Summer School: Evolution of the Bit

Instruments of control or tools that facilitate communication and cooperation—this week in summer school, we talk bits.

There is evidence of “bit” wear on horses’ teeth dating back to 3500 BC, though it is generally believed that horses were first controlled by means of a rope around the lower jaw.

Early designs may have been similar to the Native American “war bridle.” Not exclusive to a single tribe, the war bridle was used by various Native American groups across North America, including the Plains tribes, such as the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Comanche. Each tribe had its own variations and adaptations, reflecting their specific cultural practices and horsemanship techniques.

Swift Dog, Hunkpapa Lakota/ Teton Sioux, 1880, The Met.

One of the earliest known examples of a metal bit comes from the ancient Near East, specifically from the region of modern-day Iran. Excavations at the archaeological site of Tepe Sialk have uncovered artifacts dating back to around 2800-2500 BCE, which include metal bits.

These early bits were primarily made of bronze or copper and were simple in design, consisting of a solid bar with cheekpieces or rings on the sides. Over time, the bits became increasingly elaborate, especially the cheek pieces.

During the 8th and 7th centuries BCE in Italy, horses had great value among Villanovan and Etruscan societies and were used for military and leisure purposes. Possessing them was an indicator of high social status, and as such, the bits edged toward the fantastical with elaborate cheek pieces that looked more like art than functional horse tack.

Even more elaborate designs can be found in Greece by the 4th century BCE. Pictured below is the bit depicted on the mount of Alexander of Macedon in the famous Alexander mosaic from the Casa del Fauno in Pompeii, now in the Archaeological Museum, Naples.

Bronze bit, 4th–3rd century BCE, Greek, The Met.

Between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE, the curb bit was invented in the Balkans among the Thracian and Scordisci (Eastern Celts).

From at least the 1st century BCE, the curb bit was often associated with a type of leverage cavesson called a psálion, a metal noseband. According to The Met, “Its lower curved bar was connected to a lead rope attached to the saddle or wrapped around the rider’s arm. In the equestrian treaty of Xenophon (ca. 430–355 BCE) [it is taught not to] lead the horse with one rein, because the bit, pulled in a wrong way, would spoil the mouth, and advises to use the cavesson instead.”

Curb bits became more elaborate and severe, many resembling the spade bits of today. This example, made in Andalusia, Spain, and most likely used by an upper-class person of the Visigothic or Byzantine culture, has rich inlaid decoration, including Greek monograms, human faces, animal heads, and vine scrolls. It is also one of the earliest examples in The Met collection of a bit made from iron rather than bronze or copper.

Through the 14th and 16th centuries, snaffles were used, but many cultures continued the trend of high spades that seem almost diabolical. Bits also became more specialized, like this example of a bit specifically designed for hunting wolves. Italian Pirro Antonio Ferraro, in his equestrian treatise, Cavallo Frenato, published in 1602, states the spikes protected the horse’s nose from being caught and bitten by a wild animal during the hunt.

Curb bit, mid-16th century, probably Italian, The Met.

By the 17th century, a new trend of extremely long shanks had emerged and was primarily used for training young horses in dressage. Long, straight cheekpieces were used in all of Europe, but Germany and Hungary had the most extreme examples, with shanks sometimes up to 20 inches in length. These bits also included banquets, parts of the cheekpieces that could be opened to switch out the mouthpiece.

Ring bits evolved in North Africa between the 16th and early 19th centuries combining a metal bit with a ring that encircled the lower jaw. These bits were particularly favored by the Tuareg, a Berber population, mostly nomadic, living in the central Saharan region that was revered for their horsemanship skills.

According to The Met, “Ring bits were introduced to Spain during the Arab presence, and then kept by the Spaniards for their light cavalry (used in the genette or jineta riding style). Brought into the New World during the Spanish conquest, they were also commonly used in many Latin American countries until the late 19th century.”

Endless variations of bits now exist for every discipline imaginable.

Go riding.

Amanda Uechi Ronan is an author, equestrian, and wannabe race car driver. Follow her on Instagram @uechironan.