Let’s talk bridles

THIS WILL BE PART OF A LARGER PIECE OF DOCUMENTATION. COMMENTS ARE ENCOURAGED FOR FORMAT, CLARITY, AND CONTENT. I have not done anything with this level of documentation before so don’t assume I know what I’m doing, and I’ve been riding since I was a kid, so I may be thinking things are obvious when they are not. (The intention of this section is to go in an appendix for people unfamiliar with the subject, main documentation will contain only a short summary section.) (Photos will be inserted post pandemic when I have horse access again.)

The next long term project I’m working on is making a medieval bridle and leather barding. The details of exactly what I select is going to be based on the aesthetic style of the part I like over the back of the horse, and everything else will match from there. But before we get to analyzing art, let’s talk about how bridles work in the modern world, where I have a lot of experience with stuff going wrong to explain why pieces are useful. There’s 2 main types of bridles used today, that I’m going to group generally into direct rein (English) and indirect rein (Western). English and Western matter not at all for medieval use, are are only listed to help modern people with a passing understanding of horses to place where they may have seen these types. Western actually means the American west, and since we aren’t roping cows and it wasn’t relevant for the time period we are discussing, no more significant mention of that type will be made here. However, if you want more details on the modern use of curb bits alone, that’s where you will find them.

(insert photo of modern snaffle bridle)

Direct rein means you generally hold the reins so the left side of the horses mouth connects with your left hand, and the right side to the right hand. Pulling on that side makes the horse move in that direction. Within this type, there’s multiple options for exactly what’s going on in that dynamic. Keep in mind that modern bit options cover multiple pages of every tack catalog, so again I’m going to break this down by categories of functionality without talking about all the possible details within that. The most common option is a snaffle, as seen in the picture above. Looking at the horse, you will see a plain ring coming out of the mouth, and one rein on each side going to the rider. This is what basically every rider using direct rein starts with.

Second most common in modern direct rein bridles is the pelham bridle. With this, you get 2 sets of reins, one that works like the snaffle above, one that starts from shanks that come down from that ring and behaves more like a curb bit (to be discussed more below).

Pelham bit total and side horse view goes here

Finally, there is the double bridle, which is generally only used for high level movements and specific modern disciplines involving very formal attire. This bridle actually has two bits, a small snaffle and a separate curb bit. Both bits attach to the bridle separately (CHECK THIS) and the rider is holding 2 sets of reins, one for each bit.

Double bridle total and side horse view goes here

Ok one more, there’s also bitless bridles, sometimes called hackamores. These use the pressure of the rest of the bridle instead of a bit to work, but for the rider they basically are handled the same as a plain snaffle. It would be harder to tell from art if these were being used, but since we have a lot of extant pieces that are bits, and nothing I’m aware of that can be conclusively be considered a hackamore, we are sticking with bits for the rest of this analysis.

Why do we care about these details? Well in art you can generally tell pretty clearly if one or two reins are seen on each side. You can also usually see if there are long shanks hanging down from the mouth that they connect to. From this and because the most basic structure points of bits have not changed much over centuries, we can figure out what’s going on inside the horses mouth. Combine that with extant bits that have been found, and we likely know exactly which pieces that have been recovered go with which uses.

But wait, you said one side of the reins in each hand! How do you hold the weapon?

If you took riding lessons as a kid or rode some horse at a camp or guided trail ride, you know it takes a lot of pulling on a rein to move your stubborn beast. Your average modern lesson/trail horse is like your old family dog; it knows how lazy it can be and won’t likely be motivated unless it wants what you are asking or you’re firm enough. But like comparing your family pet to a work trained dog like a working farm dog or service dog, a highly trained horse doesn’t need this kind of treatment. Look at an Olympic dressage rider and their horse will do amazing things while their hands appear perfectly still. You can even find videos of horses working in detailed maneuvers with nothing on their head at all! If you want to steer a direct reined horse with only one hand on the reins, you can shift your grip so one rein goes into each side of your hand, and then by turning your wrist you can change the pressure on the horse’s mouth to steer at will. And most importantly, like the riders I mentioned that can work with no bridle at all, you use your legs to steer. Horses move away from pressure in all forms. Direct reins work primarily that you put pressure on the mouth, and they stop or turn to relieve that pressure. With pressure from one leg, they will move away from the leg, shifting their entire body where you want it. Both are useful, but the combination can get you a great deal of specific movement while the rider appears to be giving very little direction.

Photo of direct rein straight and turn

Ok, so back to that basic snaffle bridle for the moment. Why do all those pieces exist? Did they exist in period? Let’s assume for the moment we know there was a bit, cause we have those, and some variety of reins, cause otherwise there’s no point to a bit. We need the bit to stay at the proper location in the horse’s mouth, sitting in the space where there’s no teeth. (Yes, horses have a gap between front and back teeth, and to have an effect you want the bit on the gums there.) This means a strap that goes over the head behind the ears. If your bridle is custom made for the horse, it’s possible that this piece is set and not adjustable, but all modern bridles have one or two buckles to change the length of this part, and a way to change out the bit. Normally once you adjust the bridle for the horse you would leave it that way, and not unbuckle those during regular use, so there’s no reason it’s required to be anything other than a permanent strap. However in practical terms horses die and the bridle would be reused, at which point it probably needs to be a different size, and buckles are the easiest way to make that happen if you don’t want a succession of patches. We do see buckles in some art so it’s reasonable to assume this was a standard feature, though extant metal and leather goods when not in a grave are often unclear if they belong to human, horse, or other animal goods so are not an effective way to determine this. Looking at a normal well behaved horse, it would appear that you’re now good to go. The bit is in the mouth, the reins work, and off we ride! Well not quite. I’ve done this, as kids camp horses sometimes arrive with sketchy equipment and the staff horses especially get whatever’s left that can be made to work. It’s possible that this was your bridle if you were poor and desperate, but at some point, your stubborn horse will duck their chin to their chest to try to avoid responding to pressure from the bit, and it slides enough down the neck that the bit can fall out and your reins are attached to a useless necklace. Or they have itchy ears and rub their head on a tree and the bridle slides off the way it went on.

Enter the browband and throatlatch. The browband of modern English bridles goes in front of both ears over the horse’s forehand, and keeps anything from sliding back. Western bridles sometimes use a split ear design that goes around one ear individually but works the same. Modern browbands are not adjustable and generally fit all similarly sized horses. The throatlatch goes from a little under one ear, down around the throat, and buckles near the other ear. Normally part of the piece that goes over the ears in most modern bridles, as long as it is securely attached there is no logistical need for it to not be separate. This piece definitely needs to adjust, as if you can slide it on and off without unbuckling, it can’t do its job. It does however stay a little loose so the horse can breathe, so we know art that has it very tight up in the throat is not totally correct, and creating something that way would risk the safety of the horse.

Nosebands are common on English bridles and come in several varieties, while they are not seen in western. When they exist, they are the strap closest to the horse’s skin and sit a bit above the bit in the most common type. The use is to help keep the bit in place by keeping the horses mouth closed. While it’s true that there’s a lot of open mouthed carousel horses in theme parks that could benefit from this piece, in normal use I consider it fairly non essential. If extant pieces or art has it then great, but if it’s not there I assume that’s because it didn’t exist rather than a stylistic choice to not depict it.

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