Form, Function & Communication with Barrel Horse Bitting Expert, Dave Elliott

Form, Function & Communication with Barrel Horse Bitting Expert, Dave Elliott

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This month at we’ll be diving into the subject “horsemanship for barrel racing.” Because quality horsemanship requires quality communication – quality horsemanship depends on quality tools! One of the most important being the bits we use to develop our barrel horses.

It was easy for me to decide who I’d invite as a guest contributor on this topic. Dave Elliott, owner of Elliott Bit and Spur hails from Alberta, Canada and is a household name in the barrel racing industry. Although Dave himself rodeoed in the past, because his wife Louise is a barrel racer, it’s the discipline they’ve primarily focused on serving.

Dave started out using horses on the ranch where he grew up, while his mother and sister rode english. Out of school he became involved in horseshoeing and did that professionally for 20 years. When business was slow in the winter time his interest turned to bit making, which he’s been doing on a full-time basis now for 25 years.

Elliott Bit and Spur
Look for the “Elliott” stamp of authenticity
on a bits inside, bottom right shank.

One of the things that clearly sets Elliott bits apart is the years of education and study behind them. Dave said “My search for bitting information led me to studying anatomy. I’ve hosted equine dissection classes and got involved with an equine Osteopath to learn more about motion, neurological systems and cardiovascular systems.”

He went on to explain that “Most of the information on bitting is based on the bit, not the reason why we use certain bits, which is largely anatomical based. When you read old European military manuals you’ll find that most of their bitting and riding was based on anatomical structures.”

I especially appreciated Dave mentioning how important it is to have a clear goal in mind when it comes to exactly what you hope to accomplish. “You have to have a plan as to how you want the horse to move before you select a bit to get it done. I find now days in all disciplines, that people often don’t have a plan.”

He shared that when people call to express certain needs or ideas in regards to which bit to order, “It usually ends up being more of an anatomical answer instead of a bit answer. For example ‘My horse won’t rate for the first barrel.’ I have to understand what their idea of what rate is, whether they’re looking for a short term fix or a long term fix, and if they understand what needs to happen in the horse’s body in order to rate.”

He mentioned that with barrel racing specifically “…it’s not always the bit, it’s the rider’s misunderstanding of what has to happen in the horse’s entire body. It’s about balance, everything has to be in balance.”

Tension in the ribs may result in over flexion of the neck.
Tension in the ribs may result in over flexion of the neck.

Another example is a barrel racer who says “‘I need a bit for my horse that’s over-bendy.’ I’ll ask ‘Over bending in the neck?’ Often times the horse is actually underbending through the rib cage. Their back muscles are “turned on” which doesn’t allow the rib cage to flex. If the back muscles are tight, he can’t collect. What a lot of folks think is simple, is quite complex… you’ve got to build this process, it doesn’t happen instantly. You can’t be in a hurry, you have to break it down.”

Dave went on to explain that the highly refined degree of communication we must create to be consistently competitive at high levels, includes connecting the bit to several bodily systems, including “…a connection from the tongue, which includes a bony connection, a neurological connection, a muscle connection, and a blood supply connection – these things are all important when it comes to what happens when we apply pressure. If any of these systems aren’t operating optimally first, the bit isn’t going to function very well.”

We also want to consider the pressure points we have available to communicate with, which are: lips, tongue, bars, nose, curb, poll, and pallet. Dave suggested that we “Find out where each horse prefers that we communicate.”

I wanted to give him a BIG high five when he said “Figure out how to get to him mentally vs. just get to him through his mouth with a piece of iron.”

He went on to explain bitting with a powerful metaphor. “Look at bitting as green light, yellow light, and red light. Green light you’re running to the first barrel, pick up the rein turn the yellow light on, if the horse has been trained correctly, he’ll prepare himself correctly. If you drove only with red and green it would be a very choppy ride. The yellow light the warning system. How much of that you need will depend on the horse’s natural athleticism and how well he’s been prepared. How quickly can he collect?”

