As a trail rider, you know your trail bridle should be tough and durable. It's likely to become sweaty, it may get rained on, and it'll probably get splashed during water crossings. Your bridle can catch on bushes, underbrush, and tree branches. You'll be safer and have more fun on the trail if you don't have to worry about damaging your tack.
To help you choose the right headgear for your horse, we'll first describe bridle types: headstall and bit, halter-bridle combination, bosal, English hackamore, mechanical hackamore, vosal, and the patented Bitless Bridle. Then we'll discuss snaffle and curb bits (including bit materials), tell you which bits are best for trail riders, and give you bit-fit basics.
Today, you have an array of basic bridle types to choose from; here's a rundown of each one.
Headstall and bit. An ordinary headstall-and-bit type bridle has a headstall (the bridle's headgear portion), a bit, and reins. An English bridle will include a crownpiece (the top portion, which lies behind the ears) noseband (which buckles around the nose), two adjustable cheekpieces (which run from the crownpiece down either side of the face, to the bit), a browband (which attaches to the crownpiece and runs across the forehead) and a throatlatch (which runs through the crownpiece and attaches under the throat).
Western bridles are more varied; a Western headstall may have a browband or a one- or two-ear headstall (that is, a headstall with places for one or both ears to fit through). The ears may be shaped (fixed) or sliding (adjustable). Not all Western headstalls include a throatlatch, but one is recommended, as it helps keep the bridle on.
An English bridle will typically be used with a snaffle bit; a Western bridle may be used with a curb bit and curb strap/chain (which runs behind the bit, under your horse's chin), or with a snaffle. Note that a wide, soft strap is gentler than a thin, hard, textured one.
Halter-bridle combination. One popular headstall-and-bit bridle type for trail riders is the halter-bridle combination, also known as a trail bridle, halter-bridle, or combo bridle. This bridle sports a convertible headstall constructed with a loose, sturdy noseband and a pair of clip-on, snap-on, or buckle-on cheekpieces and clip-on reins, or a long single rein with clips at each end.
This bridle type allows your horse to eat and drink freely and comfortably. It also allows you to easily convert the bridle to a halter for leading and tying ease on the trail. (Note that placing a halter under a bridle creates bulk that can pull the bit uncomfortably high in your horse's mouth and hamper your rein cues, resulting in less-than-optimal communication.)
Halter-bridle combos are available in leather and manmade materials. Manmade materials include biothane, Beta biothane, Zilco, and parachute cord. Biothane is nylon webbing with a polyurethane coating; Beta biothane is a form of biothane with a vinyl coating that looks and feels more like leather; Zilco has an internal core of strong, pretreated nylon webbing encased in polymer; parachute cord or paracord features a heavy, continuous filament covering over a woven-polymer inner core.
These manmade materials come in a wide variety of bright colors, which enhance your visibility on the trail and to passing motorists. These materials are also comfortable for your horse, easy to handle, durable, and easy to clean. (To clean, simply dunk your bridle in a bucket of water, and wipe off with a clean cloth.)
Western hackamore/bosal. The Western hackamore or bosal is a teardrop-shaped noseband made from strips of leather braided over a rawhide core. The bosal itself is one of four pieces that make up this headgear type. The other three are the mecate (a 22-foot braided-horsehair rope that serves as both rein and lead rope), the fiador (a piece of rope that keeps the bosal upright), and the headstall, which usually comes with a browband.
The bosal fits closely around the top and sides of your horse's nose. Its nose and cheek buttons (small areas of thicker braiding) rest against his face. The heel knot (the heavy braided knot at the bosal's lowest point) hangs straight down, keeping the bosal balanced. Rein pressure causes the heel knot to move back toward the rider, putting pressure on your horse's nose and face. The weight of the heel knot causes the bosal to swing forward again instantly to give him immediate relief when your release the rein pressure.
Learning how to correctly use a bosal means becoming part of a long tradition of California vaquero horsemanship. It's a part of history and an aspect of horsemanship worth preserving. If you're interested in this type of headgear, learn from a genuine expert, in person.
Expert tips: Avoid so-called "bosals" made with metal cores or even (horrors) made entirely from metal. This type of noseband won't conform to your horse's face, will likely hurt his nose, and will interfere with your rein cues. Also avoid bosals made from soft cotton rope, as they'll also interfere with your rein cues.
