Horse Bridle Guide - What Bridle Should I Choose?
Updated December 13, 2022
This is your ultimate guide to English and Western horse bridle types, parts, fitting and care. Learning how to buy and correctly bridle a horse comes with lots of questions for owners – which bridle is the right one for my horse? We’re happy to share our knowledge so you can make a smarter choice when bridle shopping and fitting for your horse!
Horse Bridles 101
Bridles are arguably the most crucial piece of riding equipment you can own. Since the domestication of the horse, head gear 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. There are many colors, styles, sizes, shapes, and materials being used to construct bridles, from traditional flat brown leather that you’ll see in the hunt field to bright colored synthetic tack used in racing and endurance.
We’ll break it down by discipline and talk about the different types of bridles to make it easier for you to see which bridle choice might be best for your circumstance. Your riding might cross over into several disciplines (as such in eventing) so you may need more than one bridle to accommodate the rules and traditions of different disciplines. Luckily, SmartPak has a wide range of bridles at great price points to choose from!
Terminology and Parts of Horse Bridles
Here are a few basics on bridles and their parts to get us started:
Parts of a Horse Bridle
Bridles are a system of straps attached to the horse’s head that are used to 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 attaches to cheekpieces that hold the bit in the horse’s mouth.
- Most bridles have a browband or ear hole(s) in the headstall that pass in front of one or both ears to keep the bridle from slipping back and down the horse’s neck.
- Bridles with browbands usually have a throatlatch, which keeps the bridle from slipping forward over the ears.
- Most English bridles, and some western headstalls, have nosebands, 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, ranging from snaffles to pelhams and shanked bits. Bits are generally made of metal and fit inside the horse’s mouth. Bits can have multiple joints that bend and apply pressure along the horse’s tongue and sides of the mouth or be one single piece like a curb bit.
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.). Some bitless bridles may be a gentle option for sensitive horses, however, it depends on your individual horse.
Nosebands come in a variety of styles, including the traditional buckle, flash, drop, crank, and figure eight. Nosebands are 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.
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.
Ergonomic is a term used to describe a non-traditional, anatomically shaped bridle that is designed to alleviate pressure points and make the bridle more comfortable for the horse. Ergonomically designed nosebands and crown pieces are shaped to keep pressure off major facial nerves and arteries while avoiding interference with the bit. Ergonomic bridles are a great choice for sensitive or hard-to-fit horses.
Padding is a thin layer of cushioning surrounded by leather that is seen mostly on nosebands, browbands, and crownpieces of English bridles.
Different Types of Bridles by Riding Discipline
Now that we’ve gotten the basics down, here are the different types of bridles you may see in each discipline. See your competition association rulebook for specific rules related to allowed tack.
Show Hunters and Equitation Bridles
Tradition rules so you will see less innovation and more standard, classic bridle styles for hunters and equitation. Most riders use 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.
All sorts of innovative designs are seen in dressage bridles. They’re traditionally black, which coordinates with black dressage saddles, but you will see brown bridles and different colors of piping, too. In dressage, you can be flashy with shiny bridles and bling browbands studded with bedazzled crystals. Nosebands can be either regular buckle or crank style. Ergonomic is a huge trend in dressage bridles with many variations in design.
Double bridles have extra cheekpieces to accommodate for two bits in the horse’s mouth – a curb (called a Weymouth) and snaffle (called a bradoon). Each bit has its own set of reins, hence the name “double,” but they can also be referred to as a Weymouth bridle or full bridle.
At the lower levels, dressage horses are generally ridden in padded bridles with or without flash nosebands. Upper-level dressage horses generally school and show in padded double bridles, which do not allow for a flash attachment. Weymouth bridles are optional tack for competing in Third Level and required tack for FEI Prix St. Georges through Grand Prix. Saddle seat riders may also use double bridles in training and competition.
