Thursday, January 16, 2014

Bridles Part 2: FUNCTION!!!

so many bridles!
Now that we've discussed bridle aesthetics (email your pictures!!), it's time to think about function. Some people do this the other way around and worry about function first... yeah, for most of us, that's overrated. Ha.

I am the one who took a horse to a clinic with an O'Connor-approved, very tack conscious clinician with my horse in a figure eight. When the clinician asked me what the figure eight did, I explained that it helps keep the horse's mouth closed and keeps them from crossing their jaw.

"But I didn't think your horse did any of those things," the clinician said.

"She doesn't. I think it looks cute and since it will have no action, it doesn't hurt anything."

So there you go. That's me in a nutshell.

THAT SAID. Look at the last part of the statement. I'm all for dressing your horse in pretty tack as long as the tack doesn't interfere with the way the horse goes. Let's look at some basic bridle designs and talk about why they're used and when they are or are not appropriate.

As modeled by Cuna

Plain cavessons:

This is about as basic as it gets. Some people get all nutty about never using a cavesson because they don't need one. I think that's silly if you're attempting to ride and show in an english discipline. They are required to show (most of the time) and they complete the look.

They are also super useful if you're out riding and a cheek piece breaks (been there) and they allow you to employ aids like a standing martingale or a flash.

The proper adjustment is to place the cavesson just below the cheek bone so that it doesn't rub, but is well clear of the airways. The picture has it just a hair high.

This is the correct design to use with a pelham or double bridle. A figure eight or flash can interfere with the action of the curb chain. As such, doubles don't come with flashes. It is trendy in the Eq ring to use a pelham with a figure eight, but it's also trendy to be an anorexic 17 year old there, so I wouldn't just blindly follow their lead.

plain cavesson with curb chain
Reasons to use them:
1) your horse hasn't demonstrated a need for anything else
2) your horse has a delicate face that would be overwhelmed by too many straps
3) you ride hunters and/or use a standing martingale
4) they are easy to find
5) you use a bit with a curb chain of any sort

Reasons not to use a plain cavesson:
1) your horse needs (or looks better in) something else

Interesting notes: If the cavesson has it's own hanger (as is standard on english bridles), we call it a cavesson. If the cavesson is on the same strap as the bit hang/cheek piece, we call it a noseband. This is more commonly seen on in-hand bridles for breed showing. Having it separate gives us a much greater ability to adjust it, while a noseband would be a cleaner look for a standard-size face. Trade offs.

Courage models the crank

Crank with a flash

The "crank" style is differentiated from the plain cavesson the strap under the jaw. Instead of a simple buckle, it's a long strap that's doubled back, allowing the horse's mouth to be "cranked" shut. This design is most commonly seen on dressage bridles, but it's showing up in other places as well.

Many people are opposed to cranks because they don't believe in forcing a horse to shut his mouth. However, like any tool, they are only as cruel as the hands that use them. A loosely-adjusted crank is no different than a loosely adjusted cavesson. A snug crank can support the jaw of a horse taking contact, just as the flash helps keep the bit stable in the horse's mouth.

A frequent misconception is that the flash serves to close the horse's mouth. Given the biomechanics of the horse's face, all the flash does is support the bit and keep the lips shut. Any closing action is done by the cavesson, which is much closer to the jaw.

A crank is frequently bigger and thicker than a cavesson. This isn't just styling--many cranks have a flash noseband attached. In order to work properly, the crank needs to be stable on the face so the flash doesn't pull it downward and allow it to interfere with the horse's breathing.

Courage in the flash--note his nostrils are unimpinged
The proper adjustment is the same as the cavesson--just below the cheek bones to prevent rubbing. This allows the flash to be in place without getting too low.

Reasons to use a crank/flash
1) your horse opens his mouth/plays with his lips and you want him to go through the phase without making it a training issue
2) you ride dressage and want "the look"
3) your horse has a plain face that needs some dressing up
4) you like buckles. lots and lots of buckles.
5) your trainer requested it

Reasons not to use a crank/flash
1) they are a PITA with a standing martingale
2) you ride hunters
3) your internet horse friends think it's mean and you're tired of explaining yourself

So cute 

 The Figure Eight

This style is primary seen on eventers and jumpers, but it's legal for all FEI disciplines including dressage (Sorry hunters. You guys have no fun.)

