Bridling is a fundamental part of tacking your horse in preparation for almost any activity with her. Most horses accept this basic handling procedure without complaint, but some horses object.
Why Do Some Horses Object to Being Bridled?
If your horse objects to being bridled, your first assumption shouldn’t be that she’s unruly or even that she’s inexperienced or not well-trained. Instead, you should assume the bridle is causing pain of some sort. (Please see our article on Horses Who Are Head Shy for more information on identifying and resolving problems related to head handling in horses.)
Objections to bridling can be a sign that your horse experiences pain from either the bridling process or the fit of the bridle or bit. It may be that her ears or part of her head are bothering her, or perhaps her teeth, tongue, lips or other parts of her mouth hurt. Often, horses have problems with their teeth. Because they’re grazers, their teeth grow continuously. But modern-day horses rarely are allowed to graze uninterrupted for long periods of time. Even if they are, the grasses and other forage we provide them is not as coarse as what they’d eat in the wild. Consequently, their teeth develop uneven lengths and sharp edges. This can be particularly uncomfortable for a horse when she has a bit in her mouth.
Any horse can develop dental problems. So before you try bridling your horse for the first time, have her teeth checked and, if necessary, professionally filed. This process is referred to as having your horse’s teeth “floated.” Floating doesn’t have to be done by a veterinarian. However, if you’re having your horse’s teeth floated because of bridling resistance, be sure to have a veterinarian check other areas of her mouth and head for any hidden problems.
The most important guidelines for bridling your horse—or doing anything with her—are to take it slow, be patient with your horse and yourself, and move calmly, confidently and deliberately. Never move abruptly or with quick or jerky movements. Always give your horse the benefit of the doubt, and assume that she‘ll accept what you’re doing if she knows what is about to happen. This means that you should make sure that she can always see you and that you show her tack or other tools before you touch her with them. If you follow this simple rule, you can avoid unexpected reactions by your horse. If your horse does react poorly to something you do, you can identify the problem and work to overcome it. (Some handling problems must be dealt with using a procedure called desensitization and counter-conditioning (DSCC). Please see our articles on Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Horses Who Are Sensitive to Handling and Horses Who Are Afraid of Noises for more information about DSCC and how it’s used.) Keep in mind that an essential component of any treatment plan and the most crucial factor in successful interactions with horses at any time is calm, considerate handling with gentle and deliberate movements.
When bridling your horse, be careful to avoid making her nervous by flicking straps or other parts around her eyes and ears. And never force the bit into your horse's mouth or bump it against her teeth. Haste and force, particularly when working around a horse’s head, are dangerous and create problems. Always be prepared, and keep your tack clean, at the ready and free of tangles. Clean tack lasts longer, and it’s suppler and more comfortable for your horse, especially if it’s made of leather.
A Little Bit About Bits
Bits are foreign objects—usually made of steel—that we strap into our horses’ mouths. It’s our duty to make this procedure as pleasant as possible for our horses. Comfort is always an important factor because resistance from your horse is usually rooted in misunderstanding, fear or discomfort. Once you’ve chosen the least severe bit that’s suitable for your horse and the job you’ll ask of her, keep the following factors in mind:
That’s cold! A horse might not accept her bit if it’s cold. Even if she does take it, the experience will be terribly unpleasant for her. To avoid causing your horse discomfort, keep your tack somewhere warm. Many people heat their tack rooms so that they stay above freezing, and many people take their bridles into the house with them at night during cold weather. If your bridle gets cold, warm the bit with your hands, under your arm or against any warm part of your body before bridling your horse.
That tastes interesting… Most horses prefer copper bits to bits made of steel or other alloys. Copper apparently tastes better or has a more noticeable taste to a horse than steel, and the metal often encourages chewing and salivation. Saliva serves as a cushion to lessen the severity of the bit, and both salivation and chewing contribute to a softer, more accepting mouth. A drawback to copper bits, though, is that they wear down much more quickly than steel. Copper bits develop pits and sharp edges over time, and they can wear to the point of breaking in the horse’s mouth when used—a very dangerous situation. If you use a copper bit, check it regularly for structural integrity. Because of these problems, bits are now available that have various alloys that mimic copper’s taste and feel but are stronger.
Sweet! Give your horse a sugar cube when you slip her the bit. Most horses love sweets and learn to open their mouths and reach for the bit in anticipation of a sweet treat. And, like copper, sugar promotes chewing and salivation. If you can’t find sugar cubes, try rubbing the bit with peppermint oil. Peppermint oil permeates a little, and the taste lasts for many weeks.
Make Sure Your Horse’s Bridle Fits
If you have to buy a new bridle for your horse, make sure you get one that fits her. Like shoes for humans, bits are worse if they’re too small rather than too big, but any poor fit can cause problems. English bridles come in three basic sizes: pony, cob and full (sometimes listed as horse). Measure your horse’s head from the center of her poll to the corner of her mouth, and compare this measurement to the crown and cheek piece of the bridle.