English/jumping hackamore. An English or jumping hackamore features a headstall with a noseband that fastens with a leather strap and buckle. The noseband is made from a short piece of rope covered with soft leather and ends in rings for the reins. If you prefer, you can purchase the noseband separately and attach it to your English headstall's cheekpieces.
This hackamore type functions very much as a halter would if you attached a rein to each of the lower side rings, but it's more comfortable for your horse. It's also safer, as it stays in place better and provides better "eye clearance" than a halter.
Expert tips: Look for strong, flexible leather, smooth edges, and even stitching. Avoid cheap, stiff, cardboard-like (or too-soft, over-oiled) imported leather that could break and leave you stranded. Position the noseband one or two fingers' width below your horse's cheekbone. Fasten it snugly, but not so tightly that your horse can't chew.
Mechanical hackamore. A mechanical hackamore works like a "bit" on your horse's face. When you apply rein pressure, long shanks (curved pieces on either side of the noseband) bring leveraged pressure (that is, a greater amount of pressure than you place on the reins) to bear on his nose, chin groove, poll, and sometimes the sides of his face. The mechanical hackamore's severity depends on shank length (the longer the shank, the more leverage it applies), noseband/curb strap material (wider and softer materials are milder), and, of course, your hands.
Many riders believe that since there is no mouthpiece, a mechanical hackamore must be a gentle, painless way to control a horse. In fact, a long-shanked mechanical hackamore is a severe and potentially very painful piece of equipment; some models are capable of breaking bones.
A mechanical hackamore can be useful for casual trail riding, provided that it has a wide, padded leather noseband, a curb strap rather than a chain, and very short shanks - no more than a few inches long - that curve back toward your hands. This describes the mildest and safest mechanical hackamore.
Expert tips: If you normally ride in a halter or an English hackamore at home, then the mild mechanical hackamore just described would be a suitable "step up" for more control on the trail. But keep in mind that it isn't very useful for lateral (side-to-side) control.
Vosal. A vosal - a sort of bosal/mechanical hackamore hybrid - is a type of noseband popular with many endurance riders. Like a bosal, a vosal creates pressure points on your horse's nose and under his jaw. Unlike a mechanical hackamore or curb bit, the vosal has no shanks for leveraged pressure. It also doesn't interfere with your horse's eating or drinking ability. However, the vosal does provide strong rider control - including effective lateral control.
Expert tip: Unless your hands are very light, you may find that your vosal has rubbed some skin off your horse's nose at the end of a long ride. To prevent this, apply a genuine sheepskin noseband cover to your vosal.
Bitless Bridle. The patented Bitless Bridle is made on the pattern of the "Be Nice" halter. When you pull, say, the left rein to turn left, the bridle doesn't pull the left side of your horse's mouth. Instead, it applies pushing pressure to the right side of his jaw.
This effective bridle offers both longitudinal ("whoa and go") and lateral control. You can use it without applying much rein pressure at all, because your horse will likely instantly understand the way it works. (In fact, you'll probably need more time to "get it" than your horse will.)
Many riders believe that "bit" and "control" are synonyms, and they can't imagine "going bitless." They worry that if they began riding down the trail without a bit, they'd quickly find themselves racing down the trail on an out-of-control horse.
Giving up the bit doesn't mean that you give up control. One of the great myths of horseback riding is that the bit stops the horse. The bit does not stop the horse. All a bit can do is help you tell your horse that you'd like him to slow or stop - and you can tell him that just as clearly without a bit.
The standard Bitless Bridle is available in brown or black English bridle leather, Beta biothane, and nylon webbing. The original Bitless Bridle looks more like English tack, but there's now a version made from heavier harness leather, and features Western-looking buckles and conchos.
Expert tips: If your Bitless Bridle isn't adjusted correctly, the pressure may not release instantly when you release rein pressure, which will hamper optimal rein communication. Take time to learn how to properly adjust the bridle in an arena before you hit the trails.
Whether your trail bridle has a curb, a snaffle, or no bit at all, have your veterinarian examine your horse's teeth. Points (sharp edges) on the teeth can cause even the mildest bit to lacerate your horse's tongue - and any bridle pressure can cause those points to lacerate the inside of his cheeks. Your veterinarian can float your horse's teeth (remove the points) - or reassure you that your horse's teeth are fine.
Snaffle vs. Curb Bits
Now, here's a closer look at the two primary bit types you'll likely use on the trail: the snaffle and the curb.
