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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