Synthetic and cotton bridles are popular among some pretty serious horsemen, including endurance and competitive trail riders, for good reason. They offer easy care, horse comfort, useful design, safety and good value.
To find the best non-leather bridles, we used several in hot and cold weather, on many different horses, and for everything from lessons to overnight rides. We washed them — more often than the average owner would — and followed the manufacturers’ cleaning instructions.
Synthetics can, but don’t have to, be day-glow orange. Some synthetic materials can pass for leather at a distance and be just as comfortable.
BioThane is a tough material, although stiffer than most leather. It generally stayed cleaner between washings than the other products, and it washed well. We didn’t test any reins in this material, however, only headstalls.
Nylon, proven as a tack component in halters, leads and halter-bridle combinations, is lightweight and “breathable,” but it can become fuzzy with use and cleaning.
Cotton, which was a component in the low-wear areas of some of the products we tested, is lightweight, pliable and comfortable. When used in reins, it is less likely to burn your hands than nylon. However, it gets heavy when waterlogged and takes much longer to dry. We worried about mold and mildew over time, but we had no problems.
Both nylon and cotton collect hair, dirt and sweat — and the occasional sticky weed seed — more than BioThane.
What Is BioThane'
BioThane, a belting material made by BioPlastics, is popular with tack manufacturers because it’s durable and available in flashy colors for disciplines that like some “splash.” It’s coated by vinyl or polyurethane.
The Beta BioThane vinyl is a no-gloss, embossed coating that looks and feels like leather. In fact, our initial surprise was that it smelled like vinyl, not leather, out of the box. We got over that quickly. And, as soon as we started using it, it started to smell like horses. It’s available in black and browns, the darkest of which looks like well-oiled leather.
The polyurethane products look more synthetic and are identified by different names, but for simplicity’s sake, we’re going to stick to the industry’s term: regular BioThane. This coating is generally tougher, more abrasion-resistant than vinyl and can be translucent, opaque, shiny or no-gloss, and flat or embossed. Many colors are available so riders can coordinate their tack.
Like leather, nylon and cotton, BioThane is subject to abrasion from the hardware. The Beta is softer than the regular coating. The manufacturers in our field trial are obviously aware of this as they used smooth hardware that won’t abrade the tack. Still, we advise consumers to check the hardware before purchasing a bridle. Overall, we found less abrasion than we usually see with leather.
BioThane is said to be crack resistant, and we had no problems with it. Because the color of the BioThane is due to the coating, wear doesn’t remove the color. All plastics are affected by ultraviolet radiation, but BioPlastics claims that the pigments used retard color breakdown in sunlight. None of our test bridles faded in the sun.
The Easy Care
Still, BioThane’s biggest advantages over traditional leather are its ease of cleaning and its mold and mildew resistance. BioThane can be cleaned in a bucket of water, a washing machine (use a lingerie bag to keep the straps from tangling), or the dishwasher (keep the straps out of the dishwasher moving parts). It needs no conditioning.
Common soap and water work well. BioPlastics suggests over-the-counter cleaners, such as Fantastic or Murphy’s Oil Soap, followed by a good rinse. Car-vinyl type cleaners can be used for shine, but we think it gets too slippery.
Neither rain nor sweat affect it. If the buckle holes and ends are well sealed, the webbing won’t take on water. If the holes are not sealed, and the tack is washed thoroughly, a color change in regular BioThane may be noted as the webbing takes on water and disappears as the webbing dries. This can take hours or days.
These color changes don’t seem to affect the usability of the bridle, even if there’s some separation between the web and coating caused by use or moisture, but we still prefer sealed holes in the BioThane.
If you need to make additional holes in your BioThane tack, treat it like leather by using a hole punch, then treat it like nylon by passing a heated nail briefly through the holes to seal the coating completely.
BioThane is strong — maybe too strong. There may be times, such as during a fall, that we want the bridle to break. This problem is similar to why nylon halters without a breakaway piece can be dangerous on pastured horses. Sometimes you need that headgear to break in an emergency situation or fall.
Until manufacturers using these break-resistant materials come up with a safe “breakaway” system for bridles, we suggest you at least choose a bridle with malleable metal components, like brass, which may come apart under pressure and prevent extensive harm.
Regular BioThane is stiffer than both Beta and leather and can be challenging to work with if the product design doesn’t take this into account. Although it’s unclear why, it does appear that some BioThane products may be more sticky or squeaky than others.
We recommend you manipulate the bridle before purchasing it, noting how well buckles and ends connect to each other. Some manufacturers suggest a drop of oil or soap to help the pieces slide against each other and through buckles. We found just a little oil will do the trick.
We received differing accounts of BioThane’s resistance to the chemicals in fly repellents. Generally, BioThane is expected to be unaffected by the chemicals in fly repellents, while Beta can be affected by non-natural oils. If you use a chemical repellent, test it on a hidden area, like the underside end of a strap, to be certain of the effect it has.
Many of the synthetic bridles we used are made by manufacturers who also specialize in custom sizing and coloring and regular or Beta BioThane.
Although our findings will help you describe what you want, we do recommend sending measurements for the best fit. All the stitching held up well on all the bridles. Every bridle cleaned well, following manufacturers’ recommendations. We also subjected them to the toughest cleaning method — a washing machine.
We do caution you to check for rough spots in the bridle you considerand determine if they can be easily fixed with melting or if you should return it for another model.
We’re hesitant to recommend synthetic bridles for shows, but they are popular with endurance riders, who wouldn’t put up with an uncomfortable bridle on their horses. In addition, we think the idea of schooling bridles in your stable colors is fun — maybe with matching saddle pads.
Nylon and cotton tack are generally cheaper than BioThane, but they don’t seem to las t in their original condition as long as BioThane.
We resist our traditional preference for stainless steel with leather tack and, instead, insist on brass hardware because nylon, cotton and BioThane won’t break in an accident as readily as leather.
We’re sold on BioThane, especially the Beta BioThane in their deepest brown shade (BioPlastics BR 523), which is so leather-like. We can see ourselves saving our nice tack for show, and schooling and pleasure riding in Beta.
Sportack is unsurpassed for its obvious superior design on safety, with its brass hardware and horse comfort. For a halter-bridle, you’re not going to beat this combination. We like their Style D best and would recommend getting it in Beta Bio-Thane for $60.
If you’re looking for a Bio-Thane traditional-style bridle, we recommend Parry Harness’ Beta for $29, which is also our Best-Buy Bio-Thane. Be sure to request brass for added safety, however.
Those who prefer nylon won’t go wrong with Parker Enterprises Barrel Headstall for $18.50. However, if you want a cavesson, it’ll cost an additional $13.50.
Contact Your Local Tack Store Or: Fabri-Tech 800/332-4797; Kathy Huggins 570/458-6490; Parker Enterprises 800/851-5011; Parry Harness & Tack 800/889-6140, www.parrytack.com; Sportack 800/248-8225, www.sportack.com; Whinny Widgets 800/814-0141, www.whinnywidgets.com.
Also With This Article
Click here to view "Be Sure You Shop Smart."
Click here to view "Synthetic And Non-Leather Bridle Materials And Prices."
Click here to view "Synthetic/Non-Leather Bridle Evaluations."