The bit can be an intimidating piece of equipment to understand. However, if you break down the five structure points of a bit and examine how they affect the four pressure points of a horse’s mouth, bit function becomes something easier to comprehend.
A bit applies pressure to a horse’s palate, tongue, bars and curb. A bit’s design affects how it applies pressure to these four points. When a horseman understands the individual physical characteristics of a horse and the goal of riding, the better that rider can communicate though the bit to meet his needs. The more comfortable the horse is with the rider’s communication, the better the horse and rider will get along.
By applying pressure to one or more of these four pressure points, the horse will react in certain ways. The challenge: the way in which a signal is applied will be unique to each rider, and the reaction to that signal will be unique to each horse. This is why there has never been a menu or checklist created for bitting a horse. However, if you understand those four pressure points, and how you affect these points by changing the structure of the bit, you can come as close a possible to creating your own menu. And it will be your menu, because each of us is unique, including the way in which each of us handles a horse.
A Bit’s 5 Structure Points
Starting at the top, the distance from the bit’s top ring to the butt of the mouthpiece is referred to as the purchase. This distance affects the placement of the curb strap on the horse’s chin. As the purchase length is increased, multiple things happen. First, as the curb moves up the horses jaw, the jaw becomes less sensitive and the ability to control the face (vertical) position of the horse’s head increases. Second, as the distance increases, the speed at which the bit produces a signal (reaction time) decreases. This gives the rider the ability to move his hand more without creating signals to the horse. This can be positive or negative depending on the task at hand.
The next point to discuss is the shank length, which is the distance from the butt of the mouthpiece to the bottom of the shank. This measurement is taken along an imaginary vertical line that carries straight down from the center at the top of the bridle ring through the butt of the mouthpiece; if the shank swoops back, the angle is not measured, simply the vertical distance. Shank length affects a rider’s leverage. As the distance increases in relation to the purchase length, the leverage and speed of the bit is increased. A bit ratio of 2:1, for example, means the shank length is twice as long as the purchase. Most spade bits are around this ratio because of the speed of the bit.; it creates a maximum amount of signal with a minimum amount of hand movement, which is the purpose of the spade.
Shank design and point of pull are the next two structure points. Shank design is the path the shank takes to get from the butt of the mouthpiece to the bottom ring. Point of pull is defined as the distance from the vertical center line to the back of the bottom ring, where the reins are attached. If the shank travels straight to the point of pull with minimal amounts of material, less weight is created in the bit, which affects the signal of the bit. As weight is added to the bit, it becomes easier for the horse to feel the movement in his mouth.
Shank design can also affect the leverage of the bit by changing the point of pull. If a shank’s design puts the point of pull straight down from the mouthpiece on the vertical line, leverage is at a maximum. An example of this is the Las Cruces shank. The Santa Barbara is an example of how a bit can maximize leverage and signal. A lot of material is needed to create the design, which adds more weight and increases the signal.
The next and final point to discuss is the placement, angle and height of the mouthpiece. As the mouthpiece is moved further in front of the vertical line, the bit’s speed is slowed. Height can be added to the port of the mouthpiece to affect palate pressure. A spade, for example, applies palate pressure where a straight bar with no post does not.
The angle of the mouthpiece affects two things:
First, a mouthpiece angled forward takes pressure off the tongue — pressure applied by the port as it sits in a neutral state with no rein pressure — and applies it closer to the palate. If the mouthpiece is capable of applying palate pressure, the closer the mouthpiece is to the palate and the quicker the palate pressure will be applied as the reins are pulled.
Second, the mouthpiece angle affects the balance of the bit. Again, with the vertical line in mind, as the mouthpiece angle is moved behind this line, the balance of the bit becomes flatter — the bit becomes overbalanced. As the mouthpiece is kept vertical and the shank design has little to no weight behind the vertical line, the shank is underbalanced, hanging vertically. This produces a bit that continues to apply pressure if the horse doesn’t pack his head in a vertical position.
One last element to consider is the difference between a loose-jawed bit and a solid-jawed bit. This is how the shanks attach to the mouthpiece. A loose-jawed bit has shanks that swivel independently of the mouthpiece. This accomplishes several things:
First, signal is increased because there are more moving parts to cue the horse that a command is being asked as the rider pulls on the reins. The shanks move, signaling to the horse through lateral movements without necessarily engaging the mouthpiece.
