Bridling is a fundamental part of tacking your horse in preparation for almost any activity with him. Most horses accept this basic handling activity without complaint, but some horses object to it.
Why Do Some Horses Object to Being Bridled?
Please Don’t Do That—It Hurts!
If your horse objects to being bridled, your first assumption shouldn’t be that he’s unruly or even that he’s inexperienced or not well trained. It could be that the bridle is causing him pain. (Please see our article, 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 is suffering from pain related to the bridling process itself or to the fit of the bridle or bit. His ears or part of his head might be bothering him, or his teeth, tongue, lips or other parts of his mouth might hurt. Dental problems are very common in horses. Because horses are grazers, their teeth grow continuously. But modern horses rarely get access to continuous grazing, and even if they do, the grasses and other forage we provide them isn’t 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 he has a bit in his mouth.
Any horse can develop tooth problems, so before you try bridling your horse for the first time, have his teeth checked and, if necessary, professionally filed. This process is called “floating” your horse’s teeth. It isn’t necessary for a veterinarian to perform this service. However, if you’re having your horse’s teeth floated because of bridling resistance, be sure to have a veterinarian check his mouth and head for other possible problems.
The most important guidelines related to bridling your horse—or doing anything with him—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 he’ll accept what you’re going to do if he knows what’s about to happen. This means that you need to make sure that he can always see you and that you show him tack or other tools before you touch him with them. If you follow this simple rule, you can avoid bad reactions. If your horse does react to something you do, you can identify the problem and work to overcome it. (Some handling problems must be dealt with systematically, using a procedure called desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC). Please see our articles Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Horses Who Are Sensitive to Handling and Horses Who Are Afraid of Noises for more information about DSCC.) Keep in mind that an essential component of any treatment plan and the most crucial factor in all successful interactions with horses is calm, considerate handling with gentle, measured and deliberate movements.
When bridling your horse, be careful to avoid making him nervous by flicking straps or other parts around his eyes and ears, and never force the bit into his mouth or bump it against his teeth. Haste and force, particularly when working around a horse’s head, are dangerous and can create problems. Always be prepared, and keep your tack clean, at the ready and free of tangles. Clean tack lasts longer, and it’s more supple and 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 responsibility to make this procedure as pleasant as possible for our horses. Comfort is always an important factor because a horse’s resistance to the bit 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 him, keep the following factors in mind:
That’s cold! A horse might not accept his bit if it’s cold. Even if he does take it, the experience will be terribly unpleasant for him. To avoid causing your horse discomfort, keep your tack somewhere warm. Many people heat their tack rooms, and some people take their bridles into the house with them at night during cold weather. If your bridle is cold when you start the bridling process, you can warm the bit with your hands, under your arm or against any warm part of your body before you continue.
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 horses 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. They develop pits and sharp edges over time, and they can wear to the point of breaking in a 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 made of different alloys are now available that mimic copper’s taste and feel but are stronger.
Sweet! Try giving your horse a sugar cube when you slip him the bit. Most horses love sweets and learn to open their mouths and reach for the bit in anticipation of a 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 bit, and the taste lasts for many weeks.
Make Sure Your Horse’s Bridle Fits
When you buy a new bridle for your horse, make sure you get one that fits him. Like shoes for people, bits are worse if they’re too small rather than too big, but any poor fit can cause problems. Bridles come in three basic sizes: pony, cob or Arabian, and full (sometimes called horse). Measure your horse’s head from the center of his poll to the corner of his mouth, and compare this measurement to the crown and cheek piece of the bridle.
Two fingers In general, you can fit the different parts of a Western bridle using the two-finger rule: You should be able to put 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 his 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 his lips as it slides. It can also apply uneven pressure and, therefore, lead to ineffective aids. (Aids are the communication cues you give your horse.)
Everyone Must Be Calm
As your horse’s guardian and caregiver, it’s essential that you behave responsibly and calmly whenever you handle him. But it’s also important for your horse to behave calmly, for your safety, as well as his. Nervous horses react out of fear or anxiety to things they see, hear, smell or feel, which they otherwise would accept. They’re also more likely to react defensively. Nervous or frightened horses may 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 whatever reason, forego 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 a hole or two than it is to try 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 noseband and throatlatch, they should be unbuckled and ready. In addition, put a 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, cross-tie or otherwise secure your horse. Be certain that your tie system includes a panic snap or quick-release knot. (Please see our article 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 his chin and, while standing at or just in front of his near (left) shoulder, drape this rope around his neck. When you drape the rope, lift it slowly and methodically, and let it drop over the far side rather than tossing it over. You don’t want to accidentally spook your horse. Once the rope is around his neck, tie it to itself so that 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 him from an angle that aligns with his left eye and right ear.
