Just for fun, next time you’re in a horse tack store, take a look at all the different kinds of horse bridles and horse bits that are available. You can buy curb horse bits, walking horse bits, gag horse bits, snaffle horse bits, hackamores, sidepulls, kimberwickes, pelhams-the list goes on. The common denominator among all this horse headgear is that bits and bridles of all types allow us to influence our horses by applying pressure to sensitive areas of their heads and faces and then releasing it.
Tradition, of course, tends to dictate what style of bridle, bit, and reins we choose, and there are conventions for both English and western tack. Some design differences are form-to-function features, while others are simply window dressing. Of course, if you ride in an English saddle, you’ll likely want a headstall and reins that are in keeping with your chosen discipline-whether you hack for pleasure, compete in hunter under saddle, or participate in dressage or saddle seat events.
No matter what type of bridle you choose, your goal should be to use only as much pressure as necessary to get the results you want. Your intention is not to inflict pain, which will only work against you, but rather to impart understanding, an “Ahh…so that’s what you mean,” response from your horse. If you’re not wholly familiar with English bridles, the fit and function of the various parts bear some explaining.
Sizing an English bridle is a lot like finding the right size in human clothing. Manufacturers may use similar names to describe the sizes-pony, cob, full, oversize-but they don’t necessarily use the same measurements within each size. Plus, just because you have a horse who is 15.3 hands-not a “cob” height-you still may find the cob bridle your best bet.
Even though most bridles come with a large number of pre-punched fitting holes and room to add a few of your own, you may find yourself trying a couple of different brands of bridles to find the best overall fit. Head to your tack store, explain what you’re doing, and ask about the return policies. Get the best all-around fit you can, but be prepared to swap out some parts, such as the brow band-or to have to get a totally custom bridle-to achieve a safe, comfortable fit for your horse.
We recommend you choose a bridle in the same color as your saddle, especially if you’re competing in events other than endurance and trail riding, where you may opt for a synthetic-material bridle. Next, the size and style of the bridle should complement your horse’s head. A tiny Thoroughbred mare might look overpowered in a thick-leather bridle suited more toward a Friesian stallion.
One of the most popular styles is a raised-leather bridle, which has an extra thickness of leather in the noseband and the brow band. It usually also has a stitched design, and it looks good on most horses.
A lined bridle has an extra thickness/width of leather on the inside of the noseband and the brow band, usually in a contrasting color. For instance, a black bridle with white lining will show a tad of white accent on the top and bottom borders of the noseband and brow band. You can now choose among a number of color combinations, including hunter green, maroon, and navy, matching your saddle pad if you’d like. Lined bridles are also sometimes padded for additional comfort.
A round leather bridle has a rounded noseband, brow band, and cheek pieces. Sometimes the front of the reins will also be rounded. These bridles look best on very fine-boned horses.
A thicker leather bridle-meaning with wider straps-may be best for a large-headed horses. These heavier bridles were popular years ago, especially in the hunting field, but we’re seeing some reappearing today.
Hardware is another consideration. Cheek pieces and reins can be attached with the traditional hook studs or buckles. Buckles are easier for most people to adjust, but hook studs will give the bridle a sleeker look on your horse’s head. Try to stick with the same thing on both reins and cheek pieces, if you can.
Headpiece and Throatlatch
The headpiece is a long strap with split ends that goes behind the horse’s ears, over his poll. Its ends are split, forming the attachments for the cheek pieces and the throatlatch. The headpiece’s right side has the throatlatch buckle on it. Properly put together, the bridle’s headpiece is positioned so the throatlatch piece is closer to the horse’s neck than his head.
The throatlatch buckles under the throat area, helping hold the bridle in place by not allowing it to move too far forward. A throatlatch should not be secured too tightly, as the horse needs extra room to flex as he accepts the bit (and to breathe, of course). You should be able to fit about three to four fingers between the throatlatch and the horse’s skin. It will rest on the horse’s upper cheek, rather than directly in his throat area.
Check the area behind the horse’s ears to be sure he can comfortably move his ears. The headpiece should sit directly behind, and not on, the bottom of the ear. If the headpiece rests too close to the ears, you may want to look at the fit of your brow band. Some bridle manufacturers make ear-shaped headpieces, to allow for the movement of the ears.
Bits and Pieces
Bit keepers: Leather loops used to keep the cheeks of a full-cheek snaffle upright.
Bit guards: Rubber rings that fit on the bit between the mouthpiece and the bit ring.
Converters: Leather straps used to convert a Pelham bit from needing two reins to one.