Much like the crank/flash combo, it can close the mouth while supporting the bit. Given the location that it acts on the horse's head, it is a little more effective than the crank flash. It's also a lot more distracting to look at.

Dressage riders prefer the crank/flash. Riding at speed usually calls for the most effective thing possible, hence the figure eight. Noted: Jimmy Wofford is known for saying that a flash is just an inefficient figure eight.

The design of the figure eight takes pressure off the side of the horse's face but still serves to hold the mouth shut and doesn't interfere with their breathing. If you've ever been run away with by a horse with it's mouth gaped open and it's head up in the air, you'll understand why this is a good idea. Noted: I absolutely agree that the mouth-gaping-run is a training problem. Jimmy Wofford will also point out that you have to live through the present in order to prove his point that every horse can be ridden in a cavesson with a snaffle.

30% crazier on Cuna
Also noted: until you've galloped XC on a horse that loves it (or ridden race horses or showjumped 3'6"+), don't bother getting snitty with me about training aids. The physics of speed have very little in common with the under-powered, unfit, behind-the leg-animal that we like to pretend our horses aren't. Tools are created for a reason. Use them as needed.

The proper adjustment of a figure eight is to have the ring ABOVE the cheek bone, but far enough below the eye that it doesn't interfere. This should allow the top of the figure eight to run over the facial bones without rubbing the cheek bones... if that makes any sense.

Reasons to use a figure eight:
1) you participate in a sport that requires quick reflexes or your horse isn't perfectly soft and on the bit all the time
2) your horse needs a little busyness to dress up a somewhat plain face
3) your trainer requested you use one
4) it's what you have available

Reasons not to use a figure eight:
1) your horse is for sale and you don't want him to look crazy
2) your horse has a busy face and needs less going on
3) you use a bit with a curb chain
4) you ride hunters

The Micklem Bridle

This funny piece showed up in the past couple of decades. It purports to be kinder to the horse by integrating the design of the horse's head and relieving pressure in common places.

A close look indicates that the pressure points are quite similar to a standard, well-fitted figure eight.


For some horses, this bridle works really, really well. It offers excellent bit stability and works well on certain faces. I've spent a bit of time with these bridles--it made no difference to my mare, but Courage was noticeably quieter in the contact with it than with his previous bridles. Coincidence? Maybe. It was enough of a difference to convince me to keep it around.

Fitting a micklem is a bit of a crap shoot. It's easy if your horse's head works well for the bridle. It's hard if it doesn't. Ultimately, you want the airways clear and the facial bones free of pressure. There are some youtube videos that are helpful, but horses' heads have a lot of variation and this bridle doesn't. Perhaps future models will address this? We'll see.

Reasons to use a micklem
1) your horse is very expressive with his face/itchy during/after riding or fussy about contact
2) you want to know what all the hype is about and they really aren't that expensive
3) you like being a little different (or a lot the same, depending on your barn)
4) you always want to try new things

Reasons not to use a Micklem
1) they are ugly as sin
2) the leather is nothing to write home about
3) your horse is fine in a normal bridle
4) you ride hunters

There's a basic rundown. I hope I've clarified the types of cavessons and bridles available and gone over their pros and cons in a way that makes sense to the average horse owner. This falls in to one of those things where if you're unsure and you ride in any sort of program, ask your trainer. They frequently have preferences and they generally have a very solid logic behind those preferences.

If you're a free wheeling ammy like me, then pick what's prettiest and have a ball!!

Please keep on emailing me your horse head/bridle photos to hakunamatata at gmail dot com! The reader input post will be lots of fun.


  1. Great post! I agree - the Micklem can be super ugly on some horses, but I honestly like how it looks on others. It can really show off the front of the horse's face. I have also heard that a Figure 8 can help prepare a horse for a hackamore - the pressure points are similar. Apparently people will often start their horse in a figure 8 and slowly transition them over to a hackamore. This is what I hope to accomplish with Fiction eventually.