Two fingers In general, the different parts of an English bridle can be fitted using the two-finger rule: You should be able to fit two fingers, touching each other while lying flat against your horse’s coat, under any strap on the bridle.
The bit must also fit A bit that’s too small will pinch your horse’s lips, and a bit that’s too big will slide in her mouth. If ported or jointed, an oversized bit can cause pain or even damage to the roof of your horse’s mouth, and it can pinch one or both corners of her lips as it slides. It can also apply uneven pressure and, therefore, give ineffective aids. (Aids are your communication cues to your horse.)
Everyone Must Be Calm
As your horse’s guardian and caregiver, you should behave responsibly and calmly whenever you handle her. But it’s also important for your horse to behave calmly, for your safety, as well as hers. Nervous horses react out of fear or anxiety to things they see, hear, smell or feel that they otherwise would accept when calm. They’re also more likely to react defensively. Nervous or frightened horses might bite, toss their heads, strike out with their hooves or try to escape with little or no concern for their handler’s or even their own safety. If your horse seems overly nervous for any reason, forgo bridling until a later time. If you’re not very experienced—and even sometimes when you are experienced—bridling a nervous horse is asking for trouble.
How to Bridle Your Horse
Have your tack ready and properly sized before beginning the bridling process. If you can’t be sure of the fit ahead of time, err on the side of making the bridle larger. It’s simpler and kinder to your horse to take in the cheek piece and headstall by a hole or two than to force the headstall on and then attempt to make it bigger. The bridle should also be clean and untangled. If the bridle has buckles on the chin strap, noseband and throatlatch, they should be unbuckled and ready. In addition, put a small bit of peeled apple and a sugar cube or two in your pocket or within easy reach. When you’re ready, follow these steps to bridle your horse:
- Tie your horse or otherwise secure her in cross-ties. Be certain that your tie system includes a panic snap or quick-release knot. (Please see our article on Teaching Your Horse to Stand Tied for more information). If you use cross-ties, snap them to the side rings of the halter. The first few times you bridle your horse, you should also attach an extra lead rope to the ring below her chin and, while standing at or just in front of her near (left) shoulder, drape this rope around her neck. When you drape the rope, lift it slowly and methodically, and let it drop over the far side of her neck rather than tossing it over. You don’t want to accidentally spook your horse. Once the rope is around her neck, tie it to itself so it makes a loose collar of sorts. In this way, the halter will be “tied” on your horse.
- Pick up the bridle in your left hand, allowing the headstall to slide down your arm so that the crown and brow band are hanging from the crook of your elbow. Take up the reins in one of your hands, being careful to avoid creating loops that your horse could step in. Keep all straps off the ground.
- Approach your horse’s head on the near (left) side by walking toward her from an angle that aligns with her left eye and right ear.
- Your first task is to secure your horse in anticipation of those few moments when she’s halter-free but the bridle isn’t buckled yet. English reins buckle together to form one large loop running from bit ring to bit ring, so you can use the reins to help keep hold of your horse. Let the crown of the bridle drop into your hand, and hold it so that the front of the brow band is facing forward, away from your horse. Drape the reins over her neck, checking to make sure that they’re not twisted. Let the bridle slip back onto your arm.
- If your horse is cross-tied, undo the right tie, let the right rein fall under the tie line and then redo the tie. Undo the left tie, and then undo the halter. (The fasteners of a halter are on its left side.)
- Taking care not to let the bridle hit your horse in the face, lift the crown of the halter over her ears and—in one calm, confident and deliberate motion—slip the halter’s nose band down, off of your horse’s face. Then bring the crown up, and lay it behind her ears. Your halter is still attached to the right cross-tie, so don’t simply drop it on the floor where your horse might step in the straps.
- Refasten the halter so that it’s hanging around your horse’s neck, and then resnap the left cross-tie to the halter’s left cheek ring.
- Grasp the crown of the bridle in your right hand. Step back to your position on an angle in line with your horse’s left eye and right ear. Say “Drop,” and offer her a piece of apple or a sugar cube from your left hand. Feed the treat to your horse below her muzzle to get her to drop her head. (Don’t worry if she doesn’t know what “Drop” means yet. She’ll lower her head to get the treat. Giving a command before giving treats reduces the probability that your horse will start pestering you for treats whenever she sees you.)
- Take the bit and a sugar cube into your left hand.
- The bit needs to go into your horse’s mouth before you slip the crown over her ears and onto the poll. However, because it’s very uncomfortable for your horse if the bit drops against her tushes—the teeth that sit next to her bar area—you want the crown held up and the bridle situated to slip right onto her head before you try to slide the bit into her mouth. Hold the bridle so that the two sides are a good distance apart, with the crown up and the throatlatch straps hanging free and not tangled in any other straps.
- Hold the bit low, about where you’ve been holding the treats you’ve been using to reward your horse. Most horses who’ve been taught to lower their heads for treats will drop their heads. Your horse will probably drop hers—particularly because you’ve just fed her an apple or sugar cube. Hold the bit in your palm, and gently set it against your horse’s teeth, as close to where her top teeth meet her lower teeth as possible. Hold your sugar cube against the bit.
