November 2018 - Fitting a Bridle Properly
Written by by Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CSE
Thursday, 01 November 2018 04:25
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It’s all in your head… or your horse’s head!

by Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CSE • ©2018 Saddlefit 4 Life® (with thanks to St. Georg, June 2017 issue)

I’m going to take a slight detour and diverge from discussing saddle fit to discussing bridle fit.  Even though you may know that of course 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.

nov2018 schleese01

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 studies documented concerning 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.

nov2018 schleese02Horse Skull. Artist: Ingrid R Kostron – Used with Permission

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 (first) 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 heads, 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 her horse and see what works for her (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.

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).

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.

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.

nov2018 schleese03The 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. Source: Internet. Credit: 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.

nov2018 schleese04Horse clearly having difficulty breathing due to the extremely overtightened flash. Source Internet.

The Nostrils
Nosebands and flashes may 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 buildup 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 only used when there is an issue with the horse keeps 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 about 2-3 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

I wanted to discuss a number of the most popular bridles available with some of their features and benefits. For all of the different designs, remember that nosebands which are too restrictive can cause the horse to focus on the tension and pressure in and on his head, limiting the ability to focus and respond with proper muscle movement in the rest of his body. The horse’s biology does not change from discipline to discipline in riding, even though the ‘head-restraining devices’ do – all of which are designed to control and communicate to the horse what the rider wants. The horse will learn what to do to relieve pressure and discomfort, which can have further ramifications at the distal end of the body as he attempts to avoid pain. Give the horse the freedom to communicate using its mouth – comfort will result in a quiet, relaxed jaw and mouth.

nov2018 schleese05Combination or Snaffle Bridle with Flash Noseband.

COMBINATION Bridle or SNAFFLE WITH A FLASH NOSEBAND (rolled reins, throatlatch, cheekpieces, and noseband)
This commonly used type has an additional flash to assist in keeping the horse’s mouth shut (and the tongue in). The noseband should be buckled high enough to avoid interfering with the (generally) snaffle bit.

nov2018 schleese06Swedish or Snaffle Bridle with Flash Noseband.

Extra padding under the noseband buckle makes this more comfortable than the English style bridle. Other than that, it is very similar to the combination bridle, with the extra flash. Care must be taken that the anatomy of the head allows enough room to buckle both the noseband and the flash properly. Horses with relatively smaller heads do well with this type. This bridle is often buckled too tightly, given the false sense of ‘comfort’ the extra padding at the noseband provides.

nov2018 schleese07English or Snaffle Bridle.

ENGLISH Bridle or SNAFFLE Bridle
The noseband on this bridle should lie 1-2 fingers below the zygomatic arch. It is popular for thoroughbreds, who prefer more freedom in their mouths. If your horse likes to put his tongue over the bit, this is not a style for you. Using a rolled noseband puts more pressure on the nose as well.

nov2018 schleese08Hanoverian or Drop-Noseband Bridle.

The noseband lies about 4 fingers above the nostrils past the bit. This style used to be much more popular, but it is not a pretty looking bridle. It relays the pressure from the reins directly from the lower jaw onto the nose. It does prevent horses from putting their tongues over the bit. Some riders still prefer to use this as it has less leather and buckles, which lowers the risk of impacting sensitive nerves and acupuncture points.

nov2018 schleese09Mexican, Grackle or Figure 8 Bridle.

Loose snaffle rings and the ability to breathe without hindrance are two of the main attractions of this bridle. It is easily recognizable, having crossing leather straps over the nose with a leather rosette in the centre. The upper piece crosses the zygomatic arch. The only pressure point is in the centre from the rosette piece. It has only recently been allowed for use in dressage rings. The only danger is if it is buckled too tightly and thus pushes the bit up into the corners of the lips.

nov2018 schleese010Hackamore Bridle / Shutterstock.

This bitless option puts pressure on the nose through a lever action at the sides of the noseband. Although probably effective for a while, the horse soon gets accustomed to the pressure on the nose and becomes less responsive over time. It’s a good alternative for interim use if a horse has an injury in the mouth, but there is almost no substitute for the necessary additional aid of an outside rein in the higher classes.

nov2018 schleese011Micklem Bridle / Shutterstock

This option has an extra strap attaching the bit to the bridle. It is extremely comfortable for the horse, and supports the ‘chewing’ motion.

I found this excellent checklist regarding the use of nosebands for you to consider:
a)    Educate yourself on the nerves, functions, and anatomy of the horse’s head.
b)    How sensitive is your horse? Highly sensitive horses do best with no nosebands or loose ones.
c)    Determine the best type to fit your horse’s nose shape and head conformation.
d)    Your horse still needs to have full physiological movement: yawn, swallow and lick its lips.
e)    Use padding judiciously – most bridles are already made to provide full comfort and extra padding can increase the pressure.
f)    LISTEN to your horse. Tension creates tension; restriction creates restriction.

The new breed of totally custom, anatomically correct bridles which are now available purport to help your horse perform better by relieving pressure on the sensitive areas of the head and head. To sort out all the options that are now available, the rider should definitely educate themselves to understand the conformation of the horse’s head to make the right decision for their horse(s). One size, one type, one make, does definitely not fit all! Having said that, a well-fitted, appropriately padded ergonomically designed bridle will help to distribute pressure more evenly – good for the horse, of course, but also good for riders who may have less-educated hands.