- Your first task is to secure your horse in anticipation of those few moments when he’s halter-free but the bridle isn’t buckled yet.
- If you have a tie station, follow these steps:
- Let the crown of the bridle drop into your hand, and hold it so that the front of the brow band faces forward, away from your horse. Then drape the reins over his neck. Carefully, so as not to startle your horse, drop the left rein over his neck so that it falls on the right, and drop the right rein over so that it falls on the left. Let the bridle slip back onto your arm.
- If your horse is cross-tied, undo the right tie, let the rein stretched between the bit and your horse’s neck fall under the tie line, and then re-secure the tie. Undo the left tie, and then undo the halter. (The fasteners of a halter are on the left.)
- Without letting the bridle hit your horse in the face, lift the crown of the halter over his ears and, in one calm, confident and deliberate motion, slip the halter’s nose band down, off your horse’s face. Then bring the crown up and lay it behind his ears.
- Refasten the halter so that it’s hanging around your horse’s neck. Then resnap the left cross-tie to the halter’s left cheek ring.
- If you don’t have a tie station, use the reins of your bridle to keep hold of your horse.
- If your reins are split (two reins), tie them together. Before removing the halter, slowly lift the reins over your horse’s head and set them just behind his ears. For maximum control if your horse tries to move away while being bridled, keep the reins from falling down his neck to his withers.
- Lift the crown of the halter over your horse’s ears and, in one calm, confident and deliberate motion, slip the halter’s nose band down, off of your horse’s face.
- If you have a tie station, follow these steps:
- Hold 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 your horse a small piece of apple or a sugar cube from your left hand. Hold your hand below his muzzle so that he drops his head to eat the treat. (Don’t worry if your horse doesn’t know the command “Drop.” He’ll still lower his head to get the treat. Giving a command will reduce the probability that he’ll start pestering you for treats whenever he 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 his ears and onto the poll. However, it’s very uncomfortable for your horse if the bit drops against his tushes—the teeth that sit next to the bar area. To avoid this, hold the crown up and situate the bridle to slip right onto his head before you slide the bit into his mouth. Hold the bridle so that the two sides are a good distance apart, the crown is up and, if the bridle has a throatlatch, those straps are hanging free and not tangled in 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 his—particularly since you’ve just fed him something tasty. Hold the bit in your palm, and gently set it against your horse’s teeth, as close to where his top teeth meet his lower teeth as possible. Hold the sugar cube against the bit.
- Your horse will probably open his mouth. When he does, slip the bit and sugar cube in. If your horse doesn’t open his mouth but clenches his teeth and fights off the bit instead, try rubbing his upper gums with your fingers. If that doesn’t work, set the bridle down and get your fingers wet. Then crush the sugar cube and stick your fingertips in it. When you pick up the bridle again, try slipping one of your sugared fingers along the side of your horse’s lips, through his bar area (where he has no teeth) and behind his incisors. He’ll very likely open his mouth. If he still doesn’t, please see our article 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 his 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 first and then gently slip his right ear in front of the crown as well. Do this by gently pushing his ears forward rather than backward. If your bridle has ear loops instead of a brow band, carefully position these around your horse’s ears at this time.
- The moment the crown and ear pieces are set, tell your horse he’s fabulous, and ask him to “Drop.” When he drops his head, give him another cube of sugar. (Sugar works best for treating a bitted horse because it will melt rather than get caught and cause friction between his mouth and the bit. Sugar also encourages a horse to chew or play with the bit, which promotes proper bit action.)
- Next, if the bridle has a throatlatch, buckle it. Throatlatches are not 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 his head. You should be able to fit your entire hand between the throatlatch and your horse, even when his head is bent toward his neck.
- Pull the forelock out from underneath the bridle. Smooth the bridle and check its fit. Make certain, once again, that the brow band or ear pieces are smooth, in the correct position and not pinching your horse’s head or ears. 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, you might find that one side or the other is too short. Your horse should have two wrinkles in his skin at each corner of his 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 that isn’t fixed, 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, slide the reins from your horse’s neck and gather them in your hand. Unsnap the halter from the remaining cross-tie, and untie the lead rope from around your horse’s neck. Then unbuckle and remove the halter. To lead your horse, walk on his left at his cheek while holding the reins in your right hand, six inches or so below the bit. Collect and keep the slack 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 his neck, and tie the lead rope around him, just as you did when bridling him. If you’ve led him to the cross-ties, snap the right tie to the right cheek ring. If there’s a chin strap, unbuckle it. 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 his 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 he’s ready, it can knock against his teeth.
Once the bridle is off, check your horse’s head for signs of chafing. Brush his face with a soft face brush so that his 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 to remove 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 him a good scratching on his withers!