A Bit of Advice: Gag bits

Understanding the function of the gag bit is a good first step in deciding if it could be a good fit for your horse. Bitting expert Anita Marchesani breaks it down.

From Anita:

As we discovered in last month’s blog, the Dutch Gag is not a gag, but really works as a leverage bit, thus creating a head-lowering effect.

A true Gag bit has a head lifting action.  It creates this by increasing pressure on the corners of the lips, asking for the horse to raise his head.  In very simple terms, a running gag is accentuating the action of a snaffle.

When using a gag, the cheekpieces of the bridle run through holes in the bit rings directly onto the reins.  When rein pressure is applied, the bit runs along these cheekpieces so as to draw the mouthpiece upwards in the horse’s mouth.  The action of the gag is almost entirely on the horse’s lips, though there is some very mild poll pressure, with little or no tongue or bar pressure. (Adding martingales, tight nosebands, etc. alter this action.  Have a look at a polo player with a running gag, standing martingale and more, to see how the lines and pressure forces can be altered.)

The severity of this bit is governed by the nature of the rider’s hands and is in direct ratio to the competence of the rider.  Ideally, the cheekpieces should have a stopper fitted to limit the upwards action of the bit, and a second rein used on the bit rings so as to employ the gag action only when necessary.  It is an example of mechanical means to produce a strong system of control, and has a place in competition riding when used by sympathetic hands.

The running gag was rarely seen in eventing or show jumping competition a few years back, but it is certainly seen with far more regularity these days. For an example of how to use the gag sympathetically and effectively, seek out some footage of Clayton Fredericks using one with the mare Be My Guest, who tends to travel very long and low between the fences, and then the gag is used to lift her and prepare for the jump.  This means the horse can comfortably travel in her own frame rather than fighting her all the way around, and still have her up and ready in front of the fence.

There are a number of different options available in a running gag.  The most common is the Balding Gag, which is a loose ring variety.  The Cheltenham Gag features an eggbutt ring, for a quicker action with more leverage, and the Nelson Gag which has a Full Cheek is very popular with eventers to help with twists and turns on the course.  Ruth Edge is just one rider you will see using a Nelson Gag (with two reins) quite often.

The Cheltenham Gag

The Running Gag is certainly not suitable for everyone, and can be too strong for some horses.  The mechanics of how it moves up the bridle and therefore up in the horse’s mouth can lead it to be misused if the rider is not very good with their balance and their hands.  There is certainly the danger of the cheeks being pressed and pinched between the teeth and the bit, which when done repeatedly or with force can injure the horse’s mouth.

However, when used well and sympathetically (like any bitting choice) it can help to produce a more harmonious round for both horse and rider.

Next month we look at some bitless options!

About Anita: Anita Marchesani is the bitting expert behind Bit Bank Australia, a specialist web shop that sells only horse bits and accessories.  She is a published author and a regular presenter, including at Equitana Asia Pacific, on her favourite topic of, you guessed it–horse bits!  Having lived and worked in the UK as an event groom, she now lives in Perth, Western Australia, with her family of one beagle, one fat pony, a gold fish and her wonderful husband.

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10 thoughts on “A Bit of Advice: Gag bits

  1. Jocelyn says:

    Is there a gag bit that you prefer to use for soft-mouthed horses?

    The horse I currently have is a massive-saurous-rex, but has a nice soft mouth. During xc he gets tired having to carry that huge head around of his. Maybe a gag will remind him to keep that chin up and out when he gets tired! Can you recommend one for us that tends to be more affordable, and doesn’t look like Hannibal Lecter is taking my horse for a spin?

  2. wylie says:

    I’d love to hear your answer to Jocelyn’s question also–I felt like I was carrying a bowling ball around the second half of my last cross-country course.

  3. 48northfarm says:

    Sounds like your horses need better conditioning, not a harsher bit. The words “sympathetic use” and “gag bit” don’t belong in the same sentence.

  4. Anita says:

    Hi guys,

    thanks for the feedback and questions. Jocelyn, any bit is only as hard or as harsh as the hands on the end, and only a rider (not the bit) can ruin a soft mouth. I would be interested to know what level you are are competing at and what both your experience is. If you are both still in the lower levels, then probably sticking to a loose ring snaffle will be the most beneficial. The loose ring will give you more play as a rider, and a snaffle is another bit that asks for “head raising”. Try letting him barrel along in his own frame between fences, then pick him up as you set up, using higher hands to act on the corners of the lips, so you don’t fight his frame the whole way round and wear each other out.

