And then they realize that they somehow have to make head or tail of this stuff, and their expression quickly turns to complete and utter bewilderment.
Such is the complicated world of tack, all the hundreds of different pieces of equipment we use to pursue our equestrian dreams, each with its own array of variations and uses.
It’s no surprise the beginner horseperson feels lost among it all. That’s why I’ve put together a crash course on the types of one of the most important pieces of tack: the bridle.
This can make or break your riding experience, as combined with the bit, it’s the single piece of equipment most involved in communicating with the horse.
The selection of any tack depends largely on that ever-present variable, the horse. Aside from the obvious differences – such as conformation, training, and discipline – each horse has its own quirks and personal preferences, which must be considered when selecting tack.
Even within the different types of bridles, there are hundreds of variations on styles, brands, bits, and attachments. Selecting the type of bridle itself is the starting point.
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The Snaffle Bridle
The most commonly used type of bridle is the snaffle bridle, which is used all over the world in a variety of applications.
It’s almost always made of leather and consists of a headpiece, a single cheekpiece on either side, a browband, a throatlash, a bit, reins, and a noseband. There are many different types of noseband available, most of which can be used with a snaffle bridle.
Despite its misleading name, many different types of bit can be used with it, not only snaffles.
The design is as old as horsemanship itself. It’s a generally mild and gentle bridle but doesn’t make special accommodation for pressure points on the horse’s face, so some very sensitive horses will object to it.
This bridle can be used across the levels in all English competition with the exception of the highest levels of dressage.
It’s also quite suitable for hacking and pleasure riding. In my experience, this bridle will do nicely for practically any horse in most of the disciplines. However, some of the more sensitive breeds – most notably thoroughbreds, Arabs, and warmbloods – can develop rubs or sore spots around the cheekbones and behind the ears.
The leather also often ends up neglected by weekend riders; these riders would do better with a low-maintenance synthetic.
Cheaper brands such as Horze can still provide a quality product such as the Rohan Snaffle Bridle.
But for the leather snob who loves style, the European brands like Stubben provide must have bridles like the Stubben Cut Crown Anthracite Padded Snaffle Bridle.
Most tack shops will have snaffle bridles available.
The Double Bridle
This bridle is similar to the snaffle bridle in its basic design, except that it includes a second set of cheekpieces – usually merged into a single strap known as a sliphead – to accommodate a second bit.
The double bridle is the only bridle with which more than one bit may be used. The two bits used with this bridle are known as the bridoon (a small, thin snaffle) and the curb, which is a harsher bit with shanks.
Two sets of reins are used, one on each of the bits. It may only be used with a cavesson or crank noseband.
The double bridle is an instrument of finesse in experienced hands; two bits allow the rider to give delicate aids to a well-schooled horse, resulting in spectacular movements like passage and piaffe.
However, in inexperienced hands, it’s nothing short of a disaster. The curb can be extremely harsh if used incorrectly, so it’s permitted only in the highest levels of dressage and showing.
It was once quite popular for showjumping and cross-country, but the invention of the Pelham has led to its appearance becoming very rare in the jumping disciplines.
The double bridle can be difficult to find and very expensive, but plainer options such as the Exselle Elite Double Bridle
can still be affordable.
Bridles bearing top riders’ names like this Carl Hester bridle are expensive but carry the weight of expertise behind them.
The Western Bridle
Western bridles have a different look to English bridles, but are similar in many ways to the snaffle bridle.
They also consist of a headpiece with a single cheekpiece on either side (collectively known as a headstall), a bit, and a single set of reins. A throatlash may or may not be present, and a noseband is almost never used.
Some Western bridles also have browbands, but many have a different design for securing the bridle around the horse’s ears, such as a slip ear.
Western reins are usually very long and split at the ends. The Western bridle is never used with a Pelham or gag. Instead, either a simple snaffle or a curb by itself is used.
These bridles were designed to be lightweight and comfortable for the stock horse working over long distances.
Obviously, they’re used in all the Western disciplines – like reining and rodeo – but due to their simplicity, they’re popular among trail riders, too.
It’s so much easier to just toss on a simple headstall and go for a ride rather than fiddle with the many straps of a snaffle bridle.
Its one disadvantage is that the split reins can be a little awkward for the novice rider to handle at first – trust me when I say that dropping a rein is a horrible feeling!
