Bridle Bits

Introduction

Bits are composite objects used to control horses. They consist of mouthpieces, held in a horse’s mouth, attached to cheekpieces, in turn attached to the headstall and to the reins of a bridle. The arrangement of these elements is far more complex on a curb bit, which uses a lever action; for the most part we will be recording elements of snaffle bits, which apply pressure directly to the horse’s mouth. Most commonly we will be recording detached copper-alloy cheekpieces from snaffles, particularly of the late early-medieval period – these are therefore treated separately. In the same period separate bit links provided attachment to the reins; these too have their separate guide. From the late medieval and post-medieval periods, bridle bosses are often found detached from curb bits. In this section, therefore, the focus will be on mouthpieces and, where cheekpieces remain attached, more complete examples. It is hoped that it will provide some context to the more common detached elements.

PAS object type(s) to be used

Use BRIDLE BIT

For detached harness hooks use HARNESS HOOK.

PAS object classifications and sub-classifications to be used

These should be applied if you are recording a cheekpiece, bit link or bridle boss; the separate guides for these artefacts can be consulted for further details.

Date

Bits are known from the Iron Age onwards.

Iron Age bits

Iron Age bits can be made of iron, copper alloy or a combination of the two (see Palk 1984). They can be divided into three-link and two-link bits, with the mouthpiece formed of these numbers of jointed links or ‘cannons’. The bits have side-rings at the cheek, often of iron and sometimes with a copper alloy outer which is all that now survives. The side-rings are occasionally cast in one piece with the side-links of a three-link bit, and appear as large rings with a stem to one side ending in a small ring.

Iron Age bridle bit (NMS213). Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme; CC-BY-SA licence)
Iron Age bridle bit (NMS213). Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme; CC-BY-SA licence)

Roman bits

Though Roman-period curb bits are known (Ward Perkins 1993 (1940), 79), it is unlikely that many of their iron elements will be encountered. Otherwise, many Roman bits were simple (undiagnostic) ring snaffles (Nicolay 2007, 361; pl. 50), but some had more elaborate cheekpieces.

Late early-medieval bits

Late early-medieval bits are of the snaffle type. They are formed of iron mouthpiece links, often twisted, which tend therefore not to appear on the PAS database. However, the accompanying copper-alloy cheekpieces are found in great number as they were looped over the end loops of mouthpiece links. Separate bit links were looped around end loops of mouthpiece links and were attached at the other end to the reins. For a reconstruction of an 11th-century bit see Williams (2007, 2; fig. 2b).

Medieval bits

The medieval period saw the reintroduction of the curb bit, which was generally a largely iron frame, with some copper-alloy elements (Goodall (2011, 375; fig. 13.6). Consequently, only one lateral bar from a lower frame has been recorded by the PAS, but many more separate elements have, particularly harness hooks – which helped attached the lower frame to the reins – and bridle bosses – which decorated the cheekpiece (on the upper frame). These are both treated in their separate guides.

The snaffle bit remained popular, with the various cheekpiece forms; many were presumably used on haulage animals while curb bits were used just for riding (Clark 2004 (1995), 46). Mouthpieces are depicted by Ward Perkins (1993 (1940), 82; fig. 19b; reproduced in Clark 2004 (1995), 47; fig. 31), with some of double-link examples connected by a separate small link at their centre; one-piece mouthpieces are rare in this period (Goodall 2011, 366). Being mostly made of iron, mouthpiece links will be rarely encountered. Whole bits can be found illustrated in Ward Perkins (1993 (1940), 83-84; figs 20-21) and Goodall (2011, 374-377; figs 13.6, 13.7).

Post-medieval bits

For curb bits of the post-medieval period, the best evidence as recorded by the PAS remains the harness hooks mentioned above, but even more so decorative bridle bosses. Further details of the bit will be hard to deduce from such isolated elements; some curb bits, with medieval antecedents, had double reins so that they could function as a snaffle as needed (like modern ‘Pelham’ bits). For such bits, as with ‘pure’ snaffles, it is likely that twisted mouthpiece links in copper alloy are from this period. Occasionally, very late bits are encountered, such as the ‘Liverpool’ type curb, or the example depicted here, with its arched mouthpiece and fifteen-link curb chain.

Post-medieval to modern curb bit (SF-ABE657). Copyright: Suffolk County Council; CC-BY-SA licence)
Post-medieval to modern curb bit (SF-ABE657). Copyright: Suffolk County Council; CC-BY-SA licence)

Examples

Search for all examples of bridle bits, but excluding cheekpieces, bit links and bridle bosses, searches for which can be found on the relevant guide

Key references

Ward Perkins 1993 (1940)

Clark 2004 (1995)

Goodall 2011