Horse wearing bridle

What is a Horse Bridle, and How Does It Work?

A horse bridle is an important piece of equipment since the rider uses it to communicate with their horse while riding. Just like with most other horse-riding tack, there are many options to choose from depending on the type of riding you are doing and if you are competing with your horse. In this post, we review what a bridle is used for, the primary types available, the parts of a bridle you should be familiar with, how bridles work, and how to choose the right one for you and your horse.

Types of Bridles

There are three primary types of bridles used for English riding disciplines.

  • Snaffle Bridle — This type is the most commonly-used bridle in English riding, with one bit and one set of reins. It can be used with most types of single-rein bits, including single curb bits, gag bits, and Kimberwicks. 
  • Fox hunting Bridle — This bridle works with a single Pelham bit. It uses two sets of reins, one for snaffle action and one for curb action.
  • Figure 8 Bridle — The Figure 8 gets its name from the crossed noseband that resembles the number 8. This bridle is commonly used on jumpers and eventing horses.
  • Double Bridle — Sometimes known as a Weymouth bridle, this bridle uses two bits at once: a small snaffle bit, also called a bradoon, and a curb bit or Weymouth bit. 
  • Hackamore Bridle — A hackamore does not use a bit. Instead, the shanks on the mechanical hackamore serve the function that a bit would. The hackamore places pressure over the nose and other points of the horse’shead.

Snaffle bridles are the most commonly used for English riding, with Pelham bridles coming in second in popularity. Double bridles are typically only used for upper-level dressage and for showing in events that require formal attire and equipment. 

Parts of a Bridle

The three primary horse bridle parts are the headpiece, bit, and reins. The headpiece is the part that fits around the horse’s head and it includes the following:

  • Crown Piece — The crown piece describes the main strap that goes over a horse’s head just behind the ears that hold the rest of the bridle in place. 
  • Cheek Pieces — Cheek pieces are straps that connect the bit to the crown piece and aid with easily adjusting the bridle’s fit to the horse for comfort and to maximize responsiveness. English bridles have two cheek pieces that attach to either end of the crown piece and run down the side of the horse’s cheekbones and attach to the bit rings. You can also purchase a bradoon hanger for horses moving into a double bridle, a single strap with a left-side buckle adjustment and attachments for the bit at each end, to be worn under a snaffle bridle to create a double bridle effect.
  • Throatlatch — Generally part of the crown piece leather, the throatlatch runs from the horse’s right ear under the throat and attaches below the left ear on the left side of the jaw. It prevents the bridle from slipping over the horse’s head.
  • Browband — The browband connects the crownpiece across the front of a horse’s forehead holding the bridle pieces together and prevents the bridle from sliding behind the poll onto the upper neck. 
  • Noseband — The noseband helps to hold the bit in place and can be used to keep the horse’s mouth closed. You will sometimes see a Cavesson/Caveson noseband on English bridles that attaches to its own headstall connected to the bridle by the browband — these are known as mono crown bridles and are useful for adjusting with greater precision.

These leather pieces of the bridle can be adjusted to fit the horse. They shouldn’t be too tight or they will cause discomfort. And a bridle that is too loose can easily come off or can rub the horse and create sore spots. A comfortable, secure fit is essential.

A bridle also includes reins and a bit. The reins consist of a long, narrow strap that attaches to the bit. Reins are held in a rider’s hands and are used to guide a horse while riding. A bridle bit goes into the horse’s mouth and is used with the reins to communicate with the horse. Snaffle bits are most commonly used for English riding, and they come in many variations. 

How Does a Horse Bridle Work?

The bit, headpiece, and reins all work together to form a means of communicating with the horse. Bits work by applying pressure inside the horse’s mouth. Depending on the bit used, it may apply pressure on the horse’s tongue, the roof of the mouth, and the corners of the mouth. The primary use for the headpiece is to hold the bit in place in a horse’s mouth though it also may create additional pressure on a horse’s cheeks, chin, nose, or poll. The bit rests on the gums in a space between the incisors and molars and needs to be in its proper place to work effectively and to be comfortable for the horse. 

The way a bridle works takes advantage of a horse’s natural inclination to move away from the discomfort of pressure — it results in the horse moving in the direction the rider wants to go as the rider pulls on the reins. By using strategic pulls, the rider signals what they desired of the horse. Keep in mind that bits should only provide pressure and not pain. Make sure to fit your horse properly for a bit to ensure it’s comfortable and effective.

Horses are trained to respond to a rider. Generally, applying pressure to one side of the reins pulls the horse’s head in that direction. For example,  when a rider pulls the bridle reins to the left, the horse receives the signal to move towards the left, and vice versa. Applying a consistent pressure on both sides of the reins generally signals to a horse to slow down or to stop, depending on the level of pressure. This communication is used in conjunction with signals from the rider’s legs and voice commands. 

Choosing the Right Bridle for Riding Disciplines

There are some variations in bridles between the different English riding disciplines. Sometimes decorative elements may be added to the browband for certain English riding sports like dressage and saddle seat.

  • Hunters and equitation — Hunter bridle styles are usually understated and standardized as tradition is important with this sport. Riders use brown bridles, sometimes with fancy stitch patterns on the browband and noseband. 
  • Dressage — More innovation is found with dressage bridles and you may see a lot of bling and decoration. Padded bridles with flash nosebands are usually seen at the lower level. And for upper levels, padded double bridles are used. Nosebands may be a regular buckle or crank style. 
  • Jumping — Jumpers fall in between hunters or eventing with a mix of classic style and innovative design. Padding and fancy stitching is common as well as detailing and variation in nosebands. 
  • Eventing — Some riders will use the same bridle for all three phases though most choose separate bridles for dressage and for jumping. 

If you’re focused on a specific discipline, you’ll want to choose a bridle that’s specifically made for that discipline. You can, of course, use whatever you choose for casual trail riding as there are no requirements and limitations. 

Your bridle will become ultra familiar to you as your work with your horse. Because it serves such an important role in communicating with your horse, you’ll want to choose one that’s made to suit your specific needs. As you’re thinking through the type of bridle to choose, check out our English bridles — we carry only those that our customers have highly rated and that we have experience with ourselves.


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