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Horses are big and powerful animals that are orders of magnitude stronger than us. Therefore, humans had to devise a clever way to control the horse to harness its power.
The idea to use a bit and bridle when riding the horse first came to nomadic herders around 1000 BC. While roaming the Eurasian Steppe, these herders realized they can gain better control of their horses by putting pressure on sensitive areas of the head.
The first bridles probably consisted of no more than a strap around the horse’s lower jaw and a set of reins, similar to those used by Native Americans. As time passed, they got more and more complex and diverse, depending on the specific activity the horse was used for.
What is a Horse Bridle?
A horse bridle is a piece of leather tack riders use to control the direction and speed of the horse. Bridles allow riders to communicate precise comments to the horse by exerting pressure on the mouth, nose, and poll.
Alongside saddles, bridles are an essential piece of horse riding equipment. They ensure the rider’s safety by providing full control of the horse’s speed and movements.
Horse bridles are typically made of durable leather, but can also be made of synthetic materials such as nylon or polyester.
Most bridles include a metal bit that sits on the area of the horse’s mouth that lacks teeth.
Parts of a Horse Bridle
All bridles have a headstall, cheekpieces, and a set of reins attaching to either a bit or a noseband. Most bridles also have a throatlatch to stop the bridle from coming off the horse’s head.
The different parts of the bridle either slide through each other or connect via buckles. This makes it possible to take the bridle apart for cleaning and maintenance.
The main parts of a horse bridle are:
The headstall is the part of the bridle that goes over the horse’s poll behind the ears. It connects to the cheekpieces, browband, and throat latch if the bridle has one.
Besides holding the main parts of the bridle in place, the headstall puts pressure on the poll via the bit. This can vary in intensity depending on the type of bit used.
Many bridles nowadays have padded headstalls for extra comfort. They can also be anatomically shaped to avoid friction with the horse’s ears.
The browband runs across the horse’s forehead and connects to the headstall on either side. Its purpose is to prevent the bridle from sliding down the horse’s neck.
Browbands are often decorated with leatherwork or beads to make the bridle stand out. This part can be easily swapped out by unbuckling the cheekpieces and sliding it down the headstall.
While browbands are an integral part of English bridles, western bridles sometimes lack a browband.
The throatlatch is an extension of the headstall that runs from one ear to the other beneath the throat. It keeps the bridle securely in place in the event of the cheekpieces going slack or the horse rubbing its head on something.
When bridling a horse, riders should be able to fit at least 4 fingers between the throatlatch and the horse’s throat. A tighter latch can potentially restrict breathing and cause discomfort to the horse.
There are usually two cheekpieces on either side of the bridle, one attaching to the noseband and one to the bit. They run alongside the horse’s face from below the ears to the muzzle.
On bridles that lack a noseband, only one set of cheekpieces are necessary to hold the bit in place. These are typically part of the same piece of leather as the headstall.
As the name suggests, a bridle’s noseband goes around the horse’s nose. Its purpose is to keep the horse’s jaw closed and apply sideways pressure to the horse’s muzzle.
Nosebands that are too tight can restrict the horse’s breathing, which is why there should always be space for at least two fingers between the strap and the muzzle.
On some bridles, nosebands attach to a thinner piece of leather that runs in front of the bit around the horse’s mouth. This is called a flash and it keeps the mouth tightly closed while riding.
Western bridles don’t have a noseband as neck reining is typically used to turn the horse. Therefore, there’s no need to apply additional sideways pressure to the horse’s head.
The reins of a bridle connect the rider’s hands to the bit and exert pressure on the horse’s mouth. They are the primary channel of communication between horse and rider and are a part of every bridle.
For aesthetic purposes and to provide extra grip, reins are often braided, laced, or have rubber sections. The reins of English bridles connect with a buckle in the middle, whereas western bridle reins are typically open-ended.
The bit is an essential part of most bridle designs and is the key to how riders control their horses. Bits convert the rider’s hand signals into pressure in the horses’s mouth, which the horse responds to by turning or slowing down.
The bit sits on the bars of the horse’s mouth, the empty space between the incisors and the premolars. There are many different types of bits made of different materials, such as steel, copper, sweet iron, rubber, or plastic.
Also read: Do Bits Hurt Horses?