Curb chain: Used on a curb bit and sitting under the horse’s chin, this chain puts pressure on the chin with more curb action.
Lip strap: Sits on the bottom of a curb shank and goes through the curb chain. It keeps the chain in place if it disconnects from the bit.
Flash attachment and strap: Converts a plain noseband to a flash noseband.
Shadow roll: A fuzzy accessory that sits on the noseband and helps limit the horse’s front downward vision. Shadow rolls can also be placed on cheek pieces to limit the horse’s side/hind vision.
Double bridle: A bridle consisting of two bits, a curb and a bridoon (tiny snaffle). It has two sets of reins and two sets of cheek pieces.
The brow band keeps the bridle from slipping back, toward the horse’s neck. It sits below the horse’s ears (about two fingers width), neatly resting on the horse’s head without tension or gapping. A brow band that’s too large is not pretty and won’t properly perform its job. Too small and tight, and you’ll have headpiece-fit problems and/or pressure over the brow band area.
Fortunately, especially with today’s trend toward fancier brow bands, it’s easy to buy just a brow band if you happen to need a smaller or larger one for your horse. You can choose among brow bands with jewels, crystals, metal clinchers in several varieties, and the classic raised, stitched look. Just be sure the leather you choose matches your bridle leather.
The cheek pieces hold the bit. Adjust the buckles on the side of the horse’s head as evenly as possible, but opt for proper bit height first. A snaffle bit should sit in the mouth’s interdental space (between the sets of teeth).
The noseband, or cavesson, is arguably the bridle piece with the most variations. Its design should complement your brow band choice. In its simplest form, the plain noseband has no function other than giving you something to which you can attach a martingale. The noseband consists of a long thin strap, which is placed under the bridle headpiece, and the loop for the nose. The nose buckle goes under the nose, while the long strap buckle is on the left side of the bridle.
A plain noseband has just one strap across the horse’s nose and can be used with any type of bit. Set the noseband so it sits about two fingers below the horse’s cheek bone. If you set it too low, it can interfere with the bit. It’s difficult to set too high, as it’s generally not made large enough. Do not over-tighten a plain noseband. It only needs to look neat, without gaps. You should adjust it so that you can get a couple of fingers between it and the horse’s head, even if you’re attaching a martingale to it.
If you glance at an English tack catalog or your local tack store’s bridle selection, you’ll note a wide variation of nosebands. These different designs basically target variations of tongue/mouth problems-tongue out/mouth open, active tongues, tongue under the bit or too high, clamped jaws, and so on.
There’s no reason to select one of these nosebands if you aren’t having a specific problem, and these variations should be used only with snaffle bits. If you have a curb bit or double bridle, stick with a plain noseband.
Probably the most popular and simplest choice after a plain noseband is the flash noseband, used primarily on horses that simply don’t want to keep their mouths shut. The flash noseband consists of a strap of thinner leather with a buckle that goes through a loop on the regular noseband, around the horse’s jaw and below the bit. It can also be sewn into the regular noseband, making it a permanent attachment, but using a loop attachment allows you to remove it entirely for times you just want a plain cavesson.
The flash noseband should fit snugly with the buckle positioned in the muzzle area, not the chin area. With the plain cavesson-flash combination, you can still use a martingale as it can attach to the plain cavesson.
A drop or dropped noseband is exactly what it sounds like. The noseband sits below the horse’s bit instead of above the bit and keeps the horse’s mouth shut. It offers a bit more control than a standard noseband, but needs to be fit properly. If it’s set too low, it can interfere with breathing. Too high, and it will irritate and interfere with the horse’s bit. A properly fitted dropped noseband should sit about four fingers above the horse’s nostrils. It should fit snugly enough to do its job but not be overly tight. The lower part, like the flash, sits just below the bit.
A figure-eight noseband is frequently the choice for sports that work at speed, as the design not only keeps the horse’s mouth shut, but also has an effect across his nose. If he tries to evade the bit, he’ll feel the nose pressure and hopefully bring his head down.
The figure eight consists of a very long strap that crosses itself in the center of the horse’s nose, through a circular piece of padded leather. This long strap forms a figure eight over the horse’s nose with one circle over the bit and one below the bit, and it buckles below the bit. At initial glance, you may think it looks like a flash, but upon closer inspection, you can see that it is one piece of leather, not two.
Other nosebands include the crescent noseband and the Kineton. Each of these very specialized nosebands have two metal half circles incorporated into it. The crescent places the circles around the front of the bit, while the Kineton’s rings go just under the horse’s bit. Some trainers believe the crescent noseband is helpful for overly sensitive horses, and the Kineton is a choice for pullers. Either way, if you think you have a horse in need of one of these nosebands, be sure to enlist the help of an experienced trainer.
