Bridle fit is as important to horses as saddle fitting: Here’s why

The horse’s neck, stretching out to reach the bit, is a perception commonly associated with the lowering of the neck but the concept is in opposition of the muscular work actually achieved by the upper neck muscles when the neck is lowered.

Even though you may know that your bridle has to fit your horse properly, you may be surprised to hear of the impact a poorly fitting bridle may have on your horse. Bridle fit can be considered just as important as saddle fit to maintain your horse’s comfort and optimum performance.

No other part of the anatomy has as many sensitive areas as the head. Recent design changes in bridles to become more ‘anatomically friendly’ are crucial in ensuring your horse is comfortable with his headgear. There are many nerves in the horse’s head. Some of them originate at exactly those areas where the noseband or flash lie.

If a bridle is too tight, all sorts of behavioural issues can arise, including tossing the head, lack of chewing, and lack of engagement with an unwillingness to move. These reactions warrant a closer look to what’s under the skin of the horse’s head. The gross anatomy of the head is easily recognizable in a horse – there is only a thin layer of skin covering the skull, while veins and muscles are only minimally visible. What you don’t see are the multitudes of nerves, and the delicate connective tissue at the various junctions of bone – all of which make the head extremely sensitive to pressure and pain.

This connective tissue between the 29 individual bones of the skull, plus a jaw which allows a side to side movement of the teeth during mastication, are responsible for movement of the head.

There are numerous nerves originating at the base of the skull, spreading upwards over the skull – and often present exactly where the various pieces of the bridle would lie. Too much pressure caused by the bridle can also cause referred pain elsewhere; muscles can cramp up and engagement will disappear. Fascia (connective tissue) runs through the entire body. A poorly fitting bridle can even cause problems all the way down to the hocks – impacting the flexibility and range of motion.  Although there are unfortunately only a few documented studies on how a poorly fitting bridle impacts a horse, there is anecdotal evidence of this, and horses do move better in a bridle that fits. The most severe problems arise in the neck/base of the skull if the bridle fits badly (where the headpiece lies), but a noseband or flash that is buckled too tightly will also cause problems here.

The parts of an English snaffle bridle.
The parts of an English snaffle bridle.

The neck

Sensitive bursa are found between the nuchal ligament and the first two cervical vertebrae. Bursa are little sacs filled with fluid with the job of preventing the ligament from rubbing on the vertebrae and getting damaged. They cannot withstand a lot of pressure, and will react to a poorly fitting or too-tightly buckled bridle by increasing fluid production and swelling. They become obviously swollen – for dressage horses this is seen mainly at the atlas (1st) vertebra, and in jumping horses mainly at the 2nd cervical vertebra.

These affected bursa are not only visually obvious, but may cause the horse to ignore the aids, toss its head, or refuse to go on the bit. When it really hurts, the horse may ‘invert’ its neck in an attempt to escape the pain. The muscles of the topline may begin to atrophy, and the horse develops a ‘ewe’ neck. Even well-intentioned padding of the headpiece may actually be counter-productive – instead of helping, padding can even increase the pressure and cause skin folds – which may lead to further concentrated pressure points. (Again – it’s trial and error on your own horse to see the reaction to more padding). There is no universal formula for all horses as to ‘how much is too much’ when it comes to the ability to withstand pressure at the headpiece. A sensible rider will listen to the horse and see what works (while recognizing that these issues may not necessarily be actually due to poorly fitting bridle, but could also arise from dentition problems or even simple rider error!)

The bridle should be fitted to allow a hand to slip under easily at the headpiece. There should be two fingers’ room between the cavesson/noseband and the nose. Bridles should be considered as a DIY craft- project – with potentially differently sized noseband, headpiece, and cheekpieces to accommodate the individual horse.

A noseband which is too tight can also impact the horse’s neck and the ability to engage. For full comfort and relaxed movement, a horse’s bridle should still allow the horse to chew freely. Chewing movement means the jaw needs to be able to move side to side freely. If the horse tries to chew with a bridle that is too tight, the resistance will cause cramping of the jaw muscles and pressure in the neck – and this muscle ‘bracing’ will impact the horse’s entire musculature and ability to engage. Some horses are in such pain around their heads that riders may have misdiagnosed them as being ‘head shy’. This can be avoided by properly fitting bridles.

The cranium of the horse.
The cranium of the horse. Source: Steffi Neumann; SIS Book (used with permission)

Scientists have determined that there needs to be at least ½” room between the incisors where the bit is laid (so that a carrot could fit), to allow the horse to comfortably chew while bridled. There are two acupuncture points located in the headpiece area, which influence neck flexibility, back movement, and collection ability of the horse. If the flash or noseband is buckled too tightly, not only are these acupuncture points inhibited, but also the meridians which are located on either side of the head (the intestinal meridians). This further influences the flexibility of the haunches as well as proper breathing.

If there is too much pressure at the base of the skull from the headpiece, irritation results. Experiments have shown that during a canter while on the bit, the pressure is doubled here. Since the nerve here is also connected to the skin at the ears, the horse will show reluctance to have his ears touched when there is too much pressure from the bridle. This nerve also connects to the tongue musculature, possibly leading to further problems in the forelegs, since the muscles here are also connected to many of those muscles responsible for movement in the forelegs. (I know this sounds totally weird, but it is anatomically true).

British research has shown that martingale use significantly reduced rein tension and resulted in more consistent rein tensions applied by novice riders.

