Bridle comfort matters to your horse. Proper fit - including bit placement - design and supple leather come in to play here. When assessing fit for the horse's comfort, concentrate on the throatlatch, crown and noseband.
The throatlatch needs to be long enough to be adjusted so you can fit at least three fingers between it and the horse. Looser is better than tighter, as the horse needs to be able to flex comfortably in that area. If it's too tight, it can cause tension in the jaw and possible the poll area, too. Still, it shouldn't be so loose, as the throatlatch helps keep the bridle on the horse.
The crown should sit behind the ears with enough room so the ears can swivel freely. Check the area behind the horse’s ears to be sure he can comfortably move his ears. The headpiece should sit directly behind, and not on, the bottom of the ear. If the headpiece rests too close to the ears, you may want to look at the fit of your brow band. The design or width of the crown and/or the tightness of the brow band can be issues here.
Some bridles have cutout crowns, giving the ears more room. They also may help relieve poll pressure overall. Bridles are also available with padded crowns, an option if the horse is particularly sensitive in the crown area. Cutout crowns tend to be on pricier bridles, but padding can be found many moderately priced bridles.
Noseband padding can be helpful, especially at the chin rather than top of the nose. The padding may also allow you to tighten the cavesson a bit more, if you need that. Note: An inexpensive solution to sensitive crown or chin issues is a neoprene pad. Two good ones are from RideWell (www.ridewellequine.com 310-463-5568) and Cashel Company (www.cashelcompany.com 800-333-2202).
A plain noseband is a popular, safe choice for a noseband, but the flash noseband, used primarily on horses that simply don’t want to keep their mouth shut, is gaining popularity.
The flash noseband consists of a strap of thinner leather with a buckle that goes through a loop on the regular noseband, around the horse’s jaw and below the bit. It can also be sewn into the regular noseband, making it a permanent attachment, but using a loop attachment allows you to remove it entirely for times you just want a plain cavesson. The flash noseband should fit snuggly with the buckle positioned in the muzzle area, not the chin area. With the plain cavesson-flash combination, you can still use a martingale as it can attach to the plain cavesson.
Other nosebands, such as a drop/dropped noseband or a figure eight, are not usually sold with a bridle but added later for horses that need them.
The brow band keeps the bridle from slipping back, toward the horse’s neck. It sits below the horse’s ears (about two fingers width), neatly resting on the horse’s head without tension or gapping. A brow band that’s too large is not pretty and won’t properly perform its job. Too small and tight, and you’ll have headpiece-fit problems and/or pressure over the brow band area.
Fortunately, especially with today’s trend toward fancier brow bands, it’s easy to buy just a brow band if you happen to need a smaller or larger one for your horse. You can choose among brow bands with jewels, crystals, metal clinchers in several varieties, and the classic raised, stitched look.
Cheek pieces are critical. They must be able to be adjusted to get proper bit position. Usually, you can add a hole or two. If not, you probably should have purchased a larger or smaller bridle.
How the cheek pieces and reins attach to the bit is a big consideration for many of us, although this one's for human comfort. Hook studs can be aggravating at times - especially for those of us losing some finger dexterity - so many people prefer the ease of buckle attachments. But disciplines matter here. If you're in the hunter ring, you're probably going to stay with sleek-looking, traditional hook studs.
Bridle sizing is a lot like human clothing sizes. Manufacturers may use similar names to describe the sizes—pony, cob, full, oversize—but they don’t necessarily use the same measurements within each size. Plus, just because you have a horse who is 15.3 hands—not a “cob” height—you still may find the cob bridle your best bet.
Even though most bridles come with a large number of pre-punched fitting holes and room to add a few of your own, you may find yourself trying a couple of different brands of bridles to find the best overall fit. Head to your tack store, explain what you’re doing and find out about their return policies. Get the best all-around fit you can, but be prepared to swap out some parts, such as the brow band--or to have to get a totally custom bridle--to achieve a safe, comfortable fit for your horse.
Choosing good leather isn’t a matter of avoiding the cheapest choice or reaching for the most expensive option on the tack store wall. Check the bridle’s its overall look. All the parts should appear to have been made from the same piece of leather, meaning they’re all similar in color and texture.
