Shopping for an English bridle is not the simple task it once was. Walking into Mary's Tack & Feed in Del Mar, California, the customer is confronted with a 25-foot wall's worth of English bridle choices, ranging in price from $50 to $500. And that's just bridles suitable for hunter and jumper schooling and competition. The wall of dressage bridles around the corner is almost as long.
OK, so let's narrow the search down by budget. Say, $200. At Mary's, that still leaves you with at least 10 choices from six or seven manufacturers on the hunter/jumper wall. And that's just the English bridles stocked by one tack store, albeit a large and reputable store whose stocking modus operandi is "good, better, best." Catalogs and online retailers multiply your options, as do boutique bridle makers with small, typically handcrafted lines.
Choosing the right bridle boils down to fit, style, your own preferences and budget. If you have flexibility in your funds, keep in mind that the quality of leather and craftsmanship are keys to how long a bridle will last. Bridle care, however, is the biggest factor in the longevity of a bridle in any price range.
At many A-circuit hunter/jumper barns, trainers often have well-known bridle preferences. In these cases, shopping is a quick trip to the local tack store where staff sends the shopper home with her trainer's favorite bridle. But for those of you who need to do the legwork yourself, here's our Practical Horseman primer.
Fit & Flatter Your Horse
Choose a bridle style that fits and complements the size and shape of your horse's head. Wider nosebands are a current trend in the hunter ring, but don't be a blind bandwagoner. "Whether it's in fashion or not, if it doesn't look good on your horse, it's not a good choice," notes Mary's senior store manager Juls Lorenz.
In general, bigger, strongly boned heads look best in substantial-looking bridles. This look is typically accomplished with relatively wide nose- and browbands and/or padding that adds depth and sometimes width to these pieces. For horses with smaller, more refined heads, the padding can add a nice dimension, but you probably want a thinner nose- and browband to minimize bulk.
Smith-Worthington's Signature Clincher Bridle is an example of using a bridle element to balance a facial feature. It has clinchers (a row of silver or brass pieces) on the noseband instead of more traditional placement on the browband, a nice way to offset a heavy forelock.
"A good, clean fit is critical to showing off your horse's head," says Juls. One rule of thumb is having the buckles of the noseband hanger, cheekpiece and throatlatch near each other, but not overlapping. And avoid excess leather. "You want enough strap to go through the buckle and the keeper and to cover up any stitching, but you don't want two or three inches of [excess] leather below the buckles."
Precise fit can be a big challenge in a stock bridle. A full-size horse bridle may fit beautifully everywhere but the browband, where you might need a size from the bigger warmblood or oversize bridle or the smaller cob size. In general, the higher-end bridle makers sell separate and, in some cases, custom-made pieces, though you typically need to add that to the cost of the whole bridle.
Borrowing bridles from barnmates is a great way to figure out which manufacturers make the best fit for your horse. Taking your horse's head dimensions is also smart. Using a flexible measuring tape, note the lengths for
- the circumference of his nose where the noseband sits,
- the width of the brow between the two points where the browband will connect with the headstall,
- the entire length of the headstall, starting at the bit on one side, up over the poll and down to the bit on the other side and
- the throatlatch length, starting behind one ear, down under the throat and up to a spot behind the other ear.
Expect that the bridle leather may stretch a little over time, and factor in how tightly you usually fasten the noseband and throatlatch.