Bitmakers Greg Darnall and Ernie Marsh agree there’s nothing wrong with using vintage or antique spade bits. The market for the better-made bits by known makers has exploded in recent years. And a person might find that his prized Guadalupe Garcia, Raphael Gutierrez or Al Tietjen bit has become too valuable to use on a regular basis.
Both men also agree that it’s a “buyer beware” market out there, and before you make an expensive purchase, do your homework. Unfortunately, when a product becomes so popular that demand outweighs supply, plenty of unscrupulous individuals are ready and willing to take advantage.
One practice is to take a pair of cheekpieces from an old bit by a known maker and restore them by replacing lost silver and building a new mouthpiece. The bit still has its hallmarks from the original maker on the cheekpieces and, can be made to look like a desirable antique. But it’s not original, and shouldn’t be sold as such. It can be very difficult to tell the difference; your often forced to rely on the seller’s honesty and expertise.
“Just because a bit is old doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good bit to use,” Marsh explains. “Remember, a lot of bits from the 1800s were actually common production pieces made by large companies back east. If you come across an antique bit in great condition, there might be a good reason why it didn’t get used much; it’s probably not that great of a bit.”
“Some antique bits have spoons that are set very straight,” Darnall adds. “This style can be hard for some horses to carry. Others had the brace wires set high, leaving a wide enough gap for a horse to get his tongue caught. That’s a wreck I’d hate to see.”
“Balance is very important,” Marsh continues. “The balance of a bit refers to the angle that the mouthpiece is attached to the cheek. The bridle horse will pick up the bit in his mouth and ‘pack’ it. A well-balanced bit will allow him to do this comfortably; the cheeks will simply hang loose. If the angle isn’t right, the bit will overbalance either forward or aft, and it will be a constant struggle for the horse to pack the bit.”
Solid-cheek spade bits have fallen out of favor and few are made today, but they can be found on the vintage market. A solid-cheek spade bit doesn’t move, therefore the feel transferred through the rider’s hands is limited. Loose-cheeked spade bits have a much greater level of feel, which allows for more sensitive signaling through the reins from the rider’s hands. A spade bit that has chain-hobbled cheekpieces has more feel than one hobbled with a solid bar, but the bar is commonly considered fancier and more decorative. The main function of the cheek hobble is simply to keep the cheekpieces from spreading too far apart.
The proper fit of any bit is very important. A too-narrow mouthpiece will cause the bit to pinch the sides of the horse’s mouth. If it’s too wide, the bit will flop back and forth. One final note: Many good bits have been ruined with a well-intended soldering iron. If a cherished bit is worn out, it might be better to retire it to the living-room wall. Having it properly repaired by a reputable bitmaker often will cost more than simply ordering a new one. Keep a rare collector piece original, to maintain its value, and enjoy it for the work of art that it is.