Want to try out a Bedouin bitless bridle on your horse? Rest assured, you won’t be able to wander down to your local saddlery and buy one.
These are handcrafted items made from traditional materials, based on a design that has endured for centuries.
American veterinarian Bob Cook was given one 30 years ago as a gift during a visit to Kuwait. He originally assumed it was a halter, and hung it on his study wall. It was only in recent years, during discussions with retired New Zealand surgeon Fridtjof Hanson about bitless riding, that it dawned on him that the “halter” was in fact a bitless bridle.
He gave it to Hanson last Christmas, who was stunned by the degree of control that was possible with the bridle.
A story published by Horsetalk about the pair’s experiences generated huge interest, with some horse owners wanting to build their own bridle.
Hanson considers the Kuwait Bedouin bridle, with reins made of goat hair and horse-mane hair, to be precious.
So, it was understandable that he turned his mind to fashioning replicas, substituting in some cases more modern elements, such as stainless steel chain, quality shackles and rubber.
Hanson has, to date, made about a dozen of the bridles, improving his technique along the way. He is willing to share his experiences in this how-to guide.
Hanson opts for mostly quality stainless steel materials in their construction and advises people to avoid the cheaper alternatives available in steel from a local hardware store.
Using top-shelf materials, the bridle is likely to cost upward of $NZ200 ($US134) to make.
However, the costs of some of the raw materials will vary around the globe.
First, let’s look at the shopping list:
- 3 metres of stainless steel chain, with links that are 10 millimetres long. You should be able to source this easily from your local marine supply store.
- Two 3-centimetre long stainless steel D shackles (these can also be sourced from your marine store). These shackles are used to join the back and front sections of the nose chain. The tasselled ends of the headpiece go through these and are tied.
- Two 2-centimetre long stainless steel D shackles (marine store again). These prove very useful when one wants to shorten the nose chain for fitting the bridle to a smaller horse.
- One 5-centimetre long stainless steel karabiner, or smaller if you can find it. This should also be available from your marine store. Some of these have a spring-loaded clip, but Hanson suggests selecting one that screws together for greater security. This goes round the unpadded lower part of the nose chain.
- Two zinc-plated split rings, about 2 centimetres across, which you can source from your hardware store. These are essentially the same as the rings that you find holding keys on your key chain. These are needed to join the reins, which will have a central “spine” made of stainless steel chain, to the karabiner.
- Two dog choke chains. You will need two pieces here, one 32cm long and the other 42cm long. Unfortunately, choke chains are rarely available in lengths longer than 60 centimetres, so you will probably have to buy two. Go for the biggest links you can find. To give you some idea, Hanson uses a choke chain that has 26 links in his 32-centimetre section and 34 links in the (unpadded) 42-centimetre section. Best to buy the choke chains first and take them to the marine supply store, as it is essential that the bolt which secures the two 3-centimetre D shackles can pass through the links of the choke chain.
- A strip of felt, 41 centimetres long and 4 centimetres wide. This is for the padding under the nose chain. You should be able to source this from a good fabric store. Ideally, it should be around 6 millimetres (a quarter of an inch) thick.
- Strong linen thread and a suitable needle to sew the chain to the felt. Hanson’s thread is sourced from the United States. You want strong, quality thread. This is the kind of thread used to sew leather goods and repair the likes of motorcycle jackets and canvas goods.
- Three balls of eight-ply knitting wool, to make the headpiece and throat lash. You can use one colour, or a mix of colours.
- A quantity of woollen fleece to wrap around the chain used in the centre of the rein. This will naturally be easier to source in some countries than others. If this proves to be a problem, you may have to buy additional balls of wall to use as a substitute.
- Two of the smallest diameter inner tubes, as used on racing bikes. Your local bike shop might be kind enough to give you tubes with punctures that they would otherwise discard.
- Around 4 metres of light wire. This is not used in the bridle itself, but is needed while you’re building the reins.
• First, you want to make the headpiece from the wool. Your aim is to make three sections of a little over 2 metres long for plaiting, with 22 strands of wool in each. Find the likes of two veranda posts about 2.2 metres apart, or any similar objects that you can use. Tie the wool on one post and away you go, wrapping the wool around the two posts until you have 22 strands in total running between the posts.
• Continue until you have wound all three sections, with 22 strands apiece. They must remain separated, but close enough so that once you are done, you can get your linen thread and tie the three groups together precisely in the middle , leaving a loop of thread to hang over a hook to allow you to do the plait.