Snaffle bits. Snaffle bits are simple. A snaffle works by direct pressure: you put a certain amount of pressure on the reins, and your horse feels the same amount of pressure in his mouth. A snaffle has a mouthpiece (the part of the bit that fits in your horse's mouth) with a ring at each end; you attach the reins to these rings, at mouthpiece level.
Mouthpiece options include a straight-bar snaffle (which is solid and straight), a mullen-mouth snaffle (which is solid and curved), and a broken mouthpiece with one or more joints. Ring options include O-ring (which is round), D-ring (which is shaped like the letter "D"), and full-cheek (which has "arms" above and below the mouthpiece to prevent the bit from being pulled through the mouth if your horse resists your rein cues).
Expert tips: A broken mouthpiece with two joints and a flat, shaped, or rounded center section puts less pressure on your horse's tongue and bars (the gap on his lower jaw between his incisors and the molars where the bit lies) than other snaffle types. This enhances communication by allowing you to move one side of the bit at a time. Avoid thin mouthpieces, which put pressure on a very small area of your horse's mouth. Excessive pressure can easily tear or cut your horse's sensitive mouth tissues.
Curb bits. A curb is a more complicated bit than a snaffle. A curb has shanks that extend above and below the mouthpiece. You attach the headstall to the purchase (the upper end of the shanks, above the mouthpiece), and attach the reins to rings at the lower shanks, below the mouthpiece.
Rein pressure causes the lower shanks to put pressure on your horse's mouth and under his jaw; the purchase puts pressure on his poll. Curbs are leverage bits, which multiply the rein pressure: One pound of rein pressure may mean three or more pounds of pressure on your horse's mouth.
To estimate the amount of leverage, first look at overall shank length; a bit with 10-inch shanks will be much stronger than a bit with the same mouthpiece and 4-inch shanks. Then look at the length of the lower shank and the purchase. A long lower shank and shorter purchase will create more leverage on the lower jaw, via the bit and curb strap. A shank with the same overall length but with a longer purchase and a shorter lower shank will apply more pressure to the poll and less "squeeze" to the lower jaw.
Also note that when you apply pressure to the reins, the curb strap causes the bit's mouthpiece to rotate. This squeezes your horse's lower jaw between the mouthpiece and the curb strap, and puts pressure on his poll.
Curb strap length affects the bit's timing (how quickly it acts). A bit with a tight curb strap will act almost instantly; a loose curb strap creates slower timing, allowing an attentive horse to respond to a slight shift in the mouthpiece, even before the squeezing begins.
A curb bit may have a port (a low, medium, or high raised area in the center of a solid mouthpiece), which places more pressure on the bars and less pressure on the tongue. A horse with a thick tongue may be uncomfortable in a mullen-mouth or low-port bit, and more comfortable in a bit with a medium or high port for more "tongue relief." If a port is very high, or a horse's palate is very low, rein pressure may cause the port to act on the roof of the horse's mouth.
Expert tip: A bit that works off leverage is a curb bit, no matter what it may be called in the tack catalog. For instance, "cowboy snaffles" and "Argentine snaffles" are curb bits. In fact, a "cowboy snaffle" is a curb that combines the nutcracker effect of a broken mouthpiece with the leverage provided by shanks.
Bits are made from a variety of materials. Some are more effective than others in maintaining your trail horse's comfort and encouraging a moist mouth. Here's a brief rundown.
Metal bits. Stainless steel (an iron alloy immune to rust and corrosion) is a popular, inexpensive, attractive, and durable bit material, but it's not necessarily the one your horse would select if given a choice. Most horses seem to appreciate the taste of sweet iron, also known as mild steel and cold-rolled steel. This metal alloy is slightly softer than stainless steel, and instead of a perpetual shine, will quickly begin to rust. Rust actually tastes sweet to most horses and enhances salivation.
Copper (a malleable metallic element that resists corrosion) causes horses to salivate, but more often than not, they seem to dislike the taste of the metal - and soft copper is easily chewed into rough areas and ridges that will hurt a horse's mouth. Many copper alloys, on the other hand, are readily accepted by horses, and encourage a moist - but not drippy - mouth.
Alluminum (a metallic chemical element) is so lightweight, it's impossible for horses to carry these bits comfortably or to easily understand your rein cues; plus, this material tends to make horses' mouths dry.
Non-metal bits. Among non-metal bits, nylon (a synthetic polymer) is probably most acceptable to horses. Rubber (an elastic material made from tree sap or synthetically) and rubber-coated metal mouthpieces are generally too thick for horses to close their mouths comfortably, which tends to make their mouths dry.