“The red light zone is for discipline. You get in there and get out, just like a horse would discipline another horse. If you’re constantly in the red light zone, they’re going to lean and push and fall out of balance because they have something to lean on. There’s no release.”

Dave Elliott barrel racing bit.

When it comes to selecting the ideal bit, or deciding whether it’s time to switch bits, Dave said that “It’s a process of elimination… horses never lie. Out of four to five mouthpieces, based on the horse’s history and training, pick the one that works the best at the stage of training he’s in. Have a selection, for example a two-piece, a three-piece, a chain, maybe a four-piece, and a port in your collection.”

I especially resonated with his view on the finished product. “When a horse runs really tough and wins, the rider doesn’t have to do much with their hands. The work is done. Once a tough horse is finished, you can ride them in pretty much any bit. Some horses are more athletic than others. The horses that aren’t as gifted, we have to spend more time teaching them to be balanced.”

We both laughed when he said “If you’re lucky enough to get a really naturally balanced horse, sometimes it’s not good because it doesn’t teach you to train a horse and get everything right. We have to look at all these aspects. A horse that needs a lot of help to be collected will need to be prepared differently than one who is more natural.”

When I surveyed Facebook followers for questions, one came up in regards to chain mouthpieces. Dave said “The more breaks the more yellow light and opportunity for the horse to respond. The less breaks, the stiffer/quicker.”

When it comes to mouthpieces in general, “Depending on the width of the dog bone, it breaks on either side of the tongue or bars. It takes away leverage, a lifesaver or ball that protrudes below the level of the mouth piece will put more pressure on the tongue. Which option you choose will depend on how accepting your horse is of tongue pressure. If a horse retracts his tongue from under the mouthpiece there’s only so much room in their mouth for it to move back without it interfering with the palatal drape, which interferes with breathing. In those cases you might consider going with a port to create space for the tongue.”

I asked if he’s noticed a wide range of differences from horse to horse when it comes to the size and shape of their mouths, “There’s not a whole lot of difference,” Dave said. “Even a 17 hand horse doesn’t necessarily have a bigger mouth. The space/size is important, but in general, most mouthpieces are going to be around the size of your little finger. If a horse is hypersensitive with their tongue, it’s usually a neurological thing related to the cranial nerve system.”

On the topic of using snaffle bits, Dave summed up his preferences for youngsters by saying “I like to get out of a snaffle as soon as possible. It’s easy for a horse to learn to lean on snaffles. Good trainers won’t allow this, but even in circle work people tend to hold them in the circle rather than letting them fall out and teach them to stay on track with good posture. Short segments in the initial training are critical to show them how to gather their body from the start.”

Dave Elliott barrel racing bit.

When it comes to competing in snaffles, he feels as though “Not a lot of horses can run in snaffles over time without eventually starting to get heavy on their front end. Snaffle bits are good for leading a colt’s nose around but I want to get in a one-to-one (purchase to shank) ratio as soon as I can and create good positioning in a horse’s body. You don’t want to give them something to lean on.”

I especially resonated with Dave’s insights on preparing young horses with good solid groundwork and physical training like you would prepare any athlete for a sport, saying that “You just don’t throw a football player on the field, you prepare their body first.”

When it comes to transitioning from the snaffle, he reminded us that “You’re going from a direct pull to a curb (leverage or gag) and it’s important to prepare the horse for the change in communication. They don’t read a manual, they rely on us to to present it. I do groundwork, which includes ground driving to prepare them with shank bits for the new feeling. A horse that is very tender in their mouth, it’s usually a neurological problem. You’ll want to deal with that first with quality bodywork by looking closely at the hyoid apparatus, temporal bone, and especially atlas joint as it diagonally dictates what the hind legs do.”

On the ever-important, fascinating, and largely misunderstood subject of collection, Dave stated that “For me, collection comes from the front end… from raising the base of the neck. The shoulder blades are not attached to the rib cage with bony structure (there’s no joint). When people think ‘I need to lift the horse’s shoulder,’ often they really need to lift the horse’s rib cage so he can lift his shoulder. If you can teach the horse how to elevate his rib cage, automatically his hind legs have a place to come underneath, and it elevates the wither, making the head look lower in comparison to his body.”