Pricing on Western bridles varies wildly, from the simple and functional bridles used for trail riding such as the Circle Y One Ear Headstall to the extravagantly decorated show bridles like the Weaver Snowflake Browband Headstall.
The Relief Bridle
However, other brands, such as PS of Sweden, have also started to design similar bridles.
Relief bridles are designed to reduce pressure on the nerves and more sensitive structures of the horse’s face, redirecting pressure onto the stronger areas.
Their design features include nosebands that are moved away from the cheekbone, headpieces that curve away from the ears, and throatlashes that fasten across the strong cheekbones instead of on the throat.
Many of the more sensitive breeds – like thoroughbreds, Arabs and warmbloods – go significantly better in a relief bridle than in a snaffle bridle.
They’re very expensive, though, and often used as more of a status symbol than anything else (something of “I’m riding a warmblood in an original Micklem bridle, so I obviously should be winning the class” syndrome).
Before picking this bridle to protect your precious pony’s pressure points, be sure to check the rules of the discipline you’re competing in. Some types of relief bridles aren’t allowed in showing or dressage.
The Micklem relief bridle is available at most online tack shops, including Equestrian Collections. Other types of relief bridles can be much more difficult to source and very expensive.
The Halter Bridle
This bridle is usually made of a lightweight synthetic material such as PVC or biothane.
Its design combines a halter and a bridle, using quick release snaps that attach the bit to the cheekpieces, allowing the bit and reins to be easily removed while keeping the horse restrained at all times.
Juggling halter, bridle, and excitable equid in a show parking lot is a daunting mission that makes this bridle option all the more attractive.
Not to mention the potential danger – both to itself and others – of a loose horse tearing madly across the showground or trail.
The halter bridle is used mostly for endurance competitions, where it can be quickly changed during a rest stop. It’s also popular for trail riding.
Because of the synthetic material, it comes in a variety of bright colors. These look adorable on pleasure horses and are great for visibility on the trail, but the average dressage or showing judge would keel over from the shock of seeing such a thing in their arena!
This material makes the halter bridle generally quite cheap and very easy to maintain compared to the leather bridles. It’s a solid option for the casual or weekend rider.Zilco Marathon endurance bridle
Halter bridles are sold at most small tack shops in rural areas, but Amazon also has a wide range available, from a basic model such as the ProRider Horse English Western Cob, to the gorgeous Zilco Marathon endurance bridle.
The Bitless Bridle
Bitless bridles come in a variety of styles, and most normal bridles (with the exception of the double bridle) can be converted into bitless bridles by attaching different nosebands. They vary in complexity from a simple bosal to more complicated attachments like the S-hack.
While many riders are quick to jump on the bitless bandwagon, it’s not necessarily always true that a bitless bridle is gentler than a conventional one.
When an experienced horseperson recommended I try changing my jumper from a snaffle to a hackamore, I liked the sound of the idea and did it for all of one ride.
He was miserable – flipping his head in discomfort and flinching at every ounce of pressure on his sensitive nose. Once I switched him back to his snaffle bridle, he was his usual happy self.
It depends on the horse’s personal preference, and like any piece of equipment, it’s only ever as gentle – or as harsh – as the person using it.
Bitless bridles can be ideal for relaxed and quiet horses on trails or in endurance. Many horses with fussy mouths go better bitless, or even in a bit and a hackamore with double reins to allow the rider to use two separate aids.
However, bitless bridles aren’t allowed in some types of competition. Despite extensive petitioning, dressage stubbornly refuses to allow them at all. They’re also not allowed in the cross-country phase of eventing – possibly because on many horses it would be suicide.
Some horses have no respect for the bitless and may become very difficult to control without a bit in certain situations like jumping or trail rides.
Most of the well-known tack brands, such as Horze, make simple sidepull or crossover bitless bridles see Horze Bitless Bridle. While more specialized bridles like this hackamore jump bridle require a little more searching.
Summary and Conclusion
A happy hack would be best suited to a halter bridle or potentially even a bitless bridle, while a higher-level dressage horse will need to go in a double bridle.
An empathetic and sensitive rider will also be able to figure out what the individual horse needs; perhaps a jumping horse that’s fussy in a snaffle bridle would go better in a relief bridle.
Ultimately, the selection and fit of a bridle that would perfectly suit both horse and rider is a task best left to a professional horse person.