According to Wikipedia a bridle is a “piece of equipment used to direct a horse“. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the bridle includes both the headstall that holds a bit that goes in the mouth of a horse, and the reins that are attached to the bit.
Headgear without a bit that uses a noseband to control a horse is called a hackamore, or, in some areas, a bitless bridle. There are many different designs with many different name variations, but all use a noseband that is designed to exert pressure on sensitive areas of the animal’s face to provide direction and control.
The bridle is made up of a number of different parts including:
- Headpiece: goes over the horse’s head just behind the animal’s ears, at the poll. It is the main strap that holds the remaining parts of the bridle in place.
- Cheekpieces: On most bridles, two cheekpieces attach to either side of the headpiece and run down the side of the horse’s face, along the cheekbone and attach to the bit rings.
- Throatlash: usually part of the same piece of leather as the headpiece. It runs from the horse’s right ear, under the horse’s throatlatch, and attaches below the left ear. The main purpose of the throatlash is to prevent the bridle from coming off over the horse’s head, which can occur if the horse rubs its head on an object, or if the bit is low in the horse’s mouth and tightened reins raise it up, loosening the cheeks.
- Browband: The headpiece runs through the browband. The browband runs from just under one ear of the horse, across the forehead, to just under the other ear. It prevents the bridle from sliding behind the poll onto the upper neck, and holds multiple headstalls together when a cavesson or second bit is added, and holds the throatlash in place on designs where it is a separate strap. Decorative browbands are sometimes fashionable.
- Noseband: encircles the nose of the horse. It is often used to keep the animal’s mouth closed, or to attach other pieces or equipment, such as martingales.
- Cavesson: a specific type of noseband which is attached to its own headstall, held onto the rest of the bridle by the browband. Because it has a separate headstall (also called sliphead), a cavesson can be adjusted with greater precision; a noseband that is simply attached to the same cheekpieces that hold the bit cannot be raised or lowered.
- Reins: The reins of a bridle attach to the bit, below the attachment for the cheekpieces. The reins are the rider’s link to the horse, and are seen on every bridle. Reins are often laced, braided, have stops, or are made of rubber or some other tacky material to provide extra grip.
- Bit: The bit goes into the horse’s mouth, resting on the sensitive interdental space between the horse’s teeth known as the “bars.”
There are different styles of bridle available:
- Snaffle bridle: This is a basic bridle that carries one bit and usually has one set of reins. Despite the name, a snaffle bridle may be used not only with a snaffle bit, but also with most other types of single rein bits. It is almost always used with some type of cavesson noseband.
- Pelham bridle: The Pelham is another bridle that carries a single bit. In this case a Pelham bit, but two sets of reins, one for snaffle action and one for curb action.
- Double bridle: These use two bits at once, a small snaffle and a curb bit, and require the use of two sets of reins. Double bridles are usually only seen used in upper level dressage and for showing in certain other events that require formal attire and equipment.
A hackamore works through pressure points on the face of the horse, usually with a nosepiece instead of a bit. It is not the same thing as a halter, which is generally used for leading the horse, or tying it up. Bitless bridles are similar to hakamores, but some designs use different pressure points for control. Both these styles of bridle use a headstall with reins attached to some type of noseband or nosepiece. Designs vary and can allow control and good communication with the horse. In some cases they might be more comfortable for the horse, particularly a young animal or one with some form of mouth injury or sensitivity.
Bitless bridles are used in some American horse sports such as endurance riding and trail riding. A design called the mechanical hackamore is sometimes seen at rodeos. Most horse show events do not allow bitless bridles of any kind, however in show jumping equipment rules are more generous. A design that combines elements of the original (or bosal) hackamore is known as a ‘sidepull’, which acts mostly on the nose. These are often popular with western riders and many trail riders.
Each bridle is fitted to an individual horse. Poor fitting can result in the horse being uncomfortable and possibly in a lack of control, or unclear communication for the rider.
The length of each individual piece of the bridle needs to be adjusted to the size of the horse. Many pieces are adjustable, using buckles, but this can be limited so many manufacturers offer 2-6 basic sizes for example cob, pony or draft.
The bit and browband are of fixed lengths and must be selected in the correct size for the horse. A too-narrow bit is uncomfortable and cannot be widened. One that is a little too wide can be narrowed to some degree using bit guards. If the browband is too short it can rub on the ears. The cheekpieces should be adjusted so that the bit does not pull the corners of the horse’s mouth or bang on the incisors, but also so that it hangs properly in the mouth. The noseband should be snug enough to be effective but not so tight that it is uncomfortable. The throatlash should be loose enough so that it does not interfere when the horse raises or lowers its head. The general rule is that you should be able to fit 3-4 fingers between the throatlash and the cheek.
