Western-style riding evolved out of necessity among the early American colonists and settlers. Both the style and the tack were influenced heavily by the Spanish vaqueros (cowboys). As early as the late 1770s, settlers incorporated changes based on Spanish design and influenced by the type of work their horses needed to do. Early settlers were on horseback for long hours, working their stock and traveling over rough and often dangerous terrain. They needed a riding style that allowed their hands to be free for their work and, just as importantly, they needed one that kept their horses’ mouths injury-free through many hours of continuous riding.
The bridle is the part of a horse’s tack that goes on his head when he’s being ridden or driven. Bridles come in many different styles because horses are such versatile and helpful companions. Different activities require different equipment.
One activity people enjoy with their horses is riding. There are two basic styles of riding in the United States: Western and English. The Western bridle is different from the English bridle, partly because of style and tradition, but, more importantly, because the styles of reining horses differ in each approach. Consequently, for the most part, the bits that are used also differ.
In Western riding, your horse is reined with one hand and, particularly when showing, you can have only one finger between the reins. Although an expert Western horseman rides with a continuous feel for his horse’s head carriage and continuously communicates with his horse, he holds the reins so that there’s a degree of slack between the bit and his hand. The weight of the reins signals the contact until the rider gently moves them against his horse’s neck to signal turns. Less practiced riders, riders covering long distances or riders enjoying a familiar trail on a trusted, longtime equine companion might hold the reins so that they communicate very little until there’s a need to signal a change in direction or speed.
In contrast, English riding uses direct reining. The reins are held one in each hand and are used as extensions of the rider’s hand. Contact is continuous.
The different communication styles used in each style of riding require different types of bits, and different types of bits use different styles of bridles.
Bits are composed of two main parts: the mouth piece and the cheek piece. The shape and arrangement of these two pieces dictate the type of control they have on a horse.
Most Western bits have solid mouth pieces 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 is called the purchase, and at the top of the purchase is a hole. The headstall—the part of the bridle that straps the bit to your horse’s head—is attached to this hole (or ring), as is a chain or narrow strap known as a curb chain (or curb strap). The curb chain is a short chain that runs from one purchase 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, and the reins are attached there, one on each side. Bits with shanks are generally referred to as curb bits.
The Action of a Curb Bit
Bits should never be used to cause discomfort, but they do exert pressure that your horse can eliminate or avoid by responding to your rein cues. This pressure is known as the bit’s action. Although there are many types of bits and each type can have a different name, bits are classified by the action they exert on your horse. There are two basic classifications: direct action and leverage action.
Curb bits are classified as leverage bits. The bit exerts pressure not only on your horse’s mouth, which is direct action, but against his poll as well. This is because the headstall of a leverage bit is attached to the top of the shank and then runs up your horse’s head, over his poll (just behind his ears) and back down to the other purchase. The reins are attached to the bottom of the shanks, at least a few inches below the mouthpiece. When the reins are pulled, the purchase moves toward the front of your horse’s face, pulling 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 no longer move.
Some Western bits are direct-action bits. These bits are called snaffle bits. Instead of having shanks for cheek pieces, they have large rings. Most Western snaffles have rings that are at least three inches in diameter because they must be wide enough to accommodate both the headstall cheek-piece strap and a wide leather strap known as the slobber strap.
The slobber strap folds around the ring and attaches the reins. When your horse is relaxed, 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 where there aren’t any 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 horse’s 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 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 reduces the severity of the bit and often makes 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!)
The headstall of a bridle is the part that fits over your horse’s head. Although Western show headstalls can be extremely ornamented, the headstall itself is eloquent in its simplicity. A leverage bit doesn’t require a noseband to secure the positioning of the bit in your horse’s mouth. So most Western headstalls consist of only three, or possibly four, main parts:
- Crownpiece This piece goes over your horse’s poll.
- Cheek pieces These attach the crownpiece to the bit.
- Browband This band goes across your horse’s brow.
- Throatlatch This strap, which loosely encircles your horse’s throat, is only sometimes part of a Western bridle.
