A Story of Bits Through History Part 2-The Ages of Copper & Bronze

The Ages of Copper and Bronze

As horses became more prevalent among groups of primitive man, their use began to expand. First was transportation and hunting, then herding as cattle, sheep and goats were domesticated, and finally warfare. A mounted warrior armed with either lance or bow was more effective against footmen than an unmounted warrior.

As various civilizations developed, with necessary expansion of hunting and grazing land, the horse was an effective tool. As always, control of the mount was of prime importance.

When early man discovered how to mine and work metal it resulted in improved weapons, tools, and bridle bits. The first metal used was copper. It was found in easily worked nuggets along stream beds. This, following the Neolithic or final part of the Stone Age. Crude copper bits were probably hammered out of a nugget and consisted of a simple bar with a flange at each end for the headstall and reins. Some early horseman later learned that bowing (curving) the bar slightly backwards increased the control over his mount. All of this is speculation since there is no record other than the few images scratched on rocks as relief sculptures. Since the art is in profile, only the side of the bit is shown with no indication of the mouthpiece (A).

History of bits part 2

Man, then learned that copper could be heated to liquid form and poured into a sand mold of the desired shape. When the copper hardened, it retained the shape of the mold. It is estimated that this took place at the end of the Neolithic Period, or roughly 4500 BC to about 1200 BC, in what is now the middle east. It is also not known just when some early horseman discovered that using a jointed mouthpiece (snaffle) gave better control.

The next advance was when early man discovered how to identify other base metals, mine, smelt (heat and derive) them from the raw ore. By mixing tin with copper (alloying) a stronger weapon or bit could be made. That was bronze, which could be cast in more complex shapes. One such bit, found in Palestine, consisted of a curved bar passed through two loose rings (B).

An important discovery during the early Bronze Age (roughly 3300-600 BC) added enormously to man’s use of the horse and demanded more effective bits. This was the wheel. No longer was man limited to the load which a horse could pack or drag on a travois. A flat platform supported by a wooden axle with wheels (originally cut from tree trunks and later made from lapped boards) would carry more and could be pulled by a team of horses.

Rock drawings in Scandinavia which date back to the early Bronze Age include many examples of carts/chariots pulled by a team of horses.

From there, it was only a short step to the wheel with a cast Bronze rim which strengthened and prolonged the life of the wheel. This was followed by the entire wheel, and the axle being cast in bronze.

A lighter form of the cart, the chariot, soon appeared. With a team of horses to pull it, a driver, and an archer, it was a formidable weapon against foot troops, especially when supported by mounted archers. Since chariot attacks were made at high speed and it took even more bit to control the excited team (C).

Horsemen have always searched for a bit which would give more control-especially during the heat of battle. Improved casting and assembly methods led to the development of ported mouthpieces, which applied pressure to the roof of the mouth, and longer shanks for more leverage. The addition of a curb strap or chain increased the pressure on the lower jaw for even more control (D).

It was also learned that curving the cheeks backwards prevented the horse from “lipping” them. An “S” cheek was even more effective and rapidly became the standard for military bits.

While military horsemen of the near East and Europe learned the advantages of leverage bits, high mouthpieces and curb straps, the nomadic tribes of northern Asia and the steppes of Mongolia continued to use snaffles. Perhaps it was tradition, that metal casting and forging techniques were limited, or that their small, hardy horses were better trained. Even the mounted warriors led by Genghis Khan (1162-1227 AD) were snaffle bit riders (E). Some descendants still are and maintain an ancient horse culture.

This history with drawings was written by my good friend and tack historian Phil Livingston. Phil is author of War Horse and The Driftwood Legacy among many other books.

From training bits and bridles, to bits and bridles for your show horse, all are handmade and ready to ship at Dennis Moreland Tack. Call 817-312-5305 or email dmtack@vrfmail.com to discuss your tack needs.

We’re a full line manufacturer of quality handmade tack and we’re here to serve you!