Types of Horse Bridles
The three main types of bridles are English, western, and bitless. These can be broken down into the seven sub-types: snaffle, double, Micklem, western, and driving.
In the next section, we’ll discuss the most common bridle designs in detail:
The snaffle bridle is the most common type of bridle in English riding. Despite the name, it can be used with any type of bit, not just a snaffle.
The traditional snaffle bridle features a cavesson noseband with or without a flash. This bridle design puts pressure on the horse’s nose and poll.
Common variations of the snaffle bridle include the drop noseband bridle, grackle/Mexican bridle, and crank noseband bridle.
Double bridles are called so because they are used with two bits and two sets of reins. One of the bits is a thin snaffle called a bradoon, while the other is a specific curb bit known as a Weymouth.
The purpose of double bridles is to refine the communication between horse and rider. They are most common in advanced dressage and saddle seat riding.
The Micklem bridle is a relatively new invention by William Micklem. It’s designed with the horse’s anatomical head shape in mind to avoid putting pressure on sensitive areas.
The Micklem bridle features cheekpieces that run below the facial crest, a bony protrusion that can rub against regular bridles. It also has a noseband that sits higher up the horse’s head to prevent damage to the fragile nose bone.
Due to the unique placement of the Micklem bridle, there is little to no interference with the facial nerves, resulting in a more focused and happy horse.
Overall, the Micklem bridle is one of the most humane and comfortable bridles on the market and is a popular choice among equestrians.
The western bridle has a history dating back to the settlement era of the American West. It’s designed to suit the lifestyle of cowboys and ranchers who used to spend long hours in the saddle.
Western bridles are very easy to recognize as they don’t have a noseband and often feature intricate decorations. Many western bridles also lack a browband and instead have straps going round one or both ears separately.
The four main types of western bridles are:
- Working Bridle
- One Ear Bridle
- Two Ear Bridle
- Western Bitless Bridle
Dr. Cook Bitless Bridle
This popular bitless bridle has a cross-under design that gives the rider as much control as a bitter bridle. Essentially, the bridle’s reins continue under the horse’s jaw, crossing over and running up to the poll.
Due to its unique design, the Dr. Cook bitless bridle applies pressure to the lower jaw, muzzle, cheeks, and poll simultaneously. This “head-hug” mechanism prevents the formation of pressure points and makes the bridle humane yet effective.
Driving bridles are like a normal snaffle bridle except for the addition of blinders or blinkers. These are leather squares that attach to the cheekpieces and partially cover the horse’s eyes.
Blinders help keep the horse calm and focus while in front of the carriage. Since drivers are not in direct contact with other horses, they have slightly less control and often use blinders to keep the horses from spooking.
Driving bridles are commonly used in harness racing, coach driving, and competitive driving.
What Bridle Is Best for My Horse?
There are many factors that influence what bridle is best for your horse. For example, your horse’s age, experience, temperament, the discipline you’re training in, and your own preference should all play a role in your decision.
With that being said, you should always aim to ride in the simplest bridle possible. Additional straps and attachments often mean more pressure and stress for your horse, which can hinder your communication and partnership.
Moreover, many disciplines like dressage and show jumping have specific requirements about the type of bridles horses can wear.
If your goal with your horse is to progress in a certain discipline, have a look through the rules and regulations before choosing a bridle.
Last but not least, listen to your horse. It’s best to try out a few different bridles and observe your horse’s behavior and movement while riding. If he clearly prefers one style over the other, factor that into your decision.
Can You Ride a Horse Without a Bridle?
You can certainly ride a horse without a bridle. However, riding bridleless requires a well-trained horse and a good relationship between horse and rider.
Teaching your horse to go without a bridle is a process that requires careful preparation. Taking the bridle off from one day to the next is a recipe for disaster!
To begin with, make sure your horse can respond well to your rein, seat, and leg aids. Practice slowing your horse down with your voice and teaching him neck reining before progressing to the next step.
Riding him in a halter is a good test of your horse’s abilities. Once that is going smoothly, go to a round pen or small arena for your first bridleless ride.
Always wear a horse riding helmet and ensure people are around you for the first few sessions in case something happens.
Training your horse to go bridleless might take some time, but it’s always worth it in the end!