A loose-jawed bit also makes it easier for the horse to differentiate between signals given from one side versus the other. Since the shanks move independently of one another, a rider can cue using single rein pulls to help a horse with lateral signals and movement. This can be a great advantage in young horses that are not yet neck-reining.
A solid-jawed bit moves in its entirety as one or both reins are pulled, requiring the horse to know what the rider is asking based on other signals being given simultaneously. However, with the bit being solid, there isn’t much movement, which might keep your horse quieter in the mouth, given that there’s little signal being inadvertently produced by the horse’s own physical action.
Equipped with knowledge of the four pressure points, a bit’s structure, and how these elements work together, you can now take your favorite bit and break down how it affects your horse and why the horse gets along with that bit (or why he might not).
The Santa Barbara shank for example, offers a straight shank, more leverage, with weight behind the vertical line, adding overbalance, which helps the bit rest in a more comfortable position for the horse to carry during a day’s work. Each Santa Barbara is unique, though, so the rider must check the balance and leverage of the bit. A 2:1 ratio, for example, gives a rider leverage and signal speed.
The amount of weight behind the shank’s vertical line, and the angle of the mouthpiece, will determine your bit’s balance. Comparing the bit’s balance to the natural carriage angle of your horse’s head could determine if you two are on speaking terms at the end of a long day.
This analysis can be done with each shank design and each mouthpiece. The better you understand yourself, your horse, and how a bit reacts, the better you will be able to accomplish your riding goals.
About forty years ago I started hearing stories about Ray Hunt and his clinics. Usually, the account came from a wide-eyed cowboy who had witnessed twenty or thirty “colts” turned loose in a pen, saddled and ridden but with nothing on their heads. Those riders and spectators were getting their first inkling of Ray’s principles, which spawned the “natural horsemanship” movement that is now familiar to so many.
At about the same time, I started to receive more requests for Wade trees among my custom saddle orders. By the mid-eighties it was one of the more popular trees among my usual run of orders that included 3Bs, Taylors, Louellens and Modified Associations. By the nineties, the Wade was the most requested tree, not just in my shop but with nearly every saddlemaker I spoke to.
The long-established regionality of tree styles was disappearing. Generalities such as “Texas cowboys ride swell forks” were giving way to Wades showing up in West Texas and dyed-in-the-wool Arizonans decked out like Great Basin buckaroos. Of course by that time it wasn’t just Ray Hunt. There were literally dozens of clinicians travelling the country, trying to help horses get along with their people.
Most of the clinicians, like Ray, had come from a ranch background. Most of them also rode Wade saddles.
The Wade tree was developed, beginning in 1937, by Walt Youngman, renowned treemaker at the famous Hamley saddlery in Pendleton, Oregon. Ordered by J.C.”Cliff” Wade of Enterprise, Oregon, it was a 14 1/2″ tree which the order form described as “made after old tree sent in as pattern.”
In their catalogs of the period, the Hamley Wade was accompanied by the statement “The bars on this tree have been fashioned from an old saddle brought across the plains by a customer’s father….”
The most notable features of that first tree called a “Wade” after the customer who ordered it, were a five-inch diameter horn with a rounded, or domed, cap and the fork and horn made entirely of wood.
Of even greater importance was the large front bar pad, caused by the greater depth of the bar (six and one-quarter inches) and the five-inch stock thickness of the fork. This combination nearly doubled the surface area that contacted the “pocket” of the withers when compared to most trees of the nineteen-thirties which typically had bars five and one-half to six inches wide and forks three to four inches thick.
Combined with a scooped-out gullet made possible by the all wood construction and extreme fork thickness, it allowed the base of the horn to sit much closer to the horse’s back. The increased leverage afforded the horse when working a rope and holding heavy stock made the Wade tree a favorite of stockmen throughout Hamley’s wide-ranging territory.
With popularity comes imitation, followed by misinterpretation and misinformation. Soon there were so-called “Wade” trees on the market with a fork thickness of three to four inches, a cast bronze horn, a gullet an inch higher than the original and bars five and one-half inches wide, all of which completely negated the design advantages of the true Wade tree. Uninformed or unscrupulous saddleries, eager to ride the Wade “fad,” used these low-cost imitation trees and a sales pitch that promised the best fit for your horse, a narrower seat and a closer “feel” than could be had in any other tree.