- Your horse will probably open her mouth. When she does, slip the bit and sugar cube in. If your horse doesn’t just open her mouth but clenches her teeth and fights off the bit instead, try rubbing her upper gums with your fingers. If that doesn’t work, set the bridle down and get your fingers wet. Then crush the sugar and stick your fingertips in it. When you pick the bridle up again, try slipping one of your sugared fingers along the side of your horse’s lips, through her bar area (the part of her mouth with no teeth) and behind her incisors. She’ll very likely open her mouth. If she doesn’t, please see our article on Teaching Your Horse to Open His Mouth.
- Hold the bit snugly in your horse’s mouth by keeping gentle pressure with the crown while slipping it over her ears. Be careful not to crush your horse’s ears as you slip the crown to the poll. You might need to lift the crown over your horse’s left ear and then, when her head is holding the bit in place, gently slip her right ear in front of the crown as well. The moment the crown is in place, tell your horse she’s fabulous, ask her to “Drop” her head, and give her another cube of sugar. Sugar works best for treating a bitted horse because it will melt rather than get caught and cause friction between her mouth and the bit. Sugar also encourages a horse to chew or play with the bit, which promotes proper bit action.
- Adjust the brow band. The band should lie smoothly against your horse’s forehead and be set just below the base of her ears. Brow bands often move when a bridle is being removed, so check to be sure it isn’t pinching your horse’s ears or setting too low. As you do this, adjust the headstall and cheek pieces so that everything is symmetrical.
- Next, buckle the throatlatch. Throatlatches aren’t meant to help hold a bridle in place. They’re simply an extra precaution to keep the bridle from slipping off, and they must be loose enough to keep slack, even if a horse breaks at the poll and drops her head behind the vertical. You should be able to fit your entire hand between the throatlatch and your horse, even when her head is bent toward her neck.
- Slide any part of your horse’s forelock from beneath the brow band. Smooth the bridle and check its fit. Make certain, once again, that the brow band is smooth, in the correct position and not pinching your horse’s head or ears. Then check to be sure that the bit is sitting evenly in your horse’s mouth. If this is the first time you’ve put this bridle on your horse since fitting it to her, you might find that one side or the other is too short. Your horse should have two wrinkles in her skin at each corner of her mouth. If there are fewer than two wrinkles, you need to shorten one or both cheek straps. Once a cheek strap has been shortened, be sure to readjust the entire headstall so that it sits evenly on your horse’s head.
- If the headstall has a curb chain or chin strap, buckle that next. You should be able to fit two fingers between the chain and your horse’s jaw. If the chain is too loose, it will make the action of the bit more severe. If it’s too tight, it will hurt your horse and can force the bit to lie uncomfortably.
- Once you’re satisfied with the fit and positioning of your horse’s bridle, you can remove the halter. To do this, unsnap it from the remaining cross-tie, untie the lead rope from around your horse’s neck, and then unbuckle and remove the halter. This is also a good time to check the length of your reins. They should be long enough so that when you take up contact with your horse’s mouth—when you’re astride and you lift the reins so that they’re running in a straight line from your elbow to the bit—the bight shouldn’t catch on your stirrup. There should also be enough of a loop so that your horse will be able to stretch and relax when necessary.
- To hold your horse, slide the reins from her neck and gather them in your hand, To lead her, walk on her left at her cheek while holding the reins in your right hand, six inches or so below the bit. Collect and keep the bight in your left hand.
Removing the Bridle
To remove the bridle, first slip the reins over your horse’s neck. With the reins out of the way, buckle your horse’s halter around her neck and tie the lead rope around her just as you did when bridling her. If you’ve led her to the cross-ties, snap the right tie to the right cheek ring. Next, unbuckle the chin strap if there is one. Do the same with the throatlatch. Next, take the crown in your right hand, and gently lift it up and forward so that it clears your horse’s ears. Put your left hand at your horse’s mouth, at the ready to take the bit as it clears her lips. Slowly lower the bridle, keeping your left hand available to grab the bit once it clears your horse's mouth. Let your horse determine how fast the bridle comes off. If the bit slides down before she’s ready, it can knock against her teeth.
Once the bridle is off, check your horse’s head for signs of chafing. Brush her face with a soft face brush so that her coat lies comfortably. Next, dip the bit of the bridle into water, and clean off any residue. A toothbrush or other small brush works well for this job. If your headstall is leather, keep in mind that water can damage it, so try to avoid getting it wet. Wipe down the headstall with a soft cloth, cleaning off any sweat or dirt, and store it by hanging it from a hook, preferably with a round head, to keep the crown from developing a crease at the poll. If the bridle has a throatlatch, with the bridle facing you, cross the strap behind the headstall, around the front and then back over to the buckle on the left side (your right side as you’re facing the headstall), and fasten it loosely. This will keep the bridle from tangling. Loop your reins so that they don’t drape on the ground.
Finally, tell your horse “Thank you!” and give her a good scratching on her withers!