The style of riding known in the United States as “English” originated in Europe. The early colonists brought it to the U.S. as a tradition of British military and civilian life. The style evolved from a common use of horses in Europe, in which horses were ridden over relatively short distances on paths or roads. These riding habits contrasted sharply with those of the early western United States, where pockets of civilization separated by vast distances required much longer journeys on horseback. In addition, most dedicated riding schools in Europe were military based, and their training methods and riding techniques were designed to provide riders with exquisite control of their horses. Form followed function, and the tack evolved to best support this goal.
The bridle—the part of a horse’s tack that goes on his head when he’s being ridden or driven—evolved into a form that established the most precise communication possible between a rider and her horse. Most significantly, English bridles are designed based on a method of communication known as direct reining. In direct reining, the reins are used as extensions of the rider’s hands, extending her touch all the way to the bit of the bridle. When the rider sends a signal to her horse through the reins when riding English, her horse feels the signal in his mouth. The reins are held one in each hand, and if the rider wants to go left, the rein signal comes from her left hand. And if she wants to turn right, the rein signal comes from her right hand. Contact is embracing and continuous.
An English bridle is made of two main parts: the bit and the headstall. The headstall usually has five main parts. The following list describes these five parts, from the top of your horse’s head down to his mouth:
- Crownpiece The crownpiece is the strap or straps that run over your horse’s head and sit behind his ears at his poll.
- Cavesson The cavesson is the part of the bridle that runs over your horse’s poll alongside (or beneath) the crownpiece and on down to a noseband that sits across the bridge of his nose. The crownpiece of a cavesson is sometimes referred to as a sliphead. Cavessons generally come in one or two pieces. A one-piece cavesson has one keeper (buckle) that secures the strap running over the poll to the strap attached to the noseband. A two-piece cavesson has a strap that goes over your horse’s poll and buckles on both ends to the straps attached to the noseband. The cavesson should be fit so that the noseband sits two finger widths below the cheek bone, and the noseband itself should be buckled so that two fingers can fit between it and your horse’s nose. If the noseband is too tight, it can restrict your horse’s ability to flex his jaw.
- Nosebands The noseband is the part of the headstall held in place by the cavesson. Nosebands prevent your horse from opening his mouth wide to evade the bit. There are three main styles of nosebands:
- Grackle or Figure Eight The grackle noseband attaches to the sliphead as strap extensions that cross over the bridge of your horse’s nose and run down over the edge of the snaffle just in front of the cheek piece before being buckled beneath your horse’s chin.
- Flash A flash isn’t actually a noseband, rather it’s a single strip of leather attached to a regular cavesson noseband at its center. The flash band was inspired by the grackle and is fitted on a horse’s muzzle the same way as a grackle.
- Drop Noseband The drop noseband sits low on your horse’s nose, below the bridge. As with the flash and grackle, the chin strap runs between the snaffle cheek piece and the corner of your horse’s mouth. The noseband itself must be sized short enough so it doesn’t interfere with the bit.
- Browband The browband is the strap that rests across your horse’s forehead, running from one side of the crownpiece to the other. Because a horse’s coat is fine and there’s little or no tissue cushioning the bones and cartilage of the skull in this area, browbands generally don’t have buckles. Instead, their ends are folded over flat against themselves and sown together to create a slot for the crown strap and cavesson to slide through.
Proper fit of a browband is important. If the band’s too small, it can pinch your horse’s head or ears, and it could pull the crownpiece tightly against the back of his ears. If the browband’s too wide, it won’t help maintain the crownpiece in the proper area on the poll. (The crownpiece could slip back along your horse’s neck.) A browband should be fit so that two fingers laid side by side can fit comfortably under the band against your horse’s forehead.
