Appearances are important. Color and styling draw us in, but it’s quality, fit and price make the sale.
Bridles come in a range of sizes, but they aren’t standard. A fine-headed horse can nicely fit a cob bridle in some cases, just as some large cobs need a full-size bridle. The only way to avoid multiple returns is to measure your horse’s head and compare the measurements at your local tack store or, if you catalog shop, call the company for specific information. Holding up the old one for comparison can be misleading.
Use a cloth measuring tape and take three measurements to determine bridle fit your horse: 1) body; 2) noseband; 3) brow band.
The body of the bridle includes the crown and both cheek pieces. Start from one lip corner over the horse’s poll to the other lip. This is a maximum length, as your bit style and size of its rings will affect the actual distance.
To get the measurement for a properly adjusted noseband, measure around your horse’s nose between one and three finger widths below the point of the cheek and over a helper’s finger set along the jawbone.
The brow band measurement is crucial, since it’s the only one with no points of adjustment. A tight brow band will pinch, rub the ears and pull the cheek pieces into the eyes, making the horse uncomfortable. Measure for the brow band from outside edge to outside edge. It may be easier to take this measurement with a bridle on the horse.
An ideally fitted bridle buckles into the second hole from the end of the strap. This is most important in a show bridle where a neat appearance is important. Excessive flapping distracts the horse and presents an unappealing picture.
We measured our horse-size test bridles and found a four-inch variance in the length of the cheek pieces, a six-inch difference in the nosebands and 1 ??” in the brow bands. (Overall, the brow bands ran a bit smaller than we need them to be.) We also noted that a bridle larger at one point of comparison may be smaller at another.
Most new bridles are stiffer before use, but they shouldn’t feel like wood or cardboard. Run your hands over the straps, checking both sides. You want smooth, soft leather not a gritty feel. Check the stitching and note if it’s even, straight and tight. Inspect the dye job. All parts of the bridle should match. The edges and underside should be finished.
Try all the fasteners. Buckle holes should be larger on the back and smaller to the front. This improves the look, protects the leather and makes them easier to work. Some noseband buckles will have a leather flap to protect the horse’s chin from buckle rubs. It’s a nice extra if the buckles are set back in the strap with fixed keepers on each side and a sliding one for the end of the strap.
Stud hooks will limber up with use, but if it takes a pair of pliers now it’s doubtful they’re ever going to be easy to use. Note to see if the studs are seated tightly and that there’s ample room to maneuver the strap over them and into the keepers. (We do wish there had been more choices with buckles instead of studs for attaching reins and bits, as found on the $119.95 Thornhill Pro Padded Raised Bridle #2021.)
While you’re checking the stud fasteners, look to see if there’s a wear leather piece inside the loop to cushion the bridle from bit ring wear. The reins may have one, too. These tend to make it harder to work the closure and may be unnecessary in a show bridle.
Try all the keepers, remembering that they’ll loosen with time. Sliders that are loose now will likely slip down after breaking in.
Slide your hands over the laces on the reins, as if you’re riding. Remember they will soften some with use and cleaning, but poor leather will always be poor leather. Take a good look at the lacing, as we found a bridle where the lacing skipped a hole. That won’t affect use, but it’s not pretty.
Rein length can be an issue. Most reins are 54” to 58” in length, although one of our test bridles came with 60” reins, which is what you’ll want for the “stretchy, chewy” moments in dressage.
Plain, traditional cavessons were found on most of our test bridles. However, flash nosebands are a fine training aid when properly adjusted. The main noseband stays right where you measured it and the flash goes in front of the bit (under the ring or full-cheek arm) and fits in the chin groove. It should not indent the horse’s flesh. The old German dressage instructors’ rule of thumb was that “a horse should be able to take a small tidbit from your palm and chew it” for a correct fit. If your horse is gaping his mouth and avoiding the bit, a flash may just disguise the problem.
Show bridles are supposed to be dressier. Padded bridles are an excellent option for the sensitive horse and, in most cases, are a nice fashion statement as well. Raised bridles come with a round or square buildup of leather on the noseband and brow band and, in some cases, on the lower rein as well. This can really accent an otherwise plain-headed horse, giving him a little extra pizzazz.
Some show bridles sport fancy stitching that adds beauty, but be aware this white stitching is tough to keep clean, however, and can fray. You’ll want to protect it in a soft clean bag when not on the horse and only use non-darkening agents to clean the bridle. As a daily bridle, the stitching may quickly darken and fray, making the piece look old and dirty even when it isn’t.
Despite our efforts, we didn’t find anything that would safely whiten the stitching. Nothing short of replacement will cure fraying, although a little saddle wax may make the stitching look smoother.
Most of us want to match our saddle, so color is the final criteria. We recommend you choose the best match but realize that age and oil can darken it a lot.
One of our test bridles initially looked like a questionable purple but darkened to a beautiful black cherry. Some “oranges” will become a pretty russet, while others remain orange.
Although we technically consider all these under $140 bridles to be “economy choices,” we found many solid picks in this lot under $60. The less-expensive standouts are the $59.95 Schneider’s Pinnacle Fancy Stitched Bridle #16698 and the Dover Saddlery Suffolk Fancy Bridle #1287, which earns overall Best Buy at an amazing $34.90.
In the higher-priced category, the highest marks go to:
• Dover’s Saddlery Crown Hunter Fancy Raised Bridle #12169 ($89.90),
• Thornhill’s Pro-Padded Bridle w/flash #2071 ($127.95),
• Both bridles from English Riding Supply (the Avalon Quarter Horse Bridle #475064 at $119.95 and the Northampton Plain Raised Bridle #408500 at $129.95)
• Three Weaver bridles: the Plain Raised Bridle #20-1027 ($102), the Square Raised Bridle #20-1022 ($104) and the Raised Fancy Stitch Bridle #20-1032 ($125)
The Weaver 20-1032 is our overall first choice in bridles. This bridle gave us everything we could want in a fine show bridle at an equally nice price.