On top of that, “When you have a suspension in the front end to move up and down, it improves cardiovasculation to the front legs because you’re not restricting the blood flow. If you fix the front end, then often the back and the head will be fixed also. To establish collection, so many people want go to the face, or the hind legs, but don’t understand the importance of elevating the front end.” Sounds like a good way to support soundness too!

He shared that “There are actually muscles that run from the tongue to the sternum, from the sternum to the center of the pelvis. The mouthpiece of the bit then can communicate through the horse’s whole body because it affects the tongue. These two muscle groups have to engage so that it pulls the bottom the pelvis forward, and the hind legs can move further forward, not due to the hip joint but through changing the angle of the pelvis.”

“For these muscle groups to “turn on” in the bottom half of the body (abdominals), we need to turn off the top of the body and elongate the nuchal ligament that goes from the poll to the pelvis and attaches to the cervical spine. Tension in the nucheal ligament lifts up on the cervical spine and lifts the neck up.”

More athletic posture is possible...More athletic posture is possible…
...when the back muscles …when the back muscles “turn off.”

“This is where a higher purchase (upper portion of the cheek that extends from the mouthpiece to the headstall rings) comes in – it helps create a pivot point out of your horse’s head on the mouthpiece. The curb pushes his ears forward. The higher the curb is up the jaw, the closer it is to his ears – the clearer the signal to round forward. Collection is created with forward motion, not by pulling back on their face, but by maintaining a spot for the body to rotate around and push their body over the top of the bridle. A higher curb will encourage a horse to push their poll forward and elongate their topline.”

When the withers elevate, the hind legs can reach further forward.
When the withers elevate, the hind legs can reach further forward.

“The only way their topline can elongate is if the muscle groups in their back are in a passive mode. For example, if you turn to the right, the muscles on the left need to turn off. To elongate the topline, the back muscles must relax in order for the abdominal muscle group to turn on. When the muscles in the back aren’t turning off, the bottom ones can’t do anything. That’s where you’ll see horses with martingales and tie downs on, which creates a bigger problem because a horse that resists a tie down is strengthening the muscles in the upper part of their body, making the wrong muscles stronger.”

When it comes to hackamores or going bitless, Dave stated “I don’t mind hackamores as long as they aren’t used in place of regular, quality dental work. I haven’t done anything bitless, but I imagine it would be hard to create quality collection with it. A 5D horse probably doesn’t need as much collection, whereas a pro rodeo horse does.”

When I asked what makes Elliott bits different, he said “We try to make our bits to have a very quick release. If the horse can respond quick enough, humans are less likely to react negatively and have a chance to mess ‘em up. That’s my goal as a bit maker.”

He reminded us though, that “The quick, reflex reaction also has to be taught. If you run to the first barrel and you pick up the inside rein and they’re already in position, you won’t do anything but leave them alone. If they’re not in position we start to pull and we create all kinds of bad things. We have to train the neurological system to respond in a reflex mode, it has to be that fast or you won’t be in the money.”

I wanted to give Dave another big HIGH FIVE when he said “Bitting has to come from a mental aspect not just a physical aspect.”

As the old saying goes “Pressure motivates and the release teaches.” Dave pointed out that “Humans tend to be quick to pull but slow to release. If I put a good release on my bits, even if the hand is slow but the bit is quick, it will compliment hand motion.”

When I asked Dave what was the most rewarding part of what he does, I could hear his smile when he replied “To see the horse respond in a positive way that doesn’t allow the rider to pull on their face. If I can get the horse to respond through bitting or knowledge then the rider will respond more correctly as well.”

I related what he said to having such a high level communication device, that it can actually help close the gap and make up for some of what we tend to lack as riders, trainers and jockeys. Although of course, we agreed that having the perfect head gear is never an excuse not to continue striving to improve our own education, timing, feel and effectiveness.

