Bridle Fitting – Know-how from the experts
Bridle fitting is certainly on topic. There’s a huge selection out there to choose from, each promising different benefits for the horse – and then there’s the ones that look supreme, and really grab your eye. But, how do we know which one is best for the horse according to fit? Here Master Saddlers and Master Bridle Makers, Frances Roche and Catherine Baker highlight the rights and wrongs in terms of placement of the parts, and overall fit, courtesy of the Society of Master Saddlers.
Bridle Fitting – Know How
A quick look on social media platforms shows that there is an increasing amount of chatter about bits, bridles, and the correct fit of both. Riders are becoming more aware that a well-fitting bit and bridle has a direct impact on the welfare and performance of their horse and is part of the holistic approach to equestrianism. It is however, a vast topic and it can get somewhat confusing for the horse owner, so we have put together a few key points of bridle fit and the most commonly seen bit and bridle fitting errors.
Key Point – The headpiece should sit comfortably over the poll and behind the bulbs of the ears.
It is good practice to just slide your hand under the crown of the headpiece to make sure it is comfortable. Predominantly, most bridles are still in the traditional style – but increasingly we see more modern so-called anatomical bridles on the market.
The principal idea of the anatomical bridles is that they are better shaped around the ears and other facial features in an aim to reduce peak pressures, and therefore should be more comfortable – however, they do need to be fitted to the individual horse. There is not any one type of anatomical bridle which will suit the shape of every single horse head, and as a result we very often see the shaping on these bridles situated in completely the wrong position causing more pressure rather than less. This does not necessarily mean the bridle is a poor design but more likely poor sizing or incorrectly fitted.
Another point worth mentioning is that it is often implied that an anatomical bridle doesn’t touch the back or bulbs of the ears, but this is simply not true. The anatomy of the head and neck, along with the use of a bit, means that the headpiece will always want to sit behind the ears but, if the headpiece is the correct shape and correctly fitted, there will be less pressure against the ears. There are one or two exceptions to this – bridles that have an exaggerated shape to the headpiece or one which may engage the use of a cross under throatlash.
Key Point – The browband should not be so short so that it is pulling the headpiece forward against the bulbs of the ears, nor should it be so long that it gapes at the front.
Whilst we still see traditional browbands, shaped browbands are very much on trend. Whichever style is selected it is key to make sure that they do not pull the headpiece forward onto the bulbs of the ears or apply pressure around the Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ). A low profile browband (one that is not bulky under the headpiece) is a good option for horses with a difficult or narrow conformation in this area.
Key Point – The noseband needs to be fitted at the correct height for its purpose.
A cavesson or crank noseband should be fitted with two fingers space below the facial crest/ prominent cheekbones, and the cheek straps should not come across the facial crest on these designs.
With any noseband that sits below the bit, the front should not sit so low that it impedes the soft part of the nostril and any buckles should be clear of the lips or the bony area under the jaw. Horses are ‘obligate nasal breathers’ – they can only breathe through their nose. If you impede the nostril, you impede the breathing and you impede the horse’s ability to perform.
Research into the pressures produced by nosebands has led to the redesign of the drop noseband with curved shaping or two ring styles being much more popular and versatile, whilst other manufacturers have designed styles to avoid many of the facial nerves and the facial crest.
Crucially, any type of noseband should be fitted so it is not ‘keeping the horse’s mouth closed’ and you should be able to get at least two adult fingers (or the ISES taper gauge) under the noseband on the front of the nasal bone regardless of which style of noseband is being used.
Buckles should not be situated too near the lips or against bony areas under the chin unless there is good padding underneath therm. Waiting for another photo for this
Key Point – The cheek pieces should run parallel with the facial crest and the buckles should sit roughly level with the corner of the eye holding the bit or bits in the correct position and comfortable in the mouth.
The most common error by far is cheek pieces too long. This can mean that buckles are crowded up underneath the browband, often forcing the browband up onto the ears, but worse, this can cause pressure against the TMJ which is not only uncomfortable but can cause behavioural and performance issues. The length of the cheekpiece is also directly impacted by the size of the bit ring; if the bit is changed, reassess the cheekpiece length.
Key Point – The bit should be the correct width and height.
There are so many different types of bit available now that selecting one which is appropriate for the discipline and fitting it correctly can be tricky. Really simply, bits can be split into two camps – fixed cheek and loose cheek. A fixed cheek should sit snug to the side of the horse’s lips whilst there should be a ¼” gap between the lip and the cheek of a loose ring or shank. A common myth to assessing the height of the bit is the two-wrinkle rule, and although this is a good guide, the correct height cannot be determined without looking at where the bit sits in the horse’s mouth.
Fortunately, there are many trained and experienced bit fitters to help riders and it is recommended that they choose a bit fitter who carries plenty of stock to try, and one who will follow up with a good after sales service.
Final point – Sizing of bridles is often a sticking point with horse owners and we frequently hear ‘I can’t find a bridle to fit because my horse is a cob sized nose and a full sized headpiece’.
This is largely down to the change in the type of horse we ride today and the unchanged sizing used by many manufacturers.
40 years ago, most riding horses in the U.K. were either derived from native breeds or mostly thoroughbred in their background, so they tended to have straight or long heads. With modern breeding and the Warmblood influence, the shape of the horse head is much more varied, and frequently triangular in shape, requiring larger headpieces and throatlashes, and smaller nosebands. Add to this the vast array of bits in use today with larger rings or shanks, and it becomes difficult to buy a bridle ‘off the peg’.
The simple answer to this is to buy from companies who offer a good choice of mix and match parts, or to get a good, SMS Qualified or Master Bridle maker to make a bespoke bridle. This way you will gain a good fit and have exactly the colour and style you need. Bespoke may not be as costly as you expect, especially when you consider the price of the anatomical bridles and the chance that you may need to buy more than one to achieve the correct sized parts.
All photos by permission of Rose Lewis, Frances Roche and the SMS