• It is time now to cut the sections away from the post. Get a sharp pair of scissors and, grasping the 22 strands in one hand near the post, slip the scissors behind the wool as it wraps around the post and cut it off. Then, place a temporary tie in the cut end to keep the 22 threads together. Do this for all six ends. Hanson refers to the resulting six-legged octopus-like object as a sextapus.
• You are now ready to start plaiting your sextapus into a single plaited length. Not familiar with plaiting? No doubt you’re now regretting turning your back on those macrame night classes! Here’s a link to a YouTube video that outlines the principles of three-strand plaiting.
• Hang the whole business from a convenient hook, using the loop. Hanson suggests marking the middle with a different-coloured wool. It is a good idea to drape the end you are not working on over a nail or hook to keep it out of the way. Now, begin firmly plaiting the three sections together, working from the centre out.
• Your aim is make this headpiece no less than 140 centimetres long, so you will need to plait at least 70 centimetres from the marked midpoint in each direction. Once you have the required plaited length, tie the ends off tightly with the linen thread. Wrap and tie more wool around the linen thread to hide it. Then, cut off the remaining excess wool, being sure to leave 6-7 centimetres beyond your tying-off at both ends to form tassels. The remainder is wastage.
• Time to turn your attention to the throatlash. Head back to your two veranda posts 2.2 metres apart. Tie the wool to one post and start wrapping it around them again. This time, you are aiming for three sections of eight-ply knitting wool, with 22 strands in each. This time, you will be plaiting from only one end. At one verandah post, pull all the threads together and bind them tightly, using the loose ends of the thread to make a loop for hanging from your hook. At the other verandah post you will still have some separation between the three sections. Gather them up one at a time, cut them free, and temporarily knot them together.
• When all three have been freed, it is time to hang the loop on the hook and plait the whole length. Finish off with a good tight knot in the wool after you have plaited a minimum of 120 centimetres. Cut it off about 6-7 centimetres beyond the knot and allow the end to unravel, creating another tassel.
• Thread a good strong needle with a length of linen thread. Pick up the non-tasselled end of the throatlash. This end needs to be doubled over and stitched to itself with the linen thread to form a 6-10 centimetre long loop through which the other (tasselled) end of the throatlash will eventually be poked through and tied when on the horse.
• The next task is assembling the headpiece and throatlash. Mark the throatlash exactly 12 centimetres from the base of the loop.
• Lay the headpiece and the throatlash together, lining up with midpoint of the headpiece with the 12cm reference point on the throatlash, ensuring that the loop is on the left side of bridle. Stitch them neatly and securely together, for about 12 centimetres either side of this mid point. You have completed the headpiece!
• Now the weighted reins. Firstly, let’s have a quick overview of what we’re creating, before we look at how to do it. The centre spine of the rein is the 3 metres of stainless steel chain. It is then wrapped in wool from the fleece and rolled in knitting wool before the rubber tubes are pulled over the entire assembly.
• To begin with you need two posts at least six metres apart. You take the light wire and tie it to one of the posts, ensuring you have at least 1.5 metres easily accessible. Make two transverse cuts right through the first inner tube, close to and on either side of the valve. Remove the valve section and discard it. Ensure you have a little over 1.5 metres in length. Feed the rubber tubing along the wire. Then, tie the wire to the last link of your 3 metre length of stainless steel chain. Tie another section of wire to the other post, leaving another 1.5 metres, on to which you will feed the other tube, which has to be processed the same way as the first. Then tie this wire to the other end of the chain so that the whole assembly is reasonably taut. What you end up with is the chain secured from either end by the wires, which each carry the rubber tubing in readiness to be pulled on to the chain.
• Now, take your fleece (or knitting wool, if not available) and start teasing out the wool and wrapping it around the chain. Hanson suggests using a clothes peg to hold the wool before teasing out some more fleece and continuing to wrap the wool. Once wrapped, take some knitting wool and wrap it tightly and evenly along the chain. It might be easier to roll the wool around a cardboard cylinder first, such as from the centre of a toilet roll. This can be used to roll around the wool-covered chain as you work your way along it. You are aiming for a uniform diameter of about 2 centimetres.
• When done, tie it off and reinforce it with some knitting wool thread. You are now ready to pull the rubber tubing over the wool. Put a couple of small nicks on either side of the leading edge of each tube, as this will help you grip it and pull. A little lanolin will help lubricate the wool and make the rubber slide easier. Get the two rubber tubes to meet in the middle and overlap a little. You can tie them together with some linen thread.
