Author: Catriona Boxall:
Catriona is a riding instructor and groom at Strathorn. She has been working at Strathorn for 2,5 years. Catriona has competed for Scotland in eventing and has three horses of her own.
What Are Horse Bridles?
First things first – what exactly are bridles?
The bridle is an essential part of riding equipment. For novices – it is the straps you see on the horse’s head. But it is so much more than that and serves an important purpose.
The bridle holds the bit in the horse’s mouth (if you are riding with a bit), and helps to transport the signals from the rider’s hands, through the reins, and into the horse’s mouth.
The bridle, reins and bit work together to control the horse’s head, and therefore where the horse is going and how fast.
Skilled riders can vouch that the bit and the reins are actually not the main communication between horse and rider, but rather simply a secondary source of contact – the rider’s legs play a massive part in communicating with their steed!
Typical English bridles consist of several parts, and each of these parts can be used for different riding styles. The main English bridle parts are:
Headgear: the cheek pieces, browband, head piece, throat lash and noseband.
Bit: goes into the horse’s mouth, with a ring on either side of the bit to which the reins attach.
Reins: connected to the bit rings, and loop around the horse’s neck. The rider holds on to these.
Buckles: the buckles are used to adjust the bridle so that it fits the horse’s head.
We will look at the different parts of English bridles in more detail soon.
Bridles vary in price significantly. On the expensive end, you will find leather English bridles, while you can also get synthetic bridles or a mixture of these materials for a more affordable option.
How do horse bridles work?
The bridle parts, bit and reins all work in unison to communicate with the horse and express what you want it to do.
Bits apply pressure to the inside and corners of the horse’s mouth. The headpiece – or the main part of the bridle – holds the bit in place along with the cheek pieces. It also places some pressure on the horse’s nose, cheeks, chin or poll (behind the ears).
Horses tend to want to move away from discomfort, or in this case, pressure, so when you pull lightly on the reins, it pulls the horse’s head in one direction, and the horse then moves towards that direction to relieve the pressure.
Applying consistent pressure on both reins indicates to the horse it must slow down.
The bridle, the rider’s legs and voice commands all work together to let the horse know what it must do.
The Types Of Bridle
There are two overarching types of bridles – English bridles and Western bridles. These bridles are adapted to the respective-named styles of riding.
English riding includes disciplines like showjumping, dressage and eventing, while Western riding includes roping, reining, and barrel racing – just like in the Western films!
Of course, the tack for these riding styles also differs – not just the bridles.
The most common English bridles are:
Figure 8 bridle: The noseband is shaped like a figure 8 over the nose to keep the horse’s mouth closed. This allows the horse to fully expand its nostrils, increasing airflow. These are commonly used in racing.
Grackle bridle: These bridles use a noseband that is often padded with sheepskin. It crosses over the nose and buckles under the chin. It is considered to be very comfortable and stops the horse from crossing its jaw
Double bridle: Double bridles have two bits and four reins. This aids the rider in quickly correcting the horse, and smaller hand movements have a greater effect. The Double bridle consists of a Weymouth and Bradoon which are two bits that sit in the horses mouth at the same time. This is permitted in higher level dressage.
Cavesson bridle: This bridle uses a Cavesson noseband. The noseband has moveable rings and can be either used with or without a bit. The noseband has little to no effect and is more for aesthetic purposes as an enhancement to visually break up the horse’s face.
Endurance bridle: These bridles are designed for long-distance endurance riding. They have wider headpieces, a padded noseband and sometimes a bit with shanks is used.
Pressure relief bridle: This bridle avoids pressure on any nerves as well as the inside of the mouth.
Here are the main Western bridles:
Traditional Western bridle: Western bridles have different looks. Some have a piece of leather attached to the headstall for the horse’s ears to go through. Others do not have this split-ear design nor a browband, with the bridle simply resting behind the horse’s ears.
Hackamore bridle: This is a bitless bridle that uses a special nose piece, called a hackamore, to control the horse. It can be used to train young horses and is sometimes used on English bridles too. It is common to use on horses who are sensitive to having a bit in their mouth.
As I have mentioned, there are many different types of bridles, and not all of them fit with a signature riding style:
Dressage bridle: Dressage events only allow certain types of nosebands and bits. Make sure you contact the organisers of the dressage event to find out the requirements.
Snaffle bridle: This bridle consists of a headpiece, two cheek pieces, one browband, one throat latch, a nose band, a bit and the reins. It works for most horses and most disciplines.
Hunt-seat bridle: This is a type of snaffle bridle, but both a browband and a headstall strap cross the horse’s forehead.
Saddle-seat bridle: English bridles that are similar to snaffle bridles, but have an additional cheekpiece attached to an additional bit.
Showing bridle: This bridle is much more elaborate and decorative to enhance the beauty of the horse during eventing.
What Are The Parts Of The Bridle?
Finally, we can get into the nitty-gritty of the different horse bridle parts! I have already hinted at some of these, so let’s look at each part in greater detail.
Let me first clarify – you do get bitless bridles, but these are mostly used by experienced riders!
Most bridles come with a bit. The horse’s bit is actually rather important, as it goes into the mouth and is connected to the reins to communicate with the horse.
The bit slips into the gap in the horse’s teeth (also known as bars), between the front teeth and the molars. The bit has two rings that go outside of the mouth, to which the reins are attached.
I would say there are possibly thousands of different bit types, but let’s not get into that now! Just briefly, the most common bridle bits are snaffle bits, full-cheek bits and eggbutt bits. Eggbutt bits or mullen mouth bits are most often used for horses with fussy mouths.
The headpiece is sometimes also known as a crownpiece. As the name indicates, it goes where you would place a crown – on the top of the horse’s head! More specifically, it goes behind the ears and connects to the browband to keep the bridle in place.
