courtesy of SmartPak
Not sure about you, but whenever I walk into a tack store or booth at a trade show I gravitate right to the bridles, arguably the most crucial piece of riding equipment you own. Since the domestication of the horse, headgear of some form has been used for control. Historians make assumptions that bitless bridles or bridles with bits made of natural materials such as sinew, rope, or bone were used until the invention of the metal bit towards the end of the Bronze age. The concept of the bridle has not changed drastically in the centuries since, but we have seen trends in design over the past decade moving towards the comfort of the horse, with ergonomic shapes and padding to relieve pressure points. With these changes come lots of questions for horse owners – which bridle is the right one for my horse? I’ve helped hundreds of customers with those questions in my years as manager of SmartPak’s retail store in Natick, MA, and I’m happy to share my knowledge with you so you can make a smarter choice when bridle shopping and fitting your horse for a bridle!
There are MANY colors, styles, sizes, shapes, and materials being used to construct bridles, from very traditional flat brown leather that you’ll see in the hunt field to bright colored synthetic tack used in racing and endurance. I’ll break it down by disciplines and talk about the types of bridles that are most relevant to make it easier to see what bridle choice might be best for your circumstance. If you’re like me, you cross-over into several disciplines – I mainly event, but I also go to dressage shows and hope to return to my hunter/jumper roots this year. You may need more than one bridle to accommodate the rules and traditions of different disciplines
Basics To Get Us Started
Bridles are a system of straps attached to the horse’s head that are used help the rider steer and stop the horse, usually in conjunction with a bit. The simplest bridle consists of a headstall or crownpiece that sits just behind the ears and attach to cheekpieces, which hold the bit in the horse mouth. Most bridles also have a browband or ear hole(s) in the headstall that passes in front of one or both ears, to keep the bridle from slipping back and down the horse’s neck. Bridles with browbands usually also have a throatlatch, which keeps the bridle from slipping forward over the ears. Most English bridles and some Western bridles have nosebands as well, which rest around the horse’s nose several fingers above the mouth to help keep it from opening and avoiding the bit. Bridles can have buckles, rivets, leather ties, stud ends, and many other systems to attach straps to each other and attach bits to cheekpieces.
Bits come in wide varieties, are generally made of metal, and fit inside the horse’s mouth.
Bitless Bridles have no bit – the reins create pressure on the nose of the horse through one of a few different structural methods (hackamore, bosal, Dr. Cooks, etc.)
Nosebands come in a variety of styles, including traditional buckle, flash, drop, crank and figure eight – all designed to help keep the horse’s mouth from opening to avoid the bit. Traditional nosebands are also needed if a standing martingale is to be used.
Double Bridles have extra cheekpieces to accommodate two bits – a curb and snaffle.
Monocrown is a style where the crownpiece and noseband carrying strap are integrated into one fixed, padded strap that sits just behind the ears, designed for the horse’s comfort. There is an extra buckle on the left side of monocrown bridles, so you can adjust the noseband, since the noseband strap is fixed and will not slide.
Ergonomic is a term used to describe a non-traditional shape to a bridle designed to alleviate pressure points and make the bridle more comfortable for the horse.
Padding is a thin layer of cushioning surrounded by leather that is seen mostly on nosebands, browbands, and crownpieces of English bridles.
Now that we’ve gotten the basics down, here are the different types of bridles you may see in each discipline:
Show Hunters and Equitation: Tradition rules, so you will see less innovation and more standard, understated bridle styles. Most riders are using padded brown bridles, usually with fancy stitch patterns on the noseband and browband. Often seen with matching standing martingales. You may see some slight ergonomic shaping to crownpieces and padded monocrowns rather than the traditional flat crown and separate noseband strap. See your competition association rulebook for specific rules related to allowed tack.
Dressage: All sorts of innovation seen here! Dressage bridles are traditionally black, which coordinates with black dressage saddles, but you will see brown tack in dressage occasionally. At the lower level, dressage horses are generally ridden in padded bridles with flash nosebands, at the upper levels, padded double bridles. Nosebands can be either regular buckle or crank style. Ergonomic is a huge trend, with large variations in design and lots of shine and bling! See your competition association rulebook for specific rules related to allowed tack.
Jumpers: A mix of innovation in design and classic style, we are seeing a lot of ergonomic details and variation in nosebands, including figure eight, flash, or hackamore/bit combinations. In general, you will see mostly brown leather tack. Padding and fancy stitching, similar to Show Hunters and Equitation, are common. Many jumpers are ridden in a running martingale, with rubber reins and rein stoppers. See your competition association rulebook for specific rules related to allowed tack.
Eventing: So many phases, so many bridles! While some riders use the same bridle for all three phases, most use at least two different bridles, one for dressage (see Dressage above) and one for jumping (see Jumpers above.) Many eventers prefer the innovative, pressure-point-relieving ergonomic designs like the Micklem bridle, which can be used for all three phases. See your competition association rulebook for specific rules related to allowed tack.
Field Hunters: Classic simplicity – traditional style flat brown leather bridle with no stitching patterns or padding. Can see both silver or brass hardware. Some hunts may allow variations to tack – speak with your hunt master for details.
Endurance: Lightness, durability, and easy care are the hallmarks of useful endurance tack. Many endurance riders use bitless bridles, and Dr. Cooks has beta bridles that cover all three criteria – plus they come in fun colors!
Casual/Trail Riding: Lucky you – you get to pick any bridle that suits your horse and your fancy! A halter/bridle combination can be a great option if you ride in a bit but want to be able to tie your horse with a halter. Simple may be the best answer, but ergonomic may allow your horse to enjoy hacking out as much as you do.