- Throatlatch (or throat lash) The throatlatch runs under your horse’s throat. On most English bridles, the throatlatch is attached by a keeper to both sides of the crownpiece just below where the browband sits. On other English bridles, the throatlatch is an extension of the crownpiece on the right side of the bridle that buckles only on the near (left) side of your horse. The type of throatlatch that buckles on both sides allows for greater fit flexibility. A throatlatch must be loose enough to keep slack, even if your horse breaks at the poll and drops his head behind the vertical. If it isn’t, it could restrict your horse’s breathing. A properly fitted and buckled throatlatch allows you to fit all four fingers of your hand or a closed fist between the throatlatch and your horse.
- Cheek pieces The cheek pieces attach to the crownpiece on either side of the bridle and are, in turn, attached to the bit. The length of these pieces should be adjusted so that the bit sits against your horse’s lips. It shouldn’t be snug because a tight bit is uncomfortable and stressful for your horse. However, if the straps are too long, the bit will sit too low in your horse’s mouth and could hit his teeth or otherwise become painful or irritating. Correctly sized cheek pieces on a correctly sized bit produce two wrinkles in the corners of your horse’s mouth at the edge of the bit.
The bit is a piece that runs through your horse’s mouth. Bits are attached to the headstall by the cheek pieces and are also attached to the reins. Most bits are metal or rubber.
Bits have two main parts: the mouth piece and the cheek piece. The different shape and arrangement of these two pieces dictate the type of control they have on your horse. Bits should never be used to cause discomfort, but they do exert pressure that your horse can eliminate or avoid by responding to the rider’s communication. This pressure is known as the bit’s action. Although there are many types of bits and each type has its own name, bits are classified by the action they exert on a horse. There are two basic classifications: direct action and leverage action.
Direct Action Bits
The most common bit used in English riding is the direct action bit. Direct action bits are so named because they exert pressure against a horse’s lips or bars—where the bit sits—in direct relation to the pull the rider uses on the rein. The most common direct action bit is a snaffle bit. A snaffle bit has either a straight or jointed mouthpiece with rings as cheek pieces. On a relaxed horse, the mouthpiece of a snaffle rests on his lips, covering the bars. (The bars are the spaces on either side of a horse’s lower jaw that have no teeth. The premolars lie just in back of the bars, and single teeth, or tushes, sit in front of the bars.) The mouthpieces of most snaffle bits are jointed in the middle rather than being a solid length, so they rest in a slightly inverted “V” in your horse’s mouth.
When the reins are pulled, a snaffle bit slides back against the corners of the lips. In response, a properly experienced horse will bring his head on the vertical by flexing at his poll, and the bit will rest gently on the bars. A less experienced or poorly handled horse will resist this position because it requires purposeful relaxation and acceptance of the bit as well as proper use of his neck muscles. Unfortunately, if your horse resists or otherwise fails to flex at the poll, the mouthpiece of the snaffle bit drops against his tongue and pushes on the corners of his lips. If your horse is wearing a jointed snaffle, pressure on his tongue is relieved, but pressure on his lips is increased. Some snaffles have rollers or two joints instead of a signal joint, and either of these modifications will reduce the severity of the bit and usually make the bit more pleasant for your horse. In addition, the thicker the mouthpiece, the gentler the bit. (Some bits, such as jointed twisted narrow bits or bits with barbs, are not humane and should be avoided!)
A snaffle bit has rings for cheek pieces. The rings are either loose, as with a regular snaffle where the rings are circles, or they’re fixed, as with the eggbutt (oval) or “D” shape. Fixed snaffles have a sleeve that holds the cheek piece to the mouthpiece. Snaffle bits also come with “full” cheeks, which consist of rings with keepers that attach to the headstall, so that in addition to the direct action of the bit, there’s also a small amount of leverage action and action against the horse’s poll).
Some bits are primarily leverage bits. Such bits are rarely used by themselves in English riding but are common when used in addition to a direct action bit, particularly in upper level riding competition. Leverage bits have solid mouthpieces attached to cheek pieces called shanks.