I appreciated his honesty and concern for the horse as he went on to say that “We ride with way too much pressure, we create too much tension in their body.”

Custom-made spurs with silver overlay.
Custom-made spurs with silver overlay.

After seeing mention of workshops being available in Canada on his web site, I had to know if Dave had plans to schedule bitting workshops in the US as well, which it turns out is something he’s in the process of establishing paperwork for.

Until then, he highly suggests that barrel racers invest in learning more about anatomy, function and biomechanics of the horse’s body, saying that “Everything we do with our horse comes back to being anatomical based. Understanding anatomy protects the well-being of your horse, prepares you to ask questions, and not only get an idea of what is going on, but it even helps you ask the right questions to determine if the team members you hire are qualified and prepared.”

To get started with that, check out the Equine Studies Institute with Dr. Deb Bennett Ph.D., and get the Equine 3D Horse Anatomy App for your phone.

Dave has worked to develop bit lines with professional barrel racers Judy Myllymaki, Sue Smith, Sharin Hall and Dee Butterfield and is also set up to create custom bits to suite you and your horse’s needs. Elliott Bit & Spur currently maintains an 8-10 week waiting list and you’re welcome to visit and drop them an email with your bit-building questions or order information.

So is YOUR mind swimming after receiving not only a lesson in bitting, but also one on the topics of collection and biomechanics? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments!

For even more resources on developing quality movement, follow the links below:

12 replies
  1. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Simply an amazing article! I haven’t known many people to really get into the mechanics of bit form and function tying with the anatomy of horses and how it effects their whole body quite like this. Very informationa! Now I’m thinking or selling most of my snaffle mouthpieced bits and furthering my education!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Thanks Caitlin! I was pretty excited to connect with Dave, and even more so AFTER we talked! I think snaffles have their place, but long term use does require us to be more advanced as riders and trainers.

  2. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    My mare is 16 and I have been riding her since she was 12. At the time her owner before me was using a long shank bit with a straight mouth piece. Since I became her owner, I have tossed that bit away because I do not like it at all, not to mention the mouth piece was the diameter of a pencil. I now work with her in either a dog bone sniffle, which she really started bending for me more and I use a hackamore. However, ever since I’ve known her, when you pull back with even the slightest pressure, she throws her head or tosses it even with the hack. Can you possibly offer some insight to this and as to why and how you would go about changing this?

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Sounds like there’s a good chance of a physical problem there Ashley, but you’ll also want to address this with training which will require that you offer clearer reward when she yields and softens to the steady pressure. Make sure she’s not receiving comfort for tossing her head or it teaches them that’s where the release is.

  3. Mauri
    Mauri says:

    I have sooo enjoyed your articles!! I don’t feel so lonely anymore! I have gone to Dr. Deb’s clinics and have been a student of hers. I have had Dave Elliott make for me a bit……wonderful workmanship and such a nice man. Have been taking lessons annually with Harry Whitney….going this weekend to Lindale, TX to see him. (Recommended by Dr. Deb). Hey, there is a rider opening…..come join us!
    Anyway, so thrilled reading your articles. Thank you so much.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Ha ha, you’re welcome Mauri – you are SO NOT alone! Harry Whitney sounds interesting, will have to look him up. 🙂 Thanks for your comment and keep up the great work!

  4. Morgan
    Morgan says:

    My 10 year old mare that I have been riding and for more than three years now needs more bend. When I approach the a barrel she has bend in her next but I feel that she needs to lift up her rib cage more. I am currently using a short shank snaffle in her but I was thinking of changing it. Do you have any suggestions?

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      What’s coming to mind is something with a longer shank/purchase than what you are in with some flexibility (breaks) in the mouthpiece. You can also email Dave Elliott and I’m confident he could set you up with something that will suite your needs! 🙂

  5. KCooper
    KCooper says:

    Great that you send people to Dr. Deb Bennett. Her understanding of and ability to communicate on anatomy, biomechanics and a whole pile of other crucial information is second to none. Her forum is laced with gold when you go digging.


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