a better understanding of which materials are harder than others.
The Mohs scale of mineral hardness is a qualitative scale from 1 to 10 (1 being the softest and 10 being the hardest).
Below is a comparative list of common materials as well as ones discussed in this post:
Diamond – 10
Titanium - 6
Manganese – 6
Stainless-steel – 5-6.5
Glass – 5.5
Iron – 4
Nickel - 4
Copper – 3
Aluminum – 2.5-3
Zinc – 2.5
German Silver – 2.5
Fingernail – 2
Plastic - 1