  2. Just wanted to say, I really, REALLY enjoy posts like this! They are objectively educational, explaining the benefits of each kind of bridle, as well as the drawbacks to each. Reading this post, I realized how much I (embarrassingly) need to learn about bridles! Thanks so much for writing this :)

  3. I love these posts. Riley's new figure-eight is fitting well enough, but I didn't get a chance to adjust it exactly right. I think I might need a hole or two added to the cheek attachment:) He has droopy lip syndrome so having a flash or figure works best on him. Plus he's not steady in the contact yet and it really helps him out. Luckily he's not a runaway (yet) but he DID just turned five, so we'll see what happens.

  4. This is an absolutely wonderful post that I will be sharing! I've been wanting to try a Micklem for a while now. I'm getting closer and closer to being talked into it. :) If that doesn't work for us I can see a figure 8 in our future.

    1. A Micklem is miles above a figure eight...go for the Micklem :)

  5. Love this post, educational, clear & objective!
    Both my girls have itchy heads after work might look into figure 8 and/or micklem to try for also curious about micklem & like Amanda am getting closer & closer to trying it out

  6. Oooh, lovely! I will have to send you some photos later today, I'd forgotten I meant to do that when you made the first post.

  7. trying to compile all of my bridle pics. I'll try to send them by this weekend.

  8. I just can't ever agree with putting a corrective piece of tack (flash, figure 8) on a horse that doesn't need it... just because it works pretty. Also, crank nosebands are legal in the hunter ring and there are a lot of hunter versions sold.

  9. Great post - really enjoy your take on function and fashion.

  10. On Figure 8s... There are two options... The preset one (pictured) and the "traditional" one where you adjust it with "keepers" (for want of a better word). I went with the traditional and it took me some time to learn to fit it correctly...

  11. Very educational post! I don't use any of those bridles so it's fun read about them and the different functions and purposes they serve.

  12. Outstanding post! .. Sending you photos now ....

  13. Hunters get no love... guess I need to buy a jumper so I can accessorize it! haha

    1. In the meantime you can help me pick out accessories for Lex all you like. :)

  14. Very interesting! Also, I'd like to add about the crank noseband that when done loosely, it can help prevent pinching from a regular buckle on a cavesson

  15. Well, you know I disagree on some things -- I never encourage a person to "add" or complicate tack unless it is something the horse needs. And aesthetics is always in the eye of the beholder, so in general has no bearing except to the owner of said horse. And if it has no effect on the horse, spend away if one so desires; adjusted correctly, a cavesson is hardly horse abuse. Put stickers on his forehead and glitter in his tail if one so desires.

    However, you absolutely CAN close a horse's lips and restrict his tongue/ability to swallow/breathe with a flash and there is a burgeoning field using new pressure sensor and biofeedback technology backing that up. Permanent injury and damage can be done with a flash and crank, as well as the creation of other issues (a PSG horse I know was turned into a tongue-wagger as a result of too-tight flashes, she does much better with nothing at all), but as I've noted in my noseband post and agree with you, it is up to the user to make intelligent decisions.

    I do very much believe in training without any noseband at all -- 99% of the time, when the horse opens his mouth, he is saying something. He might just be uneducated about contact, or his rider might be in his face, or he might be uncomfortable or he might be avoiding your aids. I want to know and then address the root of the problem. Most of the time, the answer is to ignore it, be consistent and just go forward. And it has no impact on my ability to compete, I just put the noseband back on the for the show, buckled loosely. Although the Micklem doesn't come off (and I like the leather).

    Correct contact does not require jaw support, it should never be that heavy and if it is, the answer is to engage the hind end, not put a strap around the jaw. And, in fact, we have very little knowledge about how many types of noseband pressures translate inside the horse's mouth and affect the bit.

    Everything we put on the horse adds some form of pressure or changes the dynamics of our aid effects. Some of these are completely benign, some we are still learning about.

    There is a time and a place and moderation in all things and all of that. If I'm getting on a hot horse to run an XC course? Yes, he'll be wearing a noseband (as noted, it's required) but I'm 100% sure that I'm not going to stop him with it. I pre-install an emergency brake and have used it on course, because there's no way I can out-pull him and the best I can do aside from the e-brake is set him on his ass with a pulley-rein. If it's bolting out of control...well, I'm not riding that, that's my danger line, someone else can pay their insurance deductible, LOL!