Choosing good leather isn’t a matter of avoiding the cheapest choice or reaching for the most expensive option on the tack store wall.
Less expensive choices may or may not be what was called Indian or Argentine leather. These types of leather used to be avoided by horsemen in the know, but nowadays we’re seeing some decent leather goods coming from these nations.
On the other side of the coin, you may find $500 to $800 bridles on the wall, too. With these, you’re likely getting top quality leather, but you’re also likely paying a bit for the manufacturer name or design detail that won’t matter to your horse.
After determining your bridle needs in color and style, check its overall look. All the parts should appear to have been made from the same piece of leather, meaning they’re all similar in color and texture.
Look to see that edges are nicely finished, smooth, and rounded, and not rough or gapped. The leather should feel supple in your hands, not stiff or difficult to bend or flex. The leather may have a white waxy look to it, which is OK. That excess conditioner just needs to be rubbed into the leather; in fact, some folks think it’s a good thing.
Inspect the sewing. Be sure it consists of tiny, tight stitches that are uniform in size and color. Be sure there are no loose ends or worn stitching.
The pre-punched holes should all be smaller on the outer side than on the underneath part, as this will help secure the buckle better. Some holes may be similar in size, inside and out, which is still acceptable. Beware of holes that are smaller on the inside surface than the outer surface, however, as that means the maker punched the holes backwards.
Check that all the hardware is smooth and that all buckles or hooks are easy to maneuver. Be sure the keepers work, holding the leather straps securely in place. Look for keepers that are initially a little snug, rather than loose, as it’s virtually a guarantee that they will only become looser and then slide down out of place. Check the backs of the keepers, too, to see that they are securely stitched together.
Feel the reins, picking them up as if you were holding them to ride. If they aren’t suitable, but the rest of the bridle is, talk with the dealer to see if you can swap them out for another pair of reins.
English reins are traditionally held together by a buckle, so that if you happen to drop your rein (going over a jump, for instance), you can easily grab it again. Nearly all reins have plain leather extending a ways up from the bit and then plain leather again closer to the buckle. The plain leather near the bit means nothing will interfere with the bit-rein connection, while the plain leather closer to the buckle makes it easier to knot the reins (if necessary) or form a bridge over the horse’s neck for stability. The names given to the variety of reins refer to the material/design between, where the rider is most likely to hold the rein.
Plain reins are solid leather from bit to buckle. They tend to be more difficult to hold and slippery when wet. They achieve an elegant look, though, and are most frequently found on show bridles and on double bridles in different widths for each bit (the thinner rein goes on the bridoon).
The most popular English rein is the laced rein. These reins consist of laces in a herringbone pattern and are normally the style that will come with your bridle. The laces help you hold your position on the rein, especially if the leather is wet from rain or sweat, or the horse is a puller.
A plaited rein is a variation of the laced rein, but it has many small pieces (usually six to eight) of thin leather plaited together. This type of rein often feels a bit more lightweight in your hand than a plain rein or laced rein, and it’s probably the most difficult to keep clean. Plaited reins also tend to stretch more than other types. That said, the plaited rein presents a pretty picture.
Rubber reins are leather reins covered with pimpled rubber. Most have leather stops periodically placed on them to help the rider position his hands. These reins are seen most often in speed disciplines, like racing and eventing.
The rubber rein has an excellent grip in all conditions, and a popular variation for teaching is the rainbow rein, which helps young riders learn the correct rein length. If you want the grip offered from rubber but don’t like the look, you can get rubber-lined reins, which have rubber on the inside of the rein. Choose a rubber rein with only one row of stitching through the rubber, if possible, as too many stitching rows may weaken it.
Web reins are cloth reins, usually cotton, as most synthetics-especially nylon-can be too rough both on the rider’s hands and on the horse’s neck. If you like the feel of web reins, which is more lightweight than leather, we suggest you get cotton with leather hand stops, which help you hold your position on the rein.
Your choice of rein width is somewhat a personal one, as you should choose the one that fits in your hand best. For example, most pony reins are half-inch wide (as are bridoon reins), while the standard horse-size width is five-eighths-inch. You can also get reins in three-quarter-inch and sometimes one-inch (usually only in rubber-covered reins).
It’s all fit and function when it comes to bridles. Choose what you need for your horse and your activities and nothing more. Be sure it’s comfortable for both you and your horse.