Look to see that edges are nicely finished, smooth and rounded, and not rough or gapped. The leather should feel supple in your hands, not stiff or difficult to bend or flex. The leather may have a white waxy look to it, which is OK. That excess conditioner just needs to be rubbed into the leather; in fact, some folks think it’s a good thing.
Inspect the sewing. Be sure it consists of tiny, tight stitches that are uniform in size and color. Be sure there are no loose ends or worn stitching.
The pre-punched holes should all be smaller on the outer side than on the underneath part, as this will help secure the buckle better. Some holes may be similar in size, inside and out, which is still acceptable. Beware of holes that are smaller on the inside surface than the outer surface, however, as that means the maker punched the holes backwards.
Check that all the hardware is smooth and that all buckles or hooks are easy to maneuver. Be sure the keepers work, holding the leather straps securely in place. Look for keepers that are initially a little snug, rather than loose, as it’s virtually a guarantee that they will only become looser and then slide down out of place. Check the backs of the keepers, too, to see that they are securely stitched together. Feel the reins, picking them up as if you were holding them to ride. If they aren’t suitable, but the rest of the bridle is, talk with the dealer to see if you can swap them out for another pair of reins.
We recommend you choose a bridle in the same color as your saddle, especially if you’re competing in events other than endurance and trail riding, where you may opt for a flashy synthetic-material bridle. Next, the size and style of the bridle should complement your horse’s head. A tiny Thoroughbred mare might look overpowered in a thick-leather bridle suited more toward a Friesian stallion.
One of the most popular styles is a raised-leather bridle, which has an extra thickness of leather in the noseband and the brow band. It usually also has a stitched design, and it looks good on most horses.
A lined bridle has an extra thickness/width of leather on the inside the noseband and the brow band, usually in a contrasting color. For instance, a black bridle with white lining will show a tad of white accent on the top and bottom borders of the noseband and brow band. You can now choose among a number of color combinations, including hunter green, maroon and navy, matching your saddle pad if you’d like. Lined bridles are also sometimes padded for additional comfort.
A round leather bridle has a rounded noseband, brow band and cheek pieces. Sometimes the front of the reins will also be rounded. These bridles look best on very fine-boned horses.
A thicker leather bridle—meaning with wider straps—may be best for a large-headed horses. These heavier bridles were popular years ago, especially in the hunting field, but we’re seeing some reappearing today.
Be sure you understand how the bridle you're considering is put together and that it is acceptable to you. Manufacturers sometimes change the traditional methods of attachment, usually in the name of comfort or ease of use. For example, the Dover Saddlery Warendorf Deluxe Dressage Bridle the cavesson strap doesn't go over the horse's head in the usual fashion. Instead, the cavesson attaches to cheek pieces on both sides of the head, allowing you to adjust the height on either sides with buckles.
ThinLine places its open-foam ThinLine material on the crown and noseband. it's well-known for its shock absorption and pressure distribution (we have recommended the ThinLine saddle pad in past years). It's also anti-fungal.
Note, though, that because this is foam, some products - including some coat polishes and leather conditioners - can dry out or damage the material. The manufacturer recommends using a paste leather conditioner, which allows you to have better control over where it goes when you're doing your leather. Wash the ThinLine padding with water or you can use the ThinLine Cleaner, which can be used to care for both the padding and the leather.
A comfortable bridle isn't going to turn a mediocre horse into a champion, but it may change his attitude. Padding in the noseband and crown are particularly useful for sensitive horses. We also like cut-out crowns for relieving pressure in the poll area and allowing ears to swivel freely.
You do tend to "get what you pay for" in bridles. Quality leather is costly, and designs that are innovative up the price tag, too. Expect to pay a minimum ballpark figure of $100 to obtain a bridle that will last your horse's lifetime and beyond.
And be sure to find out the retailer's return policy and requirements before you take the bridle home. Top-quality leather and craftsmanship come at a steep price.
Sometimes, you'll find that your tack shop or catalog will swap out reins for you, so don't be afraid to ask. We don't think it's fair to ask them to swap out a plain browband for one with bling, though. That's a separate purchase. In fact, being able to purchase bridles as separate pieces is especially important to many using double bridles, where it's often easier to have different-feeling reins on the snaffle and curb reins.