You’ll see a mix of innovation in design and classic style with show jumping bridles. Ergonomic details and variations in nosebands are popular, including figure eight, flash, or hackamore/bit combinations. In general, you will see mostly brown leather tack. Padding and fancy stitching, like in show hunters and equitation, are common. Many jumpers are ridden in a running martingale with rubber reins and rein stoppers.
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 and one for jumping and cross country. Many eventers prefer the innovative, pressure-point-relieving ergonomic designs like the Harwich Eventing Bridle which can be used for all three phases.
There are options galore when it comes to western headstalls! You choose the style – slotted ear, single ear, double ear, or browband with throatlatch. Pick from traditional tie-end, or newer buckle, Chicago screw or other innovative attachment styles. Looking for style? Endless decorations, chrome, and bling. From plain leather working tack to chromed-out show tack, you’ll usually see variations of brown leather. More active western disciplines may choose headstalls with throatlatches for security.
Field Hunter Bridles
Classic simplicity is key in a hunt bridle. Field hunters have a traditional style flat brown leather bridle with no stitching patterns or padding. They can come with silver or brass hardware. Some hunts may allow variations to tack – speak with your hunt master for details.
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 and Trail Riding Bridles
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.
There are many other disciplines that have specialized bridle requirements, so if you don’t see your discipline listed here, check in with your trainer or a barn mate to ensure that you know exactly what type of bridle will work best for you and your horse.
How to Fit a Bridle to a Horse
Whether you’re buying a new bridle or just trying to get the perfect fit for your current bridle, we’ve put everything you need to know in this short how-to video.
- Start by getting an approximate size for your horse by holding the bridle up to his head. Extend the bit down next to his mouth and make sure it looks like it’d be just about the right size. That way, when you go to bridle him, it won’t be way too tight or too loose.
- Make sure all your keepers are open and not tucked in so it’s easy for you to make adjustments once the bridle is on.
- Once your horse is bridled, begin by adjusting the headstall – the portion that runs over his crown, down the sides of the head and connects to the bit. Depending on your personal preference, anywhere from one to three wrinkles at the side of the mouth is a good fit.
- Next adjust the noseband or caveson. The noseband should run below the cheekbone by the headstall cheekpiece. It should sit just about two fingers width parallel from the end of the cheekbone. When you connect the noseband, you want it to be tight enough to encourage him to keep his mouth closed but not so tight that it causes pressure on the soft tissue structures of his face. A good rule of thumb is to allow two fingers between the hard surfaces (not the soft surface under his jaw).
- Adjust the throatlatch – designed to keep the bridle from being pulled off forward. You want the throatlatch to be connected just enough so that it’ll stay on and in place, but not that it would construct airflow when the horse bends his neck or comes into frame. Another rule of thumb here is to allow for a closed fist to fit between his cheek and throat latch
- Finish by adjusting the browband to fit in the groove just below the ears. If the browband is too tight, you might notice pressure on the back of the ears, which will be uncomfortable for your horse. If the browband is too loose, the bridle can start to slide backward. Ideally, you want to have the browband at the split of the cheekpiece and throatlatch and even on both sides, presenting a nice, tidy appearance. Check that your browband and noseband are both even.
Once you’ve finished fitting the bridle, you’re all set to put your keepers back on and enjoy your ride!
Does the Bridle Need to Match Your Saddle?
This depends on your discipline, but most equestrians do prefer to have the same color leather bridle as their saddle. Black is easy, but shades of brown can be more difficult to match.
Find the Best Bridle for Your Horse
Now that you know the type of bridle to look for, start shopping! If you’re still not quite sure where to start, use our SmartFit Custom Bridle Builder to build the bridle of your dreams from start to finish!
Don’t forget that SmartPak has free return shipping on sized product, so if you aren’t quite sure which is the right size, pick the two best options with the confidence that you can return the one that doesn’t fit and we’ll cover the return shipping. If you’re not finding the style or brand of bridle you’re looking for, let us know!
Contact SmartPak for questions about any product that we sell – our Customer Care team will help you find the perfect bridle for your horse. Have a great ride!
Originally published November 1, 2018