None of this was true, even if they had a real Wade tree to work with.
A skilled saddlemaker can construct exactly the same ground seat in a swell-fork tree such as an Association. The close feel is a product of the rigging and stirrup leathers, not the tree, and the fit depends on the specifications of the bars (angle, width, spread, rock, flare) not the dimensions or style of the fork.
This brings us to the crux of this article, which may not be politically correct for readers of Eclectic Horseman.
In my opinion, a great many of those who own and ride Wade saddles do so because of the influence of their favorite clinician and not because it’s the best saddle for the riding they do. If they happen to be a pleasure rider who makes no great demands on the saddle, it probably doesn’t matter. If the main use of their Wade is to have a convenient place to rest their beer can while they sit in it to watch “True Grit,” it really doesn’t matter.
But if they need their saddle to help them in a cutting, a stock horse event or schooling a young horse, a Wade may not be their best choice. In fact, there may be several trees that would answer their requirements much better. I would not hesitate to recommend a Wade to a cowboy customer who has to routinely rope and doctor in the open and ride a big circle daily.
But, I would also not hesitate to recommend an Association tree to a rough-string rider in Seligman, Arizona, a Louellen to a student of horsemanship schooling young thoroughbreds in Lexington, Kentucky, or a Toots Mansfield to a competitive roper in Midland, Texas.
Just as dressage, jumping and polo have, by their specific requirements, led to specialized English saddle constructions, schooling, roping, cutting and trail riding have needs that can be addressed by skilled saddle- and treemakers, using solutions specific to their events.
The Wade is one of the well-designed trees that fills a specific and important need. But it is not a universal saddle that fulfills the needs of all western riders.
Saddle makers are often asked what a person should look for in a comfortable saddle. Though it is a fair question, a simple answer is tough to come by. The key lies in what is called the ground seat.
Although many riders are unfamiliar with how the ground seat is constructed and how it works, they will certainly have an opinion about it if it’s not working for them! By definition, it is the part of the saddle that is sandwiched between the visible seat leather and the saddle tree underneath. It is usually made of a galvanized piece of sheet metal called a strainer plate, and covered with layers of leather that are shaved down to the desired shape. This shape is what is critical to the usability of the saddle. Occasionally, the saddle maker will use only leather to span the space between the bars. Most factory made saddles have injection molded plastic trees that have the ground seat already built into the tree.
There is a never ending debate regarding the ‘proper’ shape of the ground seat. Much of this discussion revolves around subjective terms like ‘balance’, ‘narrow’, ‘wide’, and ‘deep’ to name a few. These words roll off our tongue in a way that makes us sound like we know what we’re talking about, but these terms defy our attempts to define them in a way that everyone can understand. Chuck Stormes once said, “When they say ‘narrow’, what they mean, is ‘comfortable’.” Comfort, he says, is maximizing the contact between leather and rider. That is to say, even distribution of pressure from the crotch on down to where the leg starts to separate from the side of the horse. Incidentally,this is the same goal of fitting the saddle tree to the horse.
There are several things to remember that help clarify how this is a moving target. First of all, those who have ridden a certain saddle enough to be comfortable may have learned to compensate for the shortcomings of an inferior ground seat. Anything different may seem uncomfortable until they become accustomed to the new paradigm. Secondly, the stirrup leather adjustment can come to bear in how the hips are positioned in the seat. Thirdly, the rider’s posture has a direct bearing on where the hip bones (ischial tuberosity for you anatomy geeks) are resting in the seat. If the rider has good posture, these bones will align under the torso as they should be. Occasionally we see rounded -back riders whose hips are rotated forward where the ground seat may not be so accommodating. All these factors and more are a part of the puzzle that the saddle maker has no control over.
Ground seat theory will always be an inexact science, but a study of what actually works for a wide range of riders reveals some clues as to what will work for most. Generally speaking, a good seat is one where the hip bones are nestled in the lowest point of the ground seat. This is going to be roughly one third the distance from the cantle to the fork. Chuck Stormes describes this low point as being 3 ½” to 4” rearward from the center of the stirrup leather slot. There are many saddles that have a low point much further back than this. If a rider finds this comfortable, it is likely because they are accustomed to riding with a certain amount of brace in their body from the soles of their feet to the cantle. This would be an example of ‘riding the saddle and not the horse’. You will not see this kind of brace in a rider who is in tune with the motion of the horse.