The headpiece consists of several straps: one attaches to the cheek pieces, one attaches to the noseband, and another runs underneath the crown piece and connects all the way to the noseband.
As mentioned, the browband is attached to the headpiece. It goes over the forehead of the horse and helps keep the bridle in place. The browband also stops the headpiece from slipping back.
The browband cannot be adjusted, which is why it is so important to measure all the bridle parts for the right fit.
The noseband goes over the horse’s nose (as the name implies). It is adjustable and can be tightened to apply more pressure and give the rider more control.
There is no shortage of noseband styles! There’s the flash, cavasson noseband, grackle and drop nosebands, to name just a couple of the most common.
The flash has an additional strap which goes under the bit and around the mouth. It is specifically used for horses who tend to open their mouth or try to get their tongue over the bit.
The grackle, also called the cross-under, prevents a horse from crossing its jaw. There is a point on the front where the straps cross, and this point often has sheepskin to avoid chaffing the skin.
The drop noseband is much better at keeping a horse’s mouth closed than the flash. It is lower down than the flash, which often forces the horse to keep its head down because of the pressure.
The cheek pieces run from the browband and headpiece to the bit. These are used to keep the bit in place, and also help your horse to keep its head facing forward.
Cheek pieces can be adjusted, which in turn affects the pressure of the bit in the mouth.
You can add some pieces to create a double bridle effect: use a bradoon hanger to add a second bit (known as the bradoon), and a single cheek strap with a left-side buckle and attachments on either end for the bits. This can then be worn with a snaffle bridle.
The throat lash runs from the headpiece and goes underneath the horse’s cheeks. It’s used to keep the bridle from slipping, but when too tight it can prevent the horse from getting enough air.
What Bridle Should I Use On My Horse?
Keeping all the different horse bridle parts in mind is one thing, but knowing which combination – or even which type of bridle – to choose can get a little bit overwhelming.
Here are my tips for choosing the right bridle for your horse:
Western or English bridles: First you will have to determine your riding style. English bridles with a nose band are used in dressage, showjumping and eventing, but can also just be used for hacks or lessons. Western bridles mean you have to use more of your body to communicate with your horse, as it lacks a nose band and sometimes a browband.
What is your discipline: If you are planning on partaking in a discipline, like showjumping or eventing, you need to check out the competition guidelines to help you determine which bridle parts you should use.
Nosebands: There are plenty of different nosebands available, so do your research and determine what would be best for you and your horse.
Measure it: Horse bridle parts are sometimes adjustable (throat latch, cheek pieces) but the browband cannot be adjusted, so you need to measure the bridle to make sure it fits (more on fitting a bridle in a sec).
Extra accessories: Some bridles come with padded parts to protect the hard bone and skin on the horse’s head.
Consider what works for you: The horse is the first priority, but you also need to consider what works for you. You might prefer leather over synthetic materials or a decorative browband.
What bridle should I use on a Clydesdale?
This is not true for all Clydesdales, but most often a Clydesdale horse should wear a Cavesson noseband with their bridle. Cavesson nosebands are pretty standard, without a flash and can work for almost every horse.
Because of the sheer size of this horse, I wouldn’t recommend that you attempt a bitless bridle!
How To Choose a Bridle
Before picking up the first bridle you see in the tack shop, you need to first understand the different parts of bridles and their roles. I have delved into these above, but here are some more things to consider:
Understand where the main nerves are on your horse’s head. The last thing you want is to have the different bridle parts uncomfortably pushing on any major nerves.
The noseband that sits too high (higher than the Zygomatic ridge) will press directly on the nerves, so if you have a sensitive horse, purchase a bridle with a loose, absent or anatomical noseband.
The noseband should not be so tight around the lower jaw that the horse can’t move its mouth.
The bridle should fit properly for the size of the horse’s head, as well as the shape of the nose.
The browband also sits on an area with lots of nerves, so it should be tight enough to not let the bridle slip, but loose enough to prevent pinching or pulling on the crownpiece.
Some bridles come with padded parts. This can help protect the skin, but just make sure the padding isn’t adding too much extra pressure on sensitive nerves.
How Tight Should A Bridle Be?
A bridle that fits well should have the buckles on the throat latch and cheek pieces at the horse’s eye level.
The browband should rest flat across the brow, without pulling down the headpiece.
When it comes to the throat lash, you need to be able to slip four fingers sideways between the hard bone of the cheek and the strap. If it is too tight, you risk impeding your horse’s breathing.
Once the bit is in place, the cheek pieces should be tightened so that one or two wrinkles form at the corner of the horse’s mouth.
How to tell if a bridle fits properly
Your horse will probably be able to communicate with you that the bridle is too tight by showing obvious discomfort.
The bit should not be hitting the lower teeth, as this indicates the cheek pieces are too long.
The headpiece should also not be too large for the poll, as this will irritate the nerves and the ears.
So in short, make sure the buckles are at the right level (too close to the crown and they will put pressure on some nerves), the throat latch passes the four-finger test, the bit slightly crinkles the lips, and the noseband allows movement of the jaw.
What is the difference between a bridle and a rein on a horse?
The bridle includes the reins. The main part of the bridle sits on the horse’s head, while the reins connect to the bit (the part in the horse’s mouth) to help the rider communicate with the horse.
What part of the bridle holds the bit?
The bit is held in place by the cheek pieces, browband and headpiece. Specifically, the cheek pieces are connected to the bit and hold it in place, while the reins are also connected to the bit to help the rider guide the horse.
What is the significance of a noseband on a horse bridle?
Nosebands are mainly used to:
Prevent the horse from opening its mouth too wide and moving the bit around.
Give the rider extra control.
Meet competition regulations.
For aesthetic reasons