01 October 2015
By Carolyn Willekes, Ph.D.
The bit is an essential part of our equine equipment. No matter what discipline you ride, chances are you have at least one bit tucked away in your tack room. Most of us bridle our horses without entirely understanding the purpose of the bit, let alone why we are using a specific style of bit, or even how the bit came to be in the first place. When you stop to think about it equines are the only animals we control by placing something in the mouth. All other pack/draft/riding animals are controlled by forms of nose pressure, nose rings/pegs (oxen, water buffalo and camels), or canes/staffs (elephants). So then, where on earth did the bit come from?
When humans domesticated the horse around 5,500-6,000 years ago they were already familiar with the concept of riding and driving animals, thanks to the earlier domestication of donkeys and bovines. It makes sense that these early riders and drivers transferred familiar ideas of control to the horse. In the ancient Near East this took the form of the nose ring, but this did not work due to the shape, placement and delicacy of equine nostrils. In Central Asia and Eastern Europe early horsemen played around with a different control mechanism, one that took the shape of the equine jaw into consideration. They discovered a fleshy gap between the molars and incisors on the lower jaw (the bars) and realized they could place something directly in the mouth to control the horse by means of pressure on this area. These prototype bits were not made of metal, instead they were leather thongs, bone or wood tied to cheek pieces made of antler. Early evidence for the use of bits comes from the site of Dereivka in the Ukraine where archaeologists have found 5,000 year old equine remains with evidence of bit wear on the second pre molar teeth. The wear patterns on these prehistoric teeth have been tested against wear patterns crated by both metal and organic bits on modern horses and the results are remarkably similar. The first metal bits appeared around 1300 BCE and were made of bronze, and later this changed to iron.