Region 5 Arabian Horse Convention Presentation by Frank Principe, Silversmith

Frank Principe presented at the Region 5 Arabian Horse Convention in Seattle, Washington on Jan. 7, 2001.  Below is his presentation transcribed:

Today I am going to speak on the history, function and application of our modern day western bits.
HISTORY: The western bit we use today on the Arabian horse is of the old Californian type. Most people think the Spanish designed these bits, however Arabian lovers will be pleased to know that the type of bits they use on their horses today originated in Arabia. In 711 the Moors conquered most of Spain. They brought with them their culture, their Islamic religion, their Arabian horses and their bits and spurs. By the late 1400’s the Moors and their descendants of Spanish Arabian blood who practiced the Muslim faith were being persecuted and driven out of Spain by the Spanish Inquisition.

When Cortez came to the Americas in 1519 AD It was an opportunity for these persecuted horseman, who practiced Islam, to leave Spain.  They became the majority of Cortez’s Conquistadors, bringing with them their Arabian barb type horses and their Arabian designed bits.

It is interesting to note that many of the old Californian type bits used today such as the Santa Barbara still have silver overlaid Islamic religious symbols such as seven buttons, half moons and bit makers have been using these designs without realizing their historical significance.

FUNCTION: Today both English and Western bits work by applying pressure.  We apply pressure until the horse drops his head, relaxing his jaw and yielding to this pressure. There are four places we apply pressure: the bars, tongue, curb strap area and the palette (or roof of the mouth). Different horses respond and accept pressure from different areas. That is why we have so many different bits. Horses also respond to different pressure points better at different stages in their training. It is up to the person riding or training the horse to find out which particular pressure point or points he will respond to most favourably. Meaning which pressure points he not only responds the lightest from but carries himself in a steady, relaxed manner.

My bits are known for their balance.  By balance I mean if the horse raises his head too high, the bit will come in contact with one or more of these pressure points, encouraging him to drop it to a more comfortable zone. I build my Quarter Horse bits so that this comfort zone is obtained when they lower their heads to the vertical. I build my Arabian bits so that this comfort zone is obtained when they lower their heads to the vertical or a fraction behind. My Pleasure Horse bits are balanced so that this position is very comfortable. They are quite heavy which makes it quite uncomfortable to put their head anywhere but in the proper position.

Reiners and Cutters want a lighter bit which allows the horse the freedom to use his neck and head to stop and turn without bumping him. A lot of young pleasure horses work well in this type of bit. It allows them to make a slight mistake without intimidating them. These lighter, silver bits make good transitional bits from the snaffle to the bridal or heavier shank bit.  I make my bits from cold, rolled steel which is a low carbon steel sometimes called “sweet iron”. Sweet iron is porous and will rust giving the horse a pleasant taste. Compared to stainless steel, for example, which has a denser molecular structure and a more bitter taste than sweet iron.

I put copper in all of my bits, most people think that if a little bit of copper
is good, more is better. This isn’t necessarily so as the combination
of copper and steel stimulate the saliva glands. You want a horse
to salivate so that the bit doesn’t pinch but slides and moves
easily in the horse’s mouth. When a horse salivates, he moves
his tongue relaxing his lower jaw so that he is much more comfortable
and accepts the bit more easily. I have people calling me all the time wanting me to build them a bit that will make their horse carry his head steady and work perfectly. Before I build a bit for a customer, I ask these questions:

  • How long has he been in a shank bit?
  • What is the problem you are having with your present bit?
  • When were his teeth checked last?
  • Does he know where the comfort zone is?
  • Will he break off the snaffle giving and searching for the comfort zone?

If he won’t do this in a snaffle, I can’t make a shank bit that
will force him to do it. If he’s an older, well-trained horse,
maybe it’s not the bit or the horse. It is of the utmost importance
that you understand that no matter how well the bit is made, it
is only as good as the hands that hold the reins.

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