Before putting a bridle on a horse, start with your horse haltered and safely tied. You may have the horse in cross-ties or tied with a lead rope with a panic snap or quick-release knot. Some people like to leave their horses untied, but that can be a problem in public stables where random people may distract or potentially spook the horse. It’s best to avoid your horse getting loose among other horses and people when in the stable; this could lead to accidents. Make sure you use a safety knot if you are not using crossties. You’ll also want to brush away any dirt or grit on the horse’s face. Before riding, always groom the horse.
Secure Your Horse
Undo the halter, slide the halter's noseband down over the horse’s nose, and slip the crown back up over the horse’s ears. This action will secure your horse briefly while you put the bridle on. Stand beside the horse's neck, facing forward with the bridle in your left hand. Slip the reins up over the neck. Both the reins and halter are now around the horse's neck, should it try to get away.
The Spruce Pets / Katherine Blocksdorf
Slide the Bit in the Horse's Mouth
Hold the bridle up over the horse's nose with your right hand. Using your left-hand fingers, move the bit against his lips and insert your thumb into the space between the front and back teeth—the bars of the mouth. If the horse resists taking the bit, wiggling your thumb may encourage the horse to open its mouth wider. Slide the bit in and lift the bridle higher with your left hand so the horse can’t spit the bit back out. Be careful around the horse’s teeth; you don't want the bit knocking into them carelessly. Eventually, you'll be able to do this in one smooth motion.
The Spruce Pets / Katherine Blocksdorf
Pull the Crown Over the Left Ear
Grasp the crown of the bridle with your left hand, and with your right hand, gently bend the horse’s right ear forward to slip it under the crown.
The Spruce Pets / Katherine Blocksdorf
Pull the Crown Over the Right Ear
Switch your grasp of the crown of the bridle to your right hand, and with your left, gently slip the left ear under the crown. Do not pull the bridle too high; this action pulls on the horse's mouth. Be careful not to bend your horse's ears uncomfortably.
The Spruce Pets / Katherine Blocksdorf
Fasten All the Buckles or Snaps
Fasten the throat latch of the bridle. An endurance bridle has a snap at the throat latch. Most traditional leather bridles will have buckles. Do not fasten the throat latch too tightly; you want your horse to be able to flex its neck. Leave about 4 inches of slack. You should be able to slip the width of your hand between the strap and your horse’s jaw.
Unless you use a special noseband, such as a figure-eight, flash, or grackle noseband, leave about two fingers width between the lower jaw and the strap when you attach the noseband or cavesson. If you are using a curb bit, you’ll need to fasten the curb chain or strap. Leave the width of two fingers between the chain and the lower jaw. Leaving the chain too loose or tight can make the action of the bit or the chain more severe. If the bit has a port, it could rotate up and hurt the top of the horse’s mouth.
Slip the halter off, tidy your horse's mane and forelock, and you are ready to go. Some people like the forelock under the browband; some leave it over the top.
The Spruce Pets / Katherine Blocksdorf
Removing the Bridle
Remove the bridle by slipping the halter (attached to a crosstie or lead rope) back over the horse’s ears. Undo the throat latch, curb chain, and noseband. With your left hand, reach under the horse’s neck and slide the crown over the horse’s ears. Hold it as you did when you were putting it on. Gently lower the bit out of the horse’s mouth. Be careful not to knock the horse’s teeth. With your right hand, slip the halter on and pull the reins up over the horse’s neck to completely remove the bridle. Once you remove it, you may wish to clean your bridle or wipe the bit before hanging it away.
Bridle your horse easily and safely using our step-by-step photos!
Please be sure to read the common sense safety precautions at the bottom of this page.
Putting On A Bridle
First of all, when you're bridling a horse it's important to understand there is an area in every horse's mouth known as the "interdental space." The interdental space is an area, both on the upper and lower jaws, where there is not any teeth.
This area is between the front teeth (the incisors) and the back teeth (the molars). When a horse is bridled, the interdental space is where the bit rests. On the bottom jaw, most horsemen refer to this area of bare gums as the "bars."
Below: The blue arrows are pointing to the interdental space.
The interdental space is not only the area in a horse's mouth where the bit rests, it is a safe place for a person to insert their thumb to ask the horse to open its mouth to accept the bit during the bridling process (this will be illustrated in step three on the next page).
Removing The Halter
While some people ride their horse with the bridle over the halter, we're going to remove it. When you remove the halter, you will still need to maintain control over the horse.
- When you remove the halter, you can put it out of the way and let your horse stand ground tied. This is our personal favorite method.
