Monday, July 29, 2013

Kibbles & Bits & Bits and Really Good Bits

If you go on, you’ll find out that Kibbles & Bits is a really inadequate choice for your canine bestie’s diet.  It’s a colorful, highly recognizable dog food with tons of commercial air time and great advertising.  It’s full of colorful kibbles but, if you know what’s good for the health of your furry little buddy, you wouldn’t feed him that at all.   

Metal burrs under a microscope
Although horses aren’t eating bits per se,  we ARE putting them in their mouths and they’re a vital part of their well-being when ridden.  Granted, we aren’t talking about a horse foundering from one, but, we are talking about a horse “faltering” through over-bitting, poor bit selecting, bad training, and in some cases, constant pain while being ridden due to substandard design and materials.  Just like a dog’s health would suffer from the long term effects of the artificial colors and flavors of Kibbles & Bits over time, a horse’s well being would suffer from the use of a bad bit as well. Yea, we know the adage, “a bit is only as harsh as the hands that use them”. No argument on that front; however, there is so much more to bitting and horses that must be taken into account when discussing bits that one blanket statement doesn’t quite cover it.  While we don’t possibly have time to cover all the intricacies in this blog post, we can hit on some obvious points that can and do make a difference in your horse’s response and well being when choosing a new bit. 

Most bits you see advertised in droves today are made in either Pakistan, Taiwan, China or other country outside of the USA & Canada .  These bits typically sell in the $20 to $100 range.  Showman, Partrade and Metalab are immediate names that come to mind. They’re worth much less than half of that wholesale.  Most of the price you pay comes from a few main areas:  marketing, advertising and shipping. Even some well branded and respected bit companies like Myler have a handmade division and a division in which they mass produce bits outside the US under the name Production Series Myler.  That’s not to say all factory made bits are bad or Myler bits are a bad choice, but we do think that every good horseman and horsewoman should consider a few things before buying a new bit for their horse and we hope they do.

Today’s most common styles of Western style bits originated from the Vaquero tradition of the old West and many of these bits have remained relatively unchanged.  In fact, when speaking of bit history, there are European bits that are a thousand years old or more that are still considered well designed and could be used today if you were lucky enough to own one of these historic pieces.

The fact is many of today’s bits are mere shadows of their former selves.  While bit mouthpieces haven’t changed significantly over the years in design and function, the alloys and processes used to mass produce them have.  There are only so many areas of pressure that can be affected on a horse such as:  corners of the mouth, palate or roof of the mouth, tongue, bars, and chin & lower jaw (with use of a curb strap), and bridge of the nose in the case of some combo bits.  Where the ball gets dropped most of the time in mass produced bits is in the materials and craftsmanship itself.  Handmade Bit Makers ensure balance and symmetry down to a few thousandth of an inch when making bits by hand.  Factory machined bits can be off by significantly more than that and the differences can go unnoticed by everyone but the horse.  Using substandard materials are far less expensive but, by doing so, these companies can trade quality for larger profits. 

In cheap factory made bits, typically the parts of the bits are cast (in whatever the metal of choice is) and then the parts are assembled (sometimes by hand) like you would see in a piece work plant during the industrial age. In handmade bits, each piece of the bit is made from scratch, heated, polished, refined, and constantly checked for weight, balance, symmetry, etc. Then each individual piece is welded together to ensure a balanced bit that is built specifically for the horse, rider, discipline, etc.  Something to keep in mind is a bit that is only a fraction off a inch off affects how the horse works, feels and responds. 
Factory reproduced bits can lack balance, density, vary in thickness, and the alloys used in production are generally not the top of the line. Sometimes factory machined versions of today’s bits have metal burrs that we can barely feel with our hands. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a big deal but, try rubbing that same bit for an hour or two over the sensitive gums in your own mouth and they’d stick out like sore thumbs over time. When we think about the lack of quality and craftsmanship, we wonder why cheap reproduction bits are sold to any discerning horse owner at all.  We reckon it’s like most things, it’s the advertising, endorsements, and colorful marketing that sells products and not the actual product itself that’s worthy of the price tag and promotion. Let’s just say, we’d rather have one or two great bits than a tack trunk filled with cheaper or useless gimmicky bits that may hurt our horses over the long haul. 