Once we identify the lowest point in the topline of the seat, the shape from side to side can be addressed. Most of the good shaped seats are fairly flat across the base of the front of the cantle. This relative flatness should extend forward, narrowing as it goes. This shape can be likened to the old-fashioned three cornered bicycle seat. This provides that the hip bones have a relatively level surface to bear, as these bones are going to be approximately 4” to 5” apart on an average person.
One common misconception regarding ground seats is that the style of the fork has something to do with the shape of the seat. For example a rider might say, “The Wade tree (or whatever) has a good seat in it.” or “These slick forks give me the feel of an English saddle.” First of all, the saddle making industry does not have a set of master patterns of trees or ground seats. A Wade tree to one saddle maker may not be to another. Secondly, a saddle maker can install whatever shape he desires behind whatever fork with few exceptions. The shape of the fork has almost nothing to do with the shape of the ground seat. The perception is often that a swell fork saddle has a wider seat than a slick fork. When it comes to the shape of the ground seat, the saddle maker is literally a sculptor in leather. He or she can build whatever shape he desires within the limitations of the tree bars that the ground seat rests upon.
Ground seat theory is a slippery subject at best, but it is a worthwhile study for saddle makers and conscientious horsemen alike. The Traditional Cowboy Arts Association has produced an instructional DVD on the subject that can be helpful for saddle makers and anyone interested in this important aspect of their saddle.
See: The Ground Seat DVD
Video: Silversmith Scott Hardy and painter Tim Cox (former Presidents of their respective organizations) discuss the first Cowboy Crossings event held in 2011 coinciding with the return of the Cowboy Artists to the OKC museum.
Any craftsman who has taken it upon himself to refine his work has heard this statement. The comment usually implies that one is no longer “just a craftsman” and has ascended to the rank of “artist”. It is almost as if one goes to bed a craftsman, and wakes up an artist. It is as though there is an invisible line, a threshold that exists between function and art.
As descendants of Greek thought, we Westerners regard almost everything in a compartmentalized, lineal fashion. Life is considered a progression of events with a beginning and end with crisp lines separating stages. But is this an accurate way to think about function and art? Our culture often encourages us to choose one over the other, but whenever we draw a line of distinction between the two, we inadvertently create tension…one over against the other.
So what are we to do with functional art?
It has been said that if the craftsman can make a plain saddle (or bit, or bosal, etc.) look like a work of art; he/she has achieved a high level of success. Let’s consider for a moment what goes into a plain piece that would make it appear to be a work of art. In order for parts to fit together well, one has to master the unique properties of the medium (leather, metal, rawhide) and have a well developed eye for the lines of the piece. Any work that is architecturally well-designed is pleasing to the eye. The piece has the correct proportion, balance and composition… terms that are used within the art world, but interestingly are found in the realm of function as well. A bit that has the proper ratios, weight, and diameters would be functionally well-balanced. But it would likely also be aesthetically pleasing even if it were undecorated. “Balance” is a word that can be used to describe both function and art, and it can be very difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.
A case can be made that an aspect of the beauty of a piece of cowboy gear is its ultimate usability. How often have we looked at a saddle and it seemed to beckon us to step across it and ride off. There was something “right” about the shape of the seat, the line of cantle, the relationship of the front of the saddle to the seat. These are aspects of a saddle that exist (or not!) regardless of decoration. Simply put, there is a strong connection between function and art when the two are blended successfully. In fact, the best work shows a seamless integration of the two: the craftsman has kept both in balance, taking care that one would not swallow up the other.
The members of the TCAA are both craftsmen and artists (even though they may not be comfortable calling themselves artists… but that’s another story). Their ultimate goal, whether it is work made for an exhibit or for the cowboy down the road, is to make beautiful pieces that are both durable and functionally sound.