- If your horse doesn’t ground tie you can remove the halter, put it out of the way, and use the reins of the bridle around the horse’s neck to maintain control:
- If the reins are split reins you can take the off-side rein (ie, the right side rein), pass it under the horse’s neck, then lay it over the top of the neck. Lay the left rein across your left arm or shoulder.
- If the reins are a one piece rein (often called a “roping rein”) you can unbuckle them from the left side of the bit, pass them under the horse’s neck, then lay them over the top of the neck.
- Note: Before a horse is bridled do NOT slip a solid rein (like a mecate or a roping rein that is still buckled to both sides of the bit) over the horse’s head and onto the neck. If the horse should move away and you lose control, the reins will hold the loose and now freely-swinging headstall close to the horse, providing a trap for them to step in to.
Below: This horse's halter has been removed and refastened around his neck.
Bridling, Step One
Holding the crown of the bridle in your right hand, place your right arm between the horse's ears. This will encourage the horse to drop its head, and will also put your right hand in a good place to lift and guide the bridle.
During bridling the horse should have its head at a naturally low head position, or lower if you've trained him to drop his head when asked. Trying to bridle a horse that has raised its head is awkward and can even get the handler off balance as they stretch to reach.
In addition, if a horse has its head raised it's easier to bang the teeth with the bit when you slip it into the horse's mouth, and you absolutely do NOT want that to happen. See more about this in the next step.
Below: Holding the crown of the bridle in your right hand, place your right arm between the horse's ears. This will encourage the horse to lower its head, and put you in a good position to guide the bridle.
Bridling, Step Two
Use your left hand to place the bit at the horse's lips, and to move the curb strap (if the bridle has one) behind the horse's chin so it won't accidentally slip into his mouth.
During this step, do NOT bump or bang the bit into the horse's lips or front teeth. This is painful to the horse which is not only unkind, it may also cause the horse to react by flinging its head, possible whacking you in the face and causing serious injury. Repeatedly bumping the horse in the lips or front teeth with the bit during bridling could (understandably) cause the horse to become hard to bridle.
Below: The bridle in this photo is a Western style that has a curb bit and a curb strap. Other styles of bridles and bits may not have a curb strap.
Even a small horse is a large and powerful animal. During the bridling process, the person doing the bridling can easily be injured. It is common sense to take a few, easy safety precautions to avoid injury.
Spanish cowboys (vaqueros) who came to North America over 500 years ago left a lasting legacy — not only in words such as chaps (from chaparreras) and rodeo (rodear) which are engrained in today’s Western lifestyle — but in their riding and horse training skills, too. In the early 1500s when Spanish cows and horses were imported into what is now Mexico, cattle ranching and bridle horses were introduced to North America. Vaquero bridle horses were highly trained, handy stock horses that worked as partners out on the range and were in tune with their riders’ every aid. Making a bridle horse was and is a multi-year process whereby horses are started in a hackamore (bosal), then advanced through a two-rein bridle (small diameter hackamore beneath a spade bit bridle each with a set of reins) until they are ready to be ridden “straight up in the bridle” in a spade bit.
Horsemen and women today still value the vaquero methods, and some choose to train their horses in this traditional way. But as cowboy lifestyles and values change, those horsemen have become few and far between. To learn more about these centuries-old vaquero traditions I spoke with Martin Black, a fifth-generation rancher based in Idaho, whose family has been raising and training horses in the vaquero tradition for close to 150 years. Black is a well-respected horseman who is passionate about preserving the bridle horse traditions.
Martin Black’s well-trained bridle horse is tracking this cow on a loose rein with no leg cues, completing a complex maneuver on its own. Photo: Kim Stone Shinanatu Photography
“Basically, the bridle horse is an all-around stock horse,” he explains. “The ultimate goal was to have a good horse to work cattle on. What made the bridle horse ideal was you could have a rope in one hand and steer your horse with the other, and what everybody strived for was a horse you could ride without pulling on him.”
Black says that even today he starts all his horses in a hackamore. “Pretty much everything in my string I start in a hackamore, then go to the two rein (bridle), and then they go straight-up into the spade bit. The spade bit is a leverage bit but also a signal bit. We want [horses] to respond to the slightest movement of the mouthpiece.”
He says the bridle horse tradition “…came from the Moors of Africa over to Spain where they had a weapon in one hand and the reins in the other.” After arriving in Mexico, vaqueros and cattle-ranching spread north into the southern United States, and by the mid-1800s the vaquero style of riding, tack, hand-braided rawhide reatas [lariats], and ways of roping cattle was prevalent in what is now California. Subsequently, vaquero horsemanship spread northeast to Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho. “That [horsemanship] came with the cattle to the Great Basin and so my family being in the horse business …my great grandfather and uncles pretty much followed that tradition,” says Black.