Independent bit and spur makers don’t have an issue with burrs because they’re made 100% by hand rather than by a machining process with lots of moving parts that cause the burrs in the first place.  Here’s a great video by Tom Balding demonstrating just a few of the many steps he takes in making a bit by hand.  Take just a moment and see this craftsman in action. 
To compete in the successful and lucrative production marketplace, overseas bit (and tack) companies have to manufacture and sell thousands of bits every year to stay in business.  And because the costs to manufacture are significantly less than what real bit and spur makers spend, they have more to spend on marketing.  Outside of celebrity endorsements and great advertisements, they go so far as to highlight the potentially negative aspects of some bits as a good reason to buy them.  They do things like tout “lightweight”  as a benefit, even though most horsemen and women will tell you that a good bit should be substantial and well, be sort of on the heavier side.  The bit is a communication device, meant to telegraph signal--in the case of some equine sports--the slightest of signals.  This simply cannot be done with a flimsy piece of metal that bounces around from just the weight of the reins at a trot. They’ll also claim that their particular bit is made from the “finest materials”.  At the end of the day, the finest of a cheap metal alloy is still a cheap metal alloy.  Sadly, they don’t have to qualify these statements unless you ask. Even then, they’ll tap dance around the issue and claim their bits are just great.  We learned alot about this song and dance routine when we started shopping for bits to carry in our store.  One of the things we were adamant about was the quality of the bits we were carrying.  Sales reps acted shocked each and every time we asked these simple questions.  Where was the bit made?  What is the bit made out of? What guarantees do you carry on your products? Most company reps had to put us on hold to find out, and what that tells us, is that alot of tack stores aren’t even asking these questions.

We know it sounds complicated but the honest to goodness bit makers will look at their designs and see where the bit seeks gravity and if it’s consistent with what type of signal the rider is hoping to achieve.  This is where the disbursement of weight, over the particular pressure point, is vital to construction.  In replicas, this is not even a small consideration.  It can look like the original and not be anywhere near the original in terms of construction and performance. Think about how that would affect your horse and if you would know why your horse wasn’t responding in the manner you had hoped for.  Form & function.  

Price vs. value.

These companies copy the styles made popular by famous bits and spur makers like E. Garcia, Al Tietjen, Greg Darnell, Ernie Marsh, Fleming, Field Family Bits and Spurs, just to name a few. And to further confuse the buyer, they name them after the original maker with just a few minor modifications.  Knock-offs are rampant in the tack industry. Hint:  If it has a famous maker’s name on the tag, look at where it’s made.  If it’s not made in that maker’s hometown, we’d be suspect of the quality.Another sales ‘tactic” is the prominent use of flashy low content silver on the shanks as a distraction, claiming “real silver” as an another benefit and selling point.  Real bit and spur makers wouldn’t be caught dead using these materials but, since there aren’t a lot of feet being put to the fire on this by horse tack aficionados, they get away with using machine etched, rough-to-the-touch silver-ish stuff that’s got silver in it somewhere.   Hint:  Real silver bits cost hundreds of dollars.  You cannot buy new real silver bits for $89.99.  

Finally, marketing has mislead an entire population of horse owners into thinking that a good bit is a substitute for good training.  Perhaps our biggest pet peeve against many of today’s bit manufacturers.  Good finished bridle horses that can spin on a dime, supple and collect like a slinky, and respond with the most delicate touch didn’t get that way from just a good bit.  And we don’t care what equine sport you’re involved in, every horse deserves at least a chance of being trained properly with patience and skill so, they can enjoy competing without getting their gums ripped out.  In fact, we cringe every time we see ads by paid celebrities advocating this bit or that bit without stressing the importance of lots and lots of training first--training that has been incremental over the years and without holes. Just for example, if you don’t know how to make your horse counter bend and arc on a circle and perform simple lateral movements or if you don’t know where the pressure is being applied by the bit you have now, you really and truly have no business using a shanked bit at all.  Escalating up in bit severity without the horse understanding what is being asked of it first (or the rider knowing how to use it) can be quite cruel so, we can’t stress the importance of seeking out good trainers before you decide that you need to put a harsher bit in your horse’s mouth. 