I have been building and collecting saddles, spurs and bits since the 1970s and have been a full time bit and spur maker since 1988. Most of my work is California style bits and spurs. I do restoration work on higher quality items for a very few collectors and I work as a consultant to individuals who are just starting or have large collections and have questions. I have done a lot of research on bits and spurs and have a large collection of books that have come out through the years since I was able to purchase was ‘Old West Antiques and Collectibles’ back in 1979. Books have helped very much but I feel that restoration has helped more than anything. When trying to match the work, tools had to be made to reproduce the marks of the piece. In doing this, I have discovered many things in the construction of the old work. It differs from what we do now because we have so many tools that they did not have which allows us to take our work to new levels. Collecting high quality contemporary work is gaining in popularity. This is primarily due to groups that p
romote high quality contemporary work such as the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association (TCAA) and the Texas Spur Makers Association. The TCAA also focuses on the education of makers, collectors and public so that they can identify quality work.
Some of my most asked questions are: “How do I know if a spur is contemporary or an original old piece?” “Is this an original G. S. Garcia?” “Is this a Mexican spur?” G.S. Garcia is being marked on contemporary pieces coming out of Mexico for the J. M. Capriola Company in Elko, Nevada. Capriola legally has the right to mark the pieces which makes it harder to identify if the piece is old or contemporary. With just a little practice and education, learning what to look for is easy. I will attempt to give you a little advice in what to look for but remember, there are exceptions to every rule.
First thing to look for is how the shank is connected to the band. This is one of the easiest ways to identify the work. If the work is an old California piece it will most likely have a riveted shank. That means the shank has been riveted on the band by filing a square hole in the band to fit the square end of the shank. The square end of the shank and hole in the band is made that way to keep the shank from twisting. The shank should fit the band well with a visible line around the point where the shank meets the band. If the piece is contemporary or from Mexico it will most likely have been welded where the shank meets the band and have a shoulder that is visible.
Some of the California pieces and contemporary pieces are forged from one piece of steel and the shank on those spurs will be a crisp 90′ angle where it meets the band with no dividing line and in most cases will not have a shoulder as a welded shank. Mike Morales made one piece spurs as did Phillips and Gutierrez. There are a very few makers out there now that make ‘one piece’ spurs. Another thing to look for is the way the piece was inlaid. Most of the old California and U.S. contemporary makers chisel out their silver cavities and set their silver by undercutting the edge of the cavity and hammering the silver into the cavity, while in Mexico they use a very thin piece of silver and just undercut the steel for the edges of the silver with no cavity and burnish the silver in place causing it to spread smoothly and look like an inlay. They use tools to engrave that do not dig as the old gravers did so that it does not cut through the silver. The way to tell the difference is to look at the stripes on the edge if there are any and the inlay itself. On an old piece, the silver inlay will be flush with the steel (if it has not yet rusted under the silver) and the stripes will also be flush with the steel and you may be able to see the undercut. On a Mexican piece, the silver inlay will be very slightly above the steel and on the stripes you will see a chisel cut on each side with the silver again slightly above the steel.
The engraving will also tell a lot about the spur but engraving is easy to copy. The old California engraving was usually done with the same tools that were used to cut the cavities. Most of the engraving on the old pieces looked something like this. Note the chisel marks are done with a flat chisel leaving a long cut to the outside.
Now on most of the Mexican, and a good part of contemporary work, the engraving is done bright-cut style using modern tools. One of the easiest ways to tell old engraving from Contemporary is the use of a liner. A liner is a graver that makes uniform side-by-side lines on the piece engraved. The liner is used for shading in bright cut engraving, remember, the old engraving was done with what tools they used to cut the silver cavity. Old work will not have a liner because they were not readily available. Some of the master level makers now are going to single point or firearms style engraving which is different than the old way as only a square graver is used and not the flat graver or chisels. The difference is in the way the gravers cut the material.
With these few pointers you should be able to tell the difference but nothing takes the place of experience. I suggest those interested take the time to buy a few books, look at as many different pieces of work as possible and ask questions of the makers working now. Times have changed and makers are now more willing to answer questions and explain the differences in work. Ask someone trustworthy what they think before buying a piece you are not sure of. Do not be in a hurry to buy that G. S. Garcia from the old cowboy that has had them since the teens if they just don’t look right. It takes a while to get an ‘eye’ for engraving patterns and such but it is better to wait until you are sure than to just buy a piece because it might get away if you do not buy it right now. There are too many people out there who are more than willing to sell something they know is not right and once you buy it, it is yours. There are also a lot of people out there who would be glad to help and answer questions. Be careful, study as much as you can, and do not be afraid to ask lots of questions. That is how we learn.