Shanks are straight or slightly curved bars extending above and below the mouthpiece on both sides so that the bit resembles an “H.” The portion of the shank above the mouthpiece attaches to the headstall—the part of the bridle that straps the bit to your horse’s head—as well as to a chain or narrow strap. Bits with shanks are generally referred to as curb bits, and the chain that runs below your horse’s chin is known as a curb chain (or curb strap). The curb chain is a short chain that runs from one shank to the other, and therefore lies just above the fleshy part of your horse’s chin.
Each shank also has a ring at its base to which the reins are attached, one on each side. Because the reins are attached to the bottom of the shanks at least a few inches below the mouthpiece, pulling the reins pushes the shank forward, toward the front of your horse’s face. In addition, because the shank is attached to the headstall and the headstall runs over your horse’s poll, pulling the reins pulls the headstall snug against the poll. Straight shanks exert more pressure than curved shanks, and long shanks exert pressure more quickly than shorter shanks. The length and adjustment of the curb chain can also control the action of the shank, because when the chain is tight the shank can’t move anymore.
Some bits combine the action of the plain snaffle and the curb. These are the most common types:
- Pelham A Pelham is a double-rein bit that can provide either snaffle or curb action. The curb chain and bridle cheek pieces are attached to the top ring of a Pelham, the snaffle rein is attached to a center ring set at the mouthpiece, and the curb rein attaches to a third ring at the base of a short shank. The bit should be ridden mainly off the snaffle rein. Although the bit has two reins, the two actions can’t be used simultaneously, because pulling on the curb rein tends to negate the fine action of the snaffle. In cross-country riding and jumping, in which it’s difficult to keep precise control over two reins and the horse may pull against the rider, Pelham bits are often used with a bit converter—a strap that allows use of one rein. This one rein creates a more severe bit with greater curb action. Pelham bits aren’t used in dressage training or competition.
- Kimberwicke A Kimberwicke uses a single pair of reins, but it combines a straight, ported bar mouth piece with a curb chain. (A port is a curving of the bit over your horse’s tongue.) The cheek piece is a dee (so called because it’s shaped like a “D”). One type of Kimberwicke, known as the Uxeter, fixes the rein at the bottom of the dee ring to enhance the curb effect.
- Double-bridle bits Double bridles are used in advanced dressage training and competition. A double bridle has two sets of reins, but each rein is attached to an individual bit. The snaffle—called a bradoon—sits above the curb. Because there are two individual bits, a double bridle can produce both a snaffle action and a curb action simultaneously.
Although the reins aren’t technically part of the bridle, they’re always attached to the bridle. English reins are made of two equal pieces, but these pieces buckle to each other on one end without any excess so that they appear to be one continuous piece running from one side of the bit to the other. To ride “on the buckle” means that the rider does not have active contact and is riding on a loose rein. When “on the buckle,” the rider has the buckle between her hands and there’s slack between the rider’s hands and the bit.
English reins are usually made of leather, cotton webbing, rubber or a synthetic material, although the ends of most reins are leather or synthetic regardless of rest of the material. English reins are held similar to how a person holds a joystick on a video game. The thumb is up, the palm is facing in and the fingers are curled into the palm. The rein runs between the rider’s pinky and ring fingers, over the pinky to go into the palm at the ring finger. It exits the fist under the thumb over the index finger. The term “fist” is used loosely here. The grip on the reins should be only snug enough to keep the rein from moving in the rider’s hand but never so tight that the rider pulls the rein with the grip. The communication between horse and rider riding English is constant, like the touch of your hand on the steering wheel of a car is constant. You don’t pull—you simply hold. A properly trained horse moves into the contact, pushing from his rear. The contact does not restrain your horse, and you hold the contact only to facilitate instantaneous signaling when appropriate.
Bridling Your Horse
For information on how to bridle your horse with an English bridle, or information on what to do if your horse objects to being bridled or having his head handled in general, please see our articles Bridling Your Horse: The English Bridle and Horses Who Are Head Shy.