    Tools DO exist for a reason; Encore has very much enjoyed the bit stability offered by the chin strap on the Micklem, but despises nose pressure, so it's a good solution. Other tools are quite appropriate for different training scenarios to illustrate the concept to the horse more clearly.

    Yes, I'm being nitpicky at the end of a busy day, but not at you, more for future readers. I would never advise an amateur starting out to pick the prettiest thing, but rather consider function -- that IS the most important thing about the tack any rider uses, otherwise, we'd just make it out of ribbons (that would be fun though!).

    Know the rulebook for your sport and follow it. Both a crank and a figure 8 are legal in hunters. And I'm not sure what a figure 8 has to do with quick reflexes -- that is the horse's strength and your leg and eye and practice and planning, not a bridle.

    Essay ending. As I've said before, the most important part is owners educating themselves and even though we might not agree, it is always great to start people thinking and asking questions and posts from different perspectives are great for that!

    1. I have to say that I agree. I choose my tack first based on function, and I can't say I've ever chosen a piece of tack because of the way it looks. SInce I do compete, function and legality tend to be partners although I do trail ride in a "non-legal" bit.

      I also think there are many people, trainers included, who really don't know what the exact function of some tack truly is. With that said, I think it is preferable to leave those pieces alone and stick to what you know does what.

      Just my two cents added to the previous dollar. :0)

  16. Awesome post, I'm enjoying the bridles series! :-)
    I agree with you 100% on this: "Also noted: until you've galloped XC on a horse that loves it (or ridden race horses or showjumped 3'6"+), don't bother getting snitty with me about training aids. The physics of speed have very little in common with the under-powered, unfit, behind-the leg-animal that we like to pretend our horses aren't. Tools are created for a reason. Use them as needed."
    My gentle native mare wears the plainest snaffle bridle in the world, with a cavesson, a loose-ring snaffle and no martingale/breastplate/anything else. This is because she is a chilled well-schooled native and has never run away with anybody; she doesn't need anything more than that, although I have used side reins and draw reins a couple times to teach her the basics of going in a proper outline. But most of the time, the plain old cavesson is just fine. She also has a beautiful, dished Araby face with a big diamond star so I try not to clutter up that pretty little head with extra tack.
    My OTTB, on the other hand, is a total firecracker with a messed up mouth and goes in a figure eight with a running martingale, and he definitely needs it. He likes to throw his head into the sky and gape his jaws and take off like a shot. Yes, it's a training issue. No, I'm not riding him in a cavesson with a snaffle, thank you very much. He will stay in his figure eight for the rest of his life, firstly because it works for him (and the gaping-running thing has virtually disappeared over time, but I still want that figure eight as a backup should he go bananas again), secondly because he has a long, plain face and the figure eight looks awesome.
    As for my other two, they wander around without nosebands at all cuz they're Western ponies. I'll admit I really like that look, but they both have big Roman-nosed heads, so it works for them. Maybe not for a straight-nosed TB. And one goes in a Pelham all the time anyway, the other has a mouth as soft as butter, so neither of them really need a noseband of any type.

  17. I want to second the statement that if you've never run XC or jumped above 3'6" (or, I'd add, foxhunted in Virginia or other places where it's still the old-fashioned "go where the fox goes"), you don't know what it's like out there. Bits are in the hands of the users, and we all know that someone can ruin a horse's mouth in a plain snaffle if they have bad hands. I'm a show jumper, and I never thought of figure-8s as anything other than "my horse is a show jumper and that's cool." Which is great, love a figure-8 on some horses. But I think some of the sturm and drang over them is misplaced, because they don't have this huge effect on the horses. Everyone just needs to figure out what a) is discipline-legal if they show, b) their horse likes, and c) they like. Lex is in a cavesson with a copper-roller eggbutt and a standing martingale. It's very huntery tack, because that's where she'll start her life, so I got her a bridle that works for the hunter ring. The bit is to encourage her to salivate, and the standing martingale is so she doesn't break my nose. When she graduates to the jumper ring, she might stay in that, she