Pat Crawford provides advice and information from The Society of Master Saddlers.
Bridles shouldn’t have anything to do with the OED definition ‘fetter’!
The vast majority of riders are very well aware of the importance of providing their horse with a correctly fitting saddle. The consequences of a badly fitting saddle can be serious and dramatic – and frequently involve expenses incurred in calling out the saddle fitter, the vet, the equine physiotherapist – among others – and, added to this, the horse may well be off work for a lengthy period whilst his back recovers. There are unwanted consequences attached to a bridle that doesn’t fit well – but they are generally much less sensational, are not always recognised and, sadly, are sometimes ignored.
The purpose of this article is to discuss the welfare aspects that relate to bridles. In order to give consideration to the entire picture, it’s necessary to mention the bit – a crucially important part of most bridles. However, ‘the bit’ – understanding, selecting, fitting, and the use of – are all vastly important subjects demanding of several separate articles. (Of course, there are a few horses that, for a variety of reasons – none of which should relate to ‘whim’ or fashion’! – cannot wear a bit. The bitless bridle is a specialist piece of equipment that will be covered in other articles).
A bridle should fulfil two roles. 1: it should aid control. 2: it should enhance the horse’s appearance. These aims are not incompatible and it is totally unnecessary to cause the horse irritation, discomfort, even pain, to achieve the former – and doing so would certainly not assist the latter! Selecting a bridle that will improve the horse’s entire appearance and give him status involves some complicated decisions – but there is no excuse for anyone to use equipment that simply doesn’t fit
A craftsman-made, well-fitting bridle is an investment. Well looked after, it will outlast the lifetime of the horse and will retain excellent re-sale value. Substandard bridles may be cheaper but they could well have inherent defects that may involve safety issues – they are more likely to mar the horse’s appearance than improve it – and usually have absolutely no re-sale value whatsoever!
SELECTING THE BRIDLE.
1 In this country the diversity of breeds and types means that the heads of horses and ponies are not ‘standardised’ so buying a bridle off the peg may not be the answer.
2 Most high class saddleries stock component parts that can be mixed and matched to make up a bridle that provides the correct fitting. (Retailers who are members of The Society of Master Saddlers are able to give help and advice in sizing and selecting.)
3 More and more horse owners are choosing to have a bespoke bridle made to measure by a craftsman bridle-maker. The difference in price between ‘off the peg’ and ‘bespoke’ is nowhere near as large as sometimes envisaged. The bridlemaker will need to know the main discipline/s in which the horse is involved in order to take any specific rules into account. He (or she – there are actually more lady specialist bridle makers than men) will take all the measurements and discuss the design, leather widths, colour and everything else that relates to making the very best of the horse’s appearance. (Information about Master and Qualified members who specialise in providing this service can be obtained from the address below.)
• A well-chosen, correctly fitting bridle aids control, is comfortable and enhances the horse’s appearance.
• A badly selected, poorly fitting bridle can make a duckling out of the most glamorous swan – and create a hazard in safety and welfare terms.
• The bridle must be selected to take into account any rules and regulations that apply to the discipline involved.
• The weight/width of bridle leather needs careful consideration – eg – the hack or riding horse will need a bridle made of narrower leather than, say, the hunter.
• Reins must be of the correct length – not so long that there is risk of the rider’s foot being caught in the loop – not so short that there is nothing to ‘give’ in the event of the horse stumbling or pecking.
• Cheekpieces are generally best attached to the headpiece level with the top of the horse’s eye – normally the second or third holes.
• The browband should not be so tight that it pulls the horse’s ears forward – nor yet so loose that it gapes.
• Great care must be taken to ensure that the noseband is fitted at the correct height and that it does not inhibit the horse’s breathing.
• Nosebands (eg: grackle, cavesson) should not rub the horse’s cheekbones and so create friction that may result in nasty rubs and sores. To avoid this problem, the gap between the base of the cheekbones and the top of the noseband should be at least one finger’s width.
• The buckle on the throat lash looks neater if, when done up, it is in line with the buckle joining the head and cheek pieces. (Some manufacturers make the throat lash deliberately long on the basis that it’s easy to shorten – but difficult to lengthen. Yards of excess throatlash are very ugly but this can be remedied by asking the saddler to reduce to the required length.)
• Best quality bridlework can involve ten – and in seriously exceptional work – twelve stitches to the inch. Cheaper bridlework involves as few as eight stitches per inch with some poor quality imports involving even less! (You get what you pay for!)
º Show riders will often have ‘best’ and ‘work’ bridles so that the former is always in pristine condition. Bridles should be travelled in an old pillowcase or custom-made bag so that they arrive at the show in immaculate condition. A natural fat-based leather dressing should be used in accordance with maker’s instructions (over-use can be as abusive as no use!).
SYMPTOMS OF ‘PROBLEMS’.
• Not all head shaking is due to allergic responses. It is just as frequently caused by an ill-fitting bridle that rubs and causes irritation; unfortunately the problem can become habitual – another reason for ensuring the bridle fits in the first place.
• At the very sight of the bridle some horses put back their ears, clench their teeth and become generally uncooperative. This may indicate a sore mouth or tooth problem – but it may result from previous unpleasant experiences. Before putting on the bridle, always make certain the size is suitably adjusted and that the noseband and throatlash buckles are undone.
• Teeth grinding, getting the tongue over the bit, head swaying, opening the mouth, head tossing – even running away out of control – can have a wide variety of causes. Eliminate the bridle (and bit) as potential causes by checking the fit very carefully as soon as the problem arises. (Less experienced owners should ask their BHS qualified instructor or SMS Qualified Saddler for guidance.)
• Horses that are described as ‘strong’ may sometimes be running away from discomfort! This can have a variety of causes – including a badly fitting/incorrectly adjusted bit and/or bridle. (Simply attempting to solve the problem by using a more severe bit is never the solution – whatever the cause!
• Selecting a bridle should not be a rush job! In both welfare and financial terms, it’s worth taking time to get it right.
FOOTNOTE: for more information, details of specialist craftsmen bridle-makers, et cetera write to: Chief Executive, Society of Master Saddlers, Green Lane Farm, Green Lane, Stonham, Stowmarket Suffolk IP14 5DS (enclose SAE). TELEPHONE: 01449 711642.