There are a large number of different bits. They are divided into categories, depending on how they are designed to work:
- Direct pressure bits without leverage:
- Leverage bits:
- Curb bit: A bit that uses a type of lever called a shank that puts pressure not only on the mouth, but also on the polland chin groove.
- Pelham bit: A single curb bit with two sets of reins attached to rings at the mouthpiece and end of the shank. Partly combines snaffle and curb pressure.
- Kimblewick or Kimberwicke: A hybrid design that uses a slight amount of mild curb leverage on a bit ring by use of set rein placement on the ring.
- Bit combinations
- A type of bridle that carries two bits and is ridden with two sets of reins is called a Weymouth or double bridle
- Non-curb leverage designs:
- Gag bit: A bit that, depending on design, may outwardly resemble a snaffle or a curb, but with added slots or rings that provide leverage by sliding the bit up in the horse’s mouth, a very severe design.
- In-hand bits are designed for leading horses only, and include the:
- Chifney Anti-Rearing Bit: This is a semi-circular-shaped bit with three rings and a port or straight mouth piece used when leading horses. The port or straight piece goes inside the mouth, and the circular part lies under the jaw. The bit is attached to separate head piece or the head collar and the lead is clipped onto the bit and headcollar to limit the severity.
- Tattersall ring bit
- Horse-shoe stallion bit
There has been some controversy about which design is kinder to the horse: the bitless bridle, or one with a bit. NaturalHorse.com advocate the use of a bitless bridle and insist that it does not mean that the rider has any less control. They say that, “for those who believe in the comfort and physical/psychological health of their horse, a bitless bridle is a natural choice”. On their website they say that:
One hundred or more behavioural problems in the horse are bit-induced. Bits are a common cause of bone spurs on the bars of the mouth and headshaking (facial neuralgia) along with many behavioural problems.
The Bitless Bridle provides better steering than a bit or natural hackamore/rope halter, and more reliable brakes than a bit or sidepull. Freedom from pain results in calmness and obedience.
While this may be true it is also the case that some riders, not realizing that a horse’s head overall is a very sensitive area, use a noseband-based style of headgear without the same caution they might use with a bit, thus defeating any benefit that an apparently milder form of gear would otherwise provide. While many bitless designs are marketed as humane, and some are indeed quite mild, other designs can be remarkably harsh in the hands of a poor rider, particularly if they are improperly adjusted or have metal parts, a thin design, or rough surfaces. The horses face has a large number of nerves and it is important to be aware of this when choosing the bridle, ensuring that it is a good fit for the horse, and that it is appropriate for the work he will be expected to do.
In an article published in the Daily Mail in June 2014, Norman Lamb MP, the Liberal Democrat minister for care services, was reported to be backing a campaign to:
“save horses from pain by allowing top-level riders to compete using bridles without the traditional metal bit.”
He wanted a change to the rules for dressage competitions. Currently the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) demands that Olympic dressage riders use bitted bridles. This rule is enforced at a national level in the UK and in most regional events but many riders prefer to use bitless bridles, arguing that the bit can cause severe nerve pain, tongue lacerations, pinching and breathing problems for horses.
The campaign was started by the Norfolk Horse Training and Equitation Club (NHTEC). Mr Lamb, who is a Norfolk North MP said his request is “for people to have the choice. I cannot really see the argument against.”
The traditional bit has been used by riders since ancient times however this issue came into the public eye in March when an internet debate about the safety of bitless bridles was sparked because Prince Edward’s ten-year-old daughter Lady Louise Windsor was pictured riding a pony using one. Campaigners argued that if a young Royal could ride a horse without a bit, it must be safe. The Secretary of NHTEC stated that:
‘Metal bits can be very painful for many horses, particularly those put under pressure to perform in competitive events. It’s high time riders were allowed to choose more horse-friendly bridles.’
British Dressage issued a statement supporting the FEI rules. It said:
‘A fundamental requirement in the education of the horse is the concept of submission and this includes the willing acceptance of the indications of the rider. This also means the acceptance by the horse of the bit in its mouth, just as much as the acceptance of the rider’s weight on its back.’
British Olympic dressage gold medallist Carl Hester wrote on Facebook in December:
‘I wouldn’t mind in the slightest if I competed against a bitless competitor. It’s a personal choice.’
Perhaps it’s a case of the post I saw on Facebook:
Trust Technique Animal Rescue shared Kristen Beck‘s photo.
- Mark Alan Keyser Horsemanship – Practical and Applied Equine Sciences