Some Western bridles have two cheek pieces, one on each side, and some have a single cheek piece on the left, or near side. (The left side of a horse is referred to as his near side because it’s customary to work from that side when handling a horse.) The crownpiece is attached directly to the bit on the right (or off) side. The browband might not be a band at all. Many Western bridles have two large openings cut in the crownpiece that your horse’s ears fit through, while others have two movable pieces of leather that fit around each ear. The movable ear loops offer an adjustable fit. Some Western bridles have what are called “one-ear” headstalls, which have only one ear opening or loop.
The other piece of the bridle is the throatlatch, a strip that attaches to the crown at the top and often runs alongside the crown over the poll. The throatlatch buckles to loosely encircle your horse’s throat. Many Western headstalls, particularly those with ear openings or loops, don’t have throatlatches.
Western reins come in a variety of styles. Traditionally, they’re split reins, meaning that one rein attaches to each shank and they’re not connected at their ends. However, there’s also a version known as a game rein, which is commonly used by children. This rein is one continuous rein that runs from shank to shank.
Another variation of rein is the mecate rein (pronounced “meh-cah-tee”). Mecate reins are made of a single braid of rope or horsehair about 20 feet long that has a popper on one end and a mota, or a shoo-fly, on the other. The popper is usually a knot created from a long, thin piece of rawhide or leather looped on itself to form two strips. The mota is a knot usually made of horse hair or a tassel designed to secure a knot (and chase away flies). The mecate braid is threaded through the straps that attach to the cheek rings of a snaffle bit. These leather straps are the slobber straps mentioned earlier, so named because if your horse drinks while wearing his bridle, he’ll get those straps wet instead of his more expensive mecate braid.
From your horse’s perspective, slobber straps are excellent choices with snaffle bits for one very good reason. A slobber strap is made from a 20-inch double strap of leather, so it’s heavier on the bit than the reins themselves. If the rider pulls on the reins, when the tension is released, the weight of slobber straps helps the snaffle return to a neutral, more comfortable, position almost instantaneously.
Attaching a Mecate to Slobber Straps
As a 20-foot length of braid, the mecate creates reins and a handy length of rope that can be used as a lead, as an aid similar to a crop and as a popper to move other horses away from your own horse, if necessary. The first time you create a lead rope and reins from a mecate braid for any new horse, you should do it with the headstall actually on your horse. This way, you can better size the length of rein you need. In general, you’ll need about 10 feet for the reins.
- Put the slobber straps through the snaffle rings. Each slobber strap is usually about 20 inches long, so when it’s folded over, it will hang down 10 inches. You’ll begin on the off (right) side. Slip a slobber strap through the right snaffle ring, and fold it over so that the ends are even.
- Thread the popper through the straps from the outside to the inside until the mota hangs about a foot from the outside slobber strap.
- Pull the mota under the slobber strap and then around and over the top of it. Next, thread the mota through the circle you just made of the length of mecate you looped around the slobber strap. Then take up the slack to create a half hitch knot. (The mota will secure the knot.)
- Next, measure out your length of rein. To save yourself the effort of redoing this step, loop the rein over your horse’s neck to be sure of the length you’ll need. Determining the length in this way can also keep the loop of braid away from your horse’s forelegs to prevent him from stepping on or in the line and panicking.
- Back at your horse’s head on the near side now, fold the remaining slobber strap through the left ring of the snaffle bit.
- Thread the popper through the two slobber straps from the inside to the outside, leaving your desired rein length.
- Make another half hitch, drawing the popper under the slobber straps toward your horse so that it comes up the inside, and then draw the popper over the top so that you’ve created another loop like the one you made on the right side. Thread the popper through the loop, and pull it tight to make your half hitch.
You can wrap the lead you’ve created around your saddle horn while you’re riding, hold it in your free hand or tuck it in the waist of your pants.
Bridling Your Horse
For information on how to bridle your horse with a Western bridle, or for information about 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 Western Bridle  and Horses Who Are Head Shy .