Finished bridle horses will be ridden using minimal cues in a spade bit like one of these. Photo: Kim Stone Shinanatu Photography
Black was introduced to California style vaquero horsemanship by his great uncle. “When I think of a bridle horse, it’s not what you see today in the show pen. When I was growing up, the goal was to make a good bridle horse, not go in a three-year-old futurity. You worked your young horses kind of like you send your kid to grade school, hoping that he’d eventually go to university and become a doctor, lawyer, or scientist. Today, I don’t spend much time riding the three-year-olds. I maybe ride the four-year-olds a bit more, but I’m really looking to the five- and six-year-olds to start blossoming, so they’re good six, seven, or eight-year-old horses.”
“It doesn’t take much to ask your six-year-old bridle horse to do something he’s never done,” he explains. “They learn to accept challenges. They don’t start shutting you out. The way a lot of people train horses, by the time they’re six or seven years old they’ve been through repetition training so much it’s pretty hard to present a different idea to them as they’re pretty much closed-minded. [When> training through repetition you’re doing it over and over again until the horse sort of learns to follow the maze, but there’s not that much decision-making or thinking on the horse’s part. You just keep practicing whatever the maneuver is until the horse gets to whatever level the rider is satisfied with. [Training the bridle horse] is a whole different way of training horses.”
Above: Martin Black is passionate about preserving the bridle horse traditions. His family has been raising and training horses in the vaquero tradition for almost 150 years as these fascinating family photos chronicle. Photo: Kim Stone Shinanatu Photography
Above: Joe Black (great grandfather) using a silver spade bit, rawhide reata, and woolly chaps, 1900.
Above: Albert Black (grandfather) riding in a spade bit, rawhide reata, and long tapaderos, 1926.
Above: Albert Harley (great-great uncle) herding range horses in a spade bit, 1890.
Bridle fitting isn’t something we often think too hard about. Often our criteria for bridles is, “does it go on the horse’s head?” and “is the bit too high or low?” Don’t be ashamed if you’ve never put any more thought into the fit of your horse’s bridle, it’s not something we really talk about like saddle fit or bitting. Sometimes we apply weird rules that we don’t quite understand, like the “two wrinkle rule” or “four fingers under the throat latch.” Let’s take a look at how your bridle should fit and we’ll talk a little about why without launching into a full blown lecture on equine anatomy and physiology.
Let’s start with the basics, when selecting a bridle you are usually given the option of a few sizes; Pony, Cob, Full, Warmblood. There is no hard and fast industry standard for what size each piece of a bridle will be in each of these sizes, so you will need to make a judgement call on which size might fit your horse best. For instance, a 16hh thoroughbred will probably wear a full. A 17.2hh Irish Sport Horse with a roman nose might fit better in a warmblood, a 15.1hh quarter horse cross might wear a cob, and a little welsh pony is probably going to wear pony size.
Once you have selected the bridle and size you think will fit, you should put it on your horse without a bit. Fit the bit last so you don’t have to worry about too many fitting factors at one time or the horse’s comfort. First let’s look at the splits. The splits are part of the crown of the bridle, and when fitted properly, sit just below the browband. The browband in turn should fit about ½” (or 1 finger width) below the base of the ear. If the splits do not have clearance below the browband, the throatlatch will not hang correctly nor sit flush against the horse’s face.
Speaking of browbands, the brow sits on a group of nerves and vessels, so it is important that it fits correctly. A browband which is too large can allow the bridle to slip out of place, a browband which is too small will pinch and pull the crownpiece into the base of the ears. A browband should fit so that two fingers (stacked) fit comfortably under the front of the browband.
As we already mentioned, the throatlatch should be unimpeded by the browband, allowing it to hang vertically from the split. The throatlatch helps to stabilize the bridle by preventing it from tipping side to side. This is where “four fingers under the throatlatch” comes in. You should be able to fit four fingers (stacked) between the throatlatch and the throat to ensure that the horse has enough room to flex, but not so much that the bridle is loose.
Before we go much further there is one biology term you should learn as we’ll be referencing it a lot; this is the Zygomatic Ridge. In humans we often refer to this as the cheek bones. The zygomatic ridge protrudes from the horse’s face, and gives us an excellent landmark in terms of fitting many parts of the bridle.
Next let’s look at nosebands. We’ll start by looking at a plain noseband, also known as a plain cavesson, as many other types of nosebands are a variation on this theme. The noseband should be fit two fingers below the Zygomatic ridge. Fitting the noseband higher will put pressure directly on a nerve bundle in the horse’s face which can cause the horse discomfort. When tightening the noseband you should be able to fit two fingers (stacked) under the front of the noseband.
