BY Kelly J. Leather
Correct saddle fit has been a focus for horse owners and riders for hundreds of years, and rightly so. An ill-fitting saddle can quickly impact a horse’s health and wellbeing, causing pinching or pressure points, muscle wastage and even leading to kissing spines. That’s why diligent horse owners ensure their horse’s saddle is checked regularly, particularly as the seasons change, influencing grass quality and the horse’s ridden routine.
But in recent years, there’s been more and more research on bridle fit, and the impact that a poorly fitting bridle can have on the wellbeing of the ridden or driven horse. In this article, master bridle maker and qualified bridle fitter Kelly Jones, who trained with the Society of Master Saddlers in the UK, shares why ensuring correct bridle fit should be part of everybody’s horse care routine. And, that there’s a lot more to bridle fit than checking the height of the bit! Let’s dive in…
There’s a lack of education about bridle fitting.
Lots of the riders I meet know that their bridle should fit well, but not as many know how influential, and therefore problematic, a poorly fitted bridle can be. The scientific research is still ongoing, but incorrect bridle fit is linked with everything from ignoring aids and inconsistent contact to chronic head shaking and hindlimb engagement issues.
Not many riders would ever deliberately ride in a bridle that’s causing their horse pain, so where is it all going so wrong? In my opinion, it’s because the parameters of bridle fit that people are taught are too basic given what we know today about equine facial anatomy and the temporomandibular joint (TMJ).
Many riders were taught to check the height of the bit, the height of the noseband and how tight it should be and ensure the throatlash isn’t too tight. They might have been taught to be careful about buckle placement on the face and know that an anatomical headpiece helps relieve poll pressure but aren’t sure exactly what to look out for and avoid. A good place to start is by looking at the anatomy of the horse’s head.
A quick look at equine head anatomy.
Your horse’s skull is composed of 29 bones, with a network of nerves and blood vessels branching out from the base of the skull and reaching all over the horse’s head. You can see simply by looking at a horse that they don’t have much flesh or muscle covering their face, so the nerve endings are very exposed.
They also run over the poll and the atlas, and in and around the jaw, which comprises the maxilla (the upper jawbone) and the mandible(lower jaw). That anatomy is the same for all equines, and it’s possible to look at diagrams and images to see where you need to take extra care fitting a bridle – and I’ll share tips for that in a moment.
It’s important to note that the variety of breeds of horses and ponies means there’s great variation in head confirmation, and even within the same breed, every horse’s head is a slightly different shape! Some horses have plenty of space behind their ears for a lovely, padded headpiece, others not so much.
That anatomical bridle, purchased by a caring owner with the specific aim of making life more comfortable for their horse, could be pushing on the back of its ears every single day. What’s more, their heads are rarely symmetrical, and a horse or pony’s head will change shape as it gets older, especially stallions. That’s why I advocate getting a bridle fitter in at least once a year and keeping an eye on the fit of your bridle yourself.
Collaboration is the key to successful troubleshooting.
If you’re having issues finding a bit or noseband setup that works for you, I believe in booking a visit from a dentist and a bridle fitter offers the best chance of getting to the bottom of them. I frequently work alongside other experts, including dentists and physios, to troubleshoot what’s causing different behaviours in horses.
Nothing makes me happier than receiving a call or email from an equine physio who had been trying to figure out why a horse had been behaving a certain way, only to see a huge improvement when they started using one of my made-to-measure bridles. If the bridle has been causing the horse to carry itself differently to avoid discomfort, no amount of physio will get them moving properly – until the bridle issue is addressed.
I recently visited a horse to measure them for a bridle and could immediately tell that something was wrong. Their owner mentioned that they’d seen a dentist only a few weeks prior to that, but all it took was watching the horse eat, and I knew they had a dental issue.
A horse normally chews both ways, with their jaw moving left to right, then right to left as their molars grind their food. This horse was awkwardly chewing in only one direction. I measured the horse but asked the owner to arrange a visit from their equine dentist, who found a totally broken tooth that must have occurred in the two weeks between their visit and mine!
The influence of the TMJ on equine wellbeing.
One area I frequently collaborate with fellow equine practitioners on is issues around the temporomandibular joint. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is found in all mammals, and it’s the hinge between our upper and lower jaws that allows us to open and close our mouth.
In equines, the TMJ is just below and in front of the base of the ear, behind and slightly above the eye, on both sides of the head. It’s the raised bump that you can see and feel, and it moves as the horse chews – as you’d expect! It’s a key junction between the bit and the contact you take on the reins, and the rest of the horse’s body.
We are still learning about the role of the TMJ in influencing the whole body of an equine, with more research being undertaken at the moment. But virtually every physio, vet, chiropractor and equine dentist will tell you that inflammation and pain in this area will have an impact on a horse’s ability to be ridden.
Plus, if you aren’t sure something that looks relatively small can have a big impact, look up the range of symptoms that TMJ disorders cause for humans. Humans who don’t have metal bits and leather bridles placed on top! Well, we hope…
Some horses with TMJ issues present with headshaking, others have been noted to have hind leg engagement issues, others will lock their jaw and can’t accept the contact, no matter what bit or noseband is used. While this evidence is anecdotal, I’m sure all horse owners would prefer to err on the side of caution and ensure their bridle isn’t contributing to TMJ issues.
My top bridle fitting tips.
So, what can you do to ensure your bridle fits properly? I visit horses day in, day out to measure them and fit bridles, as well as assess their existing tack. Here’s the checklist I use:
- I first observe the horse at rest and eating – as I mentioned before, this can tell me so much about their dental health, which is key to happy bridle and bit fit.
- I kick off fitting by ensuring the headpiece fits properly. Every horse has different confirmation here and it’s vital that the bridle isn’t putting pressure on atlas.
- I’ll also be assessing whether the horse has space for a large, padded headpiece, whether it needs cutaway space for the ears and how long the headpiece needs to be to sit clear of the TMJ. Padding isn’t a one-size fits all solution, as in some cases where there simply isn’t room for a chunky headpiece, padding can increase pressure on the ears and the bursa surrounding the first two cervical vertebrae.
- Then I focus on the browband, ensuring that it’s wide enough for the horse’s face, so that it’s not pulling the headpiece forward onto the back of the ears.
- After that it’s time to check if the bit is the right height and when it is, the buckles on the cheek pieces sit comfortably on the horse’s face.
- The same is true for the noseband – when it’s fitted at the correct height for the style of noseband you’re using, check where the buckles from the noseband headpieces sit on the face.
- It’s also important to ensure the noseband buckle itself isn’t pressing on the face or jaw. Interestingly, research undertaken in 2022 by Dr Louise Murray in the UK showed that crank nosebands applied more symmetrical pressure than a traditional cavesson, flash nosebands applied the most specific pressure points, while properly fitted drop and crossover nosebands tended to lower the pressure placed on the face and jaw.
- Remember that nosebands can be fitted too high as well as too low, so again pay attention to your horse’s anatomy, rather than sticking to a ‘two finger width’ rule when it comes to positioning the noseband.
I hope that these tips help you ensure your horse’s bridle fits them correctly. If you’re ever unsure or you would like to ask me, please follow me on social media and send a message. I’ve also added a bridle measuring guide on my website which overseas customers use to order my made-to-measure English leather bridles. I also hold Zoom measuring appointments to ensure every new bridle is comfortable and fits properly.
If this article has inspired you to take a closer look at your horse’s bridle and you’d like to chat with Kelly, why not get in touch? You can contact Kelly via her website, https://www.kellyjleather.co.uk/contact.