The Zygomatic Arch

A noseband which is too tight not only puts extra pressure on the neck at the headpiece; it presses directly on a nerve and also influences an acupuncture point. This nerve comes directly out at the zygomatic arch which is right under the noseband.

The noseband of some types of bridles mirrors the exit point of the branches of two nerves (“Nervus trigeminus” and “Nervus facialis”) at the “foramen infraorbitale” which can be felt at the top of the upper jaw bone. The bridle needs to be correctly fitted and buckled in order not to rub against these bone projections. Although pressure on bone won’t necessarily cause any damage to the bone itself, it will cause pain. So called pressure necrosis will develop which can cause hair loss or the formation of white hairs – similar to when saddle pressure points cause issues.

The above illustrations show the complexity of the horse’s cranial nerves and location of the maxillary, infraorbital, mandibular and mental foramens of the equine cranium. The complexity and origin of the nerves and foramen illustrate the importance of choosing a style of bridle and properly fitting the bridle so as not to interfere or add excessive force on these nerves – invariably causing pain and/or discomfort. © Anatomy of the Horse: An Illustrated Text by authors Klaus-Dieter Budras, W.O. Sack and Sabine Rock.
The above illustrations show the complexity of the horse’s cranial nerves and location of the maxillary, infraorbital, mandibular and mental foramens of the equine cranium. The complexity and origin of the nerves and foramen illustrate the importance of choosing a style of bridle and properly fitting the bridle so as not to interfere or add excessive force on these nerves – invariably causing pain and/or discomfort. © Anatomy of the Horse: An Illustrated Text by authors Klaus-Dieter Budras, W.O. Sack and Sabine Rock.

The Lower Jaw

Many of the nerve insertion points are easily seen on the horse’s naked skull.  One of the key ones can be seen exiting at the lower jaw at the “Foramen mentale”. It is close to the end of the horse’s mouth and extra care must be taken when the chain is attached so that it is not too tight.

Ear Salivary Gland

Pressure here will cause the horse to salivate, which leads to the chewing motion. If the bridle is too tight here and the horse feels resistance to being able to chew, enhanced saliva production will cause the horse stress and muscle tightening. The saliva will not be swallowed; it will simply drip out of the horse’s mouth. The hyoid lies beneath this gland, which is connected to a nerve in the ear. Too much pressure can furthermore impact the ability of the horse to maintain proper balance. There are more acupuncture points at the base of the ears where the browband sits. This acupuncture point ensures that both the jaw as well as the S-I joint remain mobile, and has influence on the meridians responsible for the bladder, gall bladder, and small intestine – all of which further influence movement of both the fore and hindlegs.

In a study done at the University of Sydney the impact of too tightly buckled nosebands on chewing, eye temperature, and heart beat rate was examined on 12 horses using a Swedish double bridle. With a too tightly buckled noseband, stress indicators were indicated by increased heartbeat and higher eye temperatures.

A horse clearly having difficulty breathing due to the extremely over-tightened flash.
A horse clearly having difficulty breathing due to the extremely over-tightened flash.

The Nostrils

Nosebands and flashes must not be positioned too low on the horse’s face lest they ‘push’ closed the nostrils and impact the breathing ability of the horse, as well as causing heat build-up in the lungs. This is especially important to watch for in the Hanoverian style bridle, which can further impact two important acupuncture points if it is buckled too low and tight.

The Cheeks

The noseband and flash can also cause problems with the mucous membranes in the mouth. If these are too tight, the edges of the teeth in the upper jaw will press against these, as well as against the skin of the cheeks, and can cause injuries. This is particularly painful, if the teeth have not been filed for a while and have hooks or spurs. It is important to keep these loose (2 fingers’ room). Flash nosebands are usually used only when there is an issue with the horse keeping his mouth open too wide or likes to put his tongue over the bit.

The throatlatch should of course also not be too tight, and at best should have at least 2 to 3 fingers of room to hang somewhat loosely. It should never be so tight as to be completely flush with the horse’s cheek.

The question arises whether additional padding makes a difference in the comfort for your horse – especially padding under the noseband and headpieces. It has been shown that pressure actually increases for the horse with additional padding – especially at the headpiece, where this would be akin to wearing a riding helmet that is too tight (think of the headaches this causes!). However, additional padding at the noseband has a more positive result, although nowadays many manufacturers build the extra soft padding right into their bridles from the get go.

In summary, it is always best to try out several bridles on your horse, to determine what works best for him. Every horse is different, and you may find that a combination of pieces and sizes is the best solution. The key is to try a bridle for a couple of rides, since anything new may cause different behaviour. The bit of course is another variable, but you as the rider will know best what your horse likes and can read how he reacts.

 

Jochen-schleeseJochen Schleese was certified as the youngest Master Saddler ever in Europe in 1984, and in 1986 was asked to be the official saddler for the World Dressage Championship.

He received a patent for a revolutionary saddle design in 1996 and is recognized as an authority on saddles.

For more information, visit www.schleese.com, or read Suffering in Silence: The Saddle Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses, by Jochen Schleese.

Jochen Schleese

Jochen Schleese is a Certified Master Saddler, Equine Ergonomist and a leader in the concept of saddle fit. He teaches his Saddlefit 4 Life philosophy worldwide. He is also the author of "Suffering in Silence" and "The Saddle-Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses".  Visit www.schleese.com

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