Best Bits for Trail Riding
The best trail bit is the gentlest bit you can use on your horse while still offering optimal control. It's also one that presents the smallest, smoothest surface outside his mouth. When you're riding through heavy brush or ducking to avoid low-
hanging tree branches, or when your horse reaches down for a mouthful of grass, you don't want your bit to catch on anything. Here's a closer look at best bits to use on the trail.
Recommended bits. If you use a curb bit on your trail bridle, it should be one with a low or medium port and short, swept-back shanks. A typical colt bit (a mullen-mouth, sweet-iron curb with very short shanks) can be an excellent trail bit if you ride with a loose rein; a mullen-mouth or low-port one-piece snaffle can be an excellent trail bit if you prefer to ride on light contact.
If you use a curb and feel that you need "more bit," look for one with short shanks and a longer purchase; this configuration will provide you with the leverage you want, without increasing the risk of the bit catching on something.
If you use a snaffle, don't choose a full-cheek model for the trail; it could easily catch on a branch. If you're worried about the possibility of a strong pull on one rein pulling the bit through your horse's mouth, opt for a D-ring instead of an O-ring snaffle, which tends to stay put. Or, take a tip from racehorse trainers and add a loosely adjusted, soft leather chin strap to the snaffle rings to help keep the bit in place.
Bits to avoid. Stay away from all curbs with long shanks and high ports. These exert powerful pressure and are far too severe for trail use. Also, long shanks not only can easily catch on a branch, but also they can make it difficult for your horse to eat or drink on the trail.
Here are some bit-fit basics to help keep your horse comfortable and to optimize your rein cues.
Choose the right width. Bits should be slightly wider than the width of your horse's mouth; up to a half-inch for a snaffle, a little less for a curb. A too-narrow bit is likely to pinch his lips. A too-wide bit will slip from side to side, placing uneven pressure on his mouth, and making your signals unclear and confusing.
Look for smoothness. Bit mouthpieces should be smooth, with no uneven or rough areas, and no ridges where they've been chewed (a common problem with bits made from copper or covered with rubber).
Position it right. Your bit should lie comfortably in your horse's mouth. A too-high bit will put constant pressure on his lips and interfere with your rein signals. A too-low bit can annoy him by banging against his lower teeth. A too-low bit can also cause pain, because the front part of your horse's bars (toward his incisors) is thinner and sharper than the back part (toward his molars), which makes bit pressure more concentrated and severe.
The default, "starter" position for both snaffles and curbs should be just touching the corners of your horse's mouth. From that position, you can slightly lower a curb or raise a snaffle, if the adjustment makes your horse more comfortable.
Check the curb strap. Adjust the curb strap so it lies flat, and so that it's loose enough for you to fit two stacked fingers between the strap's underside and your horse's chin groove. Also, adjust it so that it'll engage - begin to act - only when rein pressure has caused the bit to swivel a full 45 degrees. (Test the engagement from the ground.)
Re-check bit fit. If you remove your usual bit from your everyday bridle and put it on a halter-bridle combo, double-check the bit's fit and adjustment, as cheekpiece length can vary.
BRIDLE & BIT RESOURCE GUIDE
(866) ZILCO4U [945-2048]
The Australian Connection
Australian Stock Saddle Company
The Bitless Bridle Inc.
Brighton Feed & Saddlery
Circle Y of Yoakum Inc.
Crates Leather Company
Difani's Backcountry Mfg. Co.
Down Under Saddle Supply
Flat Creek Saddle Shop
Gaits of Gold Enterprises Inc.
Hought Fine Art & Leather
J.J. Maxwell Tack & Saddle Company
Kate's Saddle Supply
Libertyville Saddle Shop
Long Riders Gear
National Bridle Shop, Inc.
OrthoFlex Saddleworks, Inc.
Parry Harness and Tack
Reinsman Equestrian Products
Saddle Up Shop
(800) 248-TACK 
Stable Gear Tack
State Line Tack
Tex Tan Western Leather Company
Toklat Originals, Inc.
Trail & Pleasure Riding Supplies
Weaver Leather Inc.
Wind Rider Tack
Bit of Britain
Flat Creek Saddle Shop
Libertyville Saddle Shop
Mary's Tack and Feed
Mikmar Bit Co.
Pard's Western Shop
Partrade Trading Co. LLC
Reinsman Equestrian Products
State Line Tack
Toklat Originals Inc./Myler Bits
Tom Balding Bits and Spurs
Weaver Leather Inc.