• The two zinc-plated split rings are attached to the ends of the reins. Hanson says it is most important to get the detail here right. The last link at each end of the rein needs to be exposed a little to enable the split rings to be fitted. However, you do not want the last link to be completely free, as it will create a loose “kink” in the rein. So, ensure the wool and tubing covers two-thirds or so of the final link at each end, and when tying-off ensure you keep the majority of the link firmly within the inner tube. Leave just enough of the link showing to accommodate the split ring.
• The pictures show how the felt is attached beneath the chain. The felt, of course, provides protection for the horse against the chain noseband and the shackles at each side. The felt needs to be carefully stitched to the chain noseband to ensure that it sits smoothly and comfortably over the nose. Note the right angle in the felt to provide protection from the shackles.
• Final assembly is best left to the pictures. The big D shackles are central to the assembly. The chains are secured to it by the shackle bolt passing through the links. The pictures show the chin chain far too long for use, but better for the purpose of illustration. Shorten the chin chains so that you can get the width of two fingers only between the ring on the end of the rein and bottom edge of the horse’s jaw. The chin chain can be adjusted by pulling the chain together and fastening it together with the two smaller D shackles, if need be. Alternatively, the bigger shackles can be released and the chain shortened. Any surplus chain can simply be left to hang from the large shackles, or tied out of the way. If your bridle is for use on one horse only, you have the option of cutting the chain to the correct length with bolt cutters, leaving no “surplus”. This is best way to cut the chain.
• The karabiner hangs from the bottom of the nose chain, to which the split rings on the reins are attached.
• Finally, you need to knot the headpiece to the D shackles on either side. Pass the tasselled and bound ends of the cheek pieces through each shackle, from the inside out. Draw it back, then under and around the cheek piece, over the top, and back through itself, allowing the tasseled end to dangle down.
Some general observations:
- The headpiece of plaited wool most probably feels better to the horse than other material. In Hanson’s experience, it is surprisingly strong and durable, takes far more punishment than any leather and creates no rubs or galls.
- There is no brow band. It doesn’t need one. The headstall should just sit there by gravity alone. The very absence of a browband allows you to judge if the headstall is well balanced. Any imbalance in the bridle’s weight or proportions becomes evident in use, as the crown piece will start to slide down the horse’s neck.
- Threading the tasselled ends through the large D shackles is a convenient and accurate way of adjusting the length of the cheek pieces – much better than messing with leather buckles, in Hanson’s view. He says riders will be surprised how easy it is to keep clean, and how robust and serviceable it is compared to any leather bridle.
- The size and quality of the four shackles is crucial. The biggest difficulty is imposed by the dimensions of the links in the choke chain. The shafts of the shackles have to fit through them, so that they can be joined, or shortened.
- The stitching of the chain to the felt needs to be done carefully. Also, you might need to keep a small pair of pliers handy for tightening the shackles.
- Some horse owners may be able to buy weighted reins from a local saddler if they choose not to make the reins described above.
- This bridle is not for the novice or intermediate rider. Such riders who want to go bitless would be best to progress in stages as follows:
Stage 1: Opt for Dr Cook’s crossunder bitless bridle with standard reins. With painless rein-aid communication, riders learn to develop an independent seat and begin to recognise that seat and leg-aids are more important than rein-aids.
Stage 2: Use the crossunder bridle in conjunction with weighted reins. Practice the new skill of using pressure-free tactile communication with a completely loose rein (“on the buckle”)
Stage 3: Graduate to the Bedouin bridle and minimal rein-aid communication. The “Y”-shaped nose and chin chain of the Bedouin bridle acts like a plumb line. Its default “no signal” position is vertical. With a brief vibration of the loose rein in any direction, the slightest departure of the plumb line from the vertical is sensed proprioceptively and the horse acts accordingly.
Hanson comments: “I am astonished how quickly my horses avail themselves of any newly offered improvement in their comfort. They don’t ‘miss a trick’ and are only too willing to oblige.”
He emphasises that riders using this tack need to learn a whole new way of riding. Communication by “feel” only, with hair-bearing skin and a horse’s sense of total “awareness” not only gets the rider out of a horse’s mouth, banishing oral pain and allowing a horse to breathe, but also gives a horse the freedom of its head-and-neck – so vital for proper balance, conservation of energy and athletic performance.
Riders who learn how to signal this way can achieve the goal of human/horse harmony.
Many thanks to Bob Cook and Fridtjof Hanson for their efforts in creating this article, and additional thanks to Dr Cook for his images.
For those interested, several images appear below which show details of the authentic Kuwait Bedouin bridle.