    48northfarm- I certainly agree with your first remark. The rider must always take responsibility first, however I do believe that sometimes it can be kinder and more productive to choose what would be considered a “stronger” bit to achieve a more harmonious ride. Again, the golden rule- any bit is as harsh as the hands that hold them. A gag bit in itself will do no more damage or be more uncomfortable than a snaffle sitting in the mouth- it is how the bit is used that dictates their strength and possible discomfort for the horse. As a rider, a better understanding of how the mechanics of different bits work will help give you a clearer understanding of what you are causing to happen at the other end of the reins!

    Bitting is all about choosing the right tool, and then taking the responsibility as a rider to use that tool thoughtfully and correctly, with your safety and the horse’s comfort in mind.

  5. 48northfarm says:

    Anita–
    You say that a snaffle–my choice–can be used to raise the head. So why not use the snaffle all the time? Most of the riders who choose a gag are not doing so to raise a head–although I do see that Wylie and Jocelyn are asking about that–they want to overpower the horse. Tactful use of a gag basically eliminates the “gag” part of the gag bit, so why not use a snaffle to begin with? If you’re a good enough rider to handle a gag diplomatically, you probably know that you don’t need one unless you’re looking for a quick fix, and a quick fix, ultimately, is not a fix at all b/c it doesn’t last. No competent trainer I know uses a gag to raise the head. They do that in initial training so that the horse never gets to the point when anyone would think that a gag was needed.

  6. 48northfarm says:

    I do agree, it is better to use an effective aid one time, rather than nag and nag. And it’s the hand that makes the bit. But like I said, most who choose a gag are looking to strongarm the horse. Your comment about the recent surge of gag bit use indicates just that: the horses are getting bigger and riders want to control them by using a harsher bit.

    But what they need is better training: the human body is not as strong as the horse body, but the human mind is stronger than the horse mind. Using the brain is what is needed, not using a more severe bit. After all, you didn’t see 5’2″ Debbie McDonald manhandling 17.2 hh Brentina. She competed that mare in a light rein while in a double bridle, and schooled her in a snaffle.

    Saying that the gag is for raising the head is like giving a monkey a razor blade.

  7. Anita says:

    Hi 48northfarm,
    Thankyou for your comments, and yes, I do agree with everything you are saying.
    Please understand that these posts are certainly not to offer riders solutions to avoid doing the hard yards and properly training their horse. These posts are here to explain the mechanical and physical actions of the various types of bits, how they work and where they may be a useful tool in the training of the horse.
    The Gag accentuates the snaffle’s action on the corners of the lips by sliding up the face, and it is this action that asks for the horse to raise his head in response. Yes, you can achieve this in the snaffle, the gag simply makes this action more pronounced, quicker and certainly stronger.
    A rider should never aim to “overpower” the horse. Your bitting choice should be made with the comfort of the horse in mind, as well as the safety of both horse and rider.
    I hope you pop by and read the next month’s blog as well. And keep talking about bits!

  8. Hi,

    I have a very forward Oldenburg that will carry himself very low. Even with a rising hand on the inside he doesn’t comply unless he becomes animated. One lady that I worked with doesn’t like gag bits because she claims they put pressure on the roof of their mouth. I feel that is incorrect with a jointed bit. My horse is in a broken loose ring amd is extremely talented and I am a very competent rider. In the past I would try a gag and see how he does. What do you think?

  9. Tiffany says:

    I currently work on thoroughbred race tracks and have a 3 year old who is a dead run off. We have tried three ring and he finally now put his head down but they switched him Into draw reins. The trainer is a very stubborn man so nothing really passes for the books because I would like to put cotton in his ears which he said no too and even try a hackamore because he has nothing to pull against but since those won’t pass wouldn’t a gag bit help back him off the bit, along with slowing him down and teaching him to real and eventually switch over to a less harsh bit

  10. I get pleasure from, cause I discovered exactly what I was
    taking a look for. You have ended my 4 day lengthy hunt!
    God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye

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