The cheek pieces attach to the crown and support the bit in the mouth. Now you might be thinking, “oh now it’s time for the ‘two wrinkle rule’” and you would be right; we tighten or loosen the cheek pieces to raise or lower the bit in the horse’s mouth and usually we know we’ve hit the mark when we see two wrinkles in the corner of the horse’s mouth. However, I would argue that the “two wrinkle rule” is more of a guideline than a rule. Depending on the conformation of the individual horse’s mouth, the two wrinkle rule could allow the bit to be hanging too low or too high. Ideally, the bit should sit just in front of the horse’s first molars. This placement ensures that the bit hits the correct area of the tongue – you might notice that when a bit is too low in the horse’s mouth they often play with it too much in an attempt to spit it out.
Finally let’s look at reins. The length of the reins will depend on the size of the horse, the size of the rider, and the rider’s personal preference. As a guideline, the reins should be long enough so that the horse is able to stretch on a loose rein, but also short enough that the rider’s foot could not get caught in the bite when contact is taken up. Remember when looking at reins, a rein which is too long can be shortened by a professional, a rein which is too short cannot be lengthened.
Remember when fitting all parts of the bridles which can be adjusted via a buckle that for a proper fit the strap should buckle on the middle hole. A strap that is fit on the very first or very last hole leaves little room for adjustment should the horse grow or change shape over time. This is especially important for cheek pieces, the rings of the bit your using now may not fit the same as the rings of the bit you use in the future.
One final note to remember when fitting your bridle – look at where the cheek straps and overhead straps lie in relation to the zygomatic ridge. These straps should lie behind the zygomatic ridge, this is to prevent the straps from getting too near the horse’s eyes and also to prevent irritation from rubbing along that ridge.
Wait, I use a different noseband!
Let’s take a quick look at other popular types of nosebands
Flash Nosband – A flash noseband or flash cavesson looks very similar to a plain cavesson, with the addition of a smaller strap which buckles below the bit and helps to keep the horse’s mouth closed. This type of noseband should also fit two fingers below the zygomatic ridge, but with a one finger tightness. The flash strap should have a two finger tightness when fastened.
Figure 8 or Grackle – A Figure 8 or Grackle noseband crosses in front of the nose and fastens in two places behind the jaw. The center pad where the straps cross should fit high on the nose. The top straps will cross over the zygomatic ridge before buckling behind the jaw, the lower straps will buckle below the bit, behind the chin. Each strap should have a ½” or one finger tightness between the strap and the face.
Drop Noseband – A drop noseband fits low on the horse’s nose and also aids in keeping the horse’s mouth shut. The drop should fit below the bit but above the end of the nasal bone – the ends of the nasal bone are fragile, so if you’re uncertain regarding the fit you may want to seek assistance or try a different cavesson. When tightened, you should be able to fit one finger between the noseband and the face.
Horse bridles consist of the following parts – headpiece, cheek pieces, throat lash, browband, noseband and reins. These are then attached to a bit which goes in the horses mouth and is then fitted to the horses head to enable the rider to control the direction and speed of the horse. The headpiece which goes over the top of the horses head at the poll area and runs just behind the ears can come as a plain piece of leather or with comfort padding. Some bridles also shape the headpiece to go around the ears.
The cheek pieces of the bridle attach to the headpiece at one end and to the bit at the other end and can be adjusted to suit horses with different face lengths. The noseband runs round the circumference of the horses face and is used to keep the horses jaw closed. The browband runs horizontally from just under one ear to just under the other ear and is used to prevent the bridle from slipping back from the horses poll.
Some bridles come with fancy browbands which are raised or covered in diamantes or patent leather to make them stand out. Finally the reins attach to the bit and the rider holds these, most bridles come with reins however some do not as there are a wide variety of reins from plain leather, plaited leather, rubber covered, half rubber covered etc. There are a number of different types of bridle including plain cavesson bridle, flash bridle, grackle or figure of eight bridle, hunter bridle and double or Weymouth bridles.
Bridles come in a variety of different colours, the most popular being Black and Havana (Dark Brown). Other colours you may come across include Oak, Australian Nut and Tan to name a few. Although it makes no difference to your riding which colour bridle you choose nearly everyone chooses to match it as closely as possible to the saddle and other leatherwork they use. Different manufacturer’s shades of colours do sometimes vary slightly; this can be due to the method a particular manufacturer uses for dying the leather or the colour of dye they happen to use.