Price vs. Value

Handmade bits are pricey.  Make no mistake about that.  Someone’s time is just as valuable as yours and no one is going to spend time fashioning a functional piece of equipment with expensive materials for less than what they have into it.  Handmade bits can go into the thousands of dollars depending on who made it.  In these cases, you’re paying for a piece of history and in most cases a work of art as well.  Even good using bits with age appreciate over time unlike the mass produced bits which aren’t worth a fraction of their cost after you leave the tack store so, like handcrafted saddles, they truly are an excellent value and investment. 

That’s not to say you can’t buy a nice handmade bit for under a few hundred dollars.  You can.  There are also some bit companies who sell production bits that are a step up from the junk ones. We’re not knocking all mass produced bits here.  However, we want you to know they really aren’t in the ball park, in terms of quality, when compared to handmade bits. We carry a few handmade lines and absolutely would not trade them for a bigger profit margin. These quality bits are popular with working cowboys and performance riders alike because they’re well made and yet still affordable for most. You can get decent production bits in the $80 to $150 range--just a mere $20 -$50 more than the mass produced ones from Taiwan and Pakistan. Granted they’re quite plain for that price, but, again, what’s important to you as a horseman or horsewoman? 

Knowing they’re out there and finding either good bits and good information is quite another thing. Good information comes from tack connoisseurs who are willing to advocate on all fronts--horse, rider, and for the livelihoods of the craftspeople who adapt and guide the tradition of horsemanship. These you can find yourself online, in blogs and chatrooms as long as you vet the information you are offered.  We advocate for doing your own research and buying from reputable companies that can assist you in your specific needs.  

Herein lies another problem in that not all tack stores carry all bits, nor are they all educated in either horsemanship, craftsmanship or both.  Many make their retail selections based on brand recognition, marketing or profitability. And that’s ok, too, we just advocate you know the difference.  

We feel comfortable selling fewer brands of bits for these reasons.  This way, we can be sure they are crafted to a standard and the makers will stand behind their product.  We know this will make a difference in how your horse responds to the bit.  We also know that the entire horse-rider experience will be enhanced because if a horse is used to the perturbation of a poorly constructed bit, the design and balance of a hand-crafted one will be evident almost immediately.  We know that the value of these bits will only increase over time and if you needed to sell it, you’ll be able to recoup your money and then some depending on how long you’ve had it and how well you’ve kept it. And if our customers are able to see this for themselves, they’ll be back time and time again.

Another consideration is tack stores that deal directly with the makers, can help you select the mouthpiece, shank and alloy that works best for the type of riding you do. You’ll find that some tack stores will provide this service without batting an eye unlike most big box stores with imported run-of-the mill bits.  And if you want a one-of-a-kind heirloom piece, you won’t have to worry about knock-offs.

We think it’s a good idea to seek out tack stores that will act as an advocate for you and your horse.  Ask questions of your tack store owner regarding where they purchase their bits, what kinds of warranties they carry and if they meet the same standards you’ve come to know is important for your horse’s health.  Heck, these are questions the bit company themselves should be able to easily answer, too. If they can’t, you may want to reconsider them as a choice.

There are lots of businesses that still stand behind what they sell and only want to sell the best the market has to offer.  It’s true, sometimes they are a little pricier choice but, price vs. value should always be your number 1 concern when making sound investments.  And if you find yourself drawn into the cute Kibbles & Bits commercials, enjoy the great advertising, but remember it’s just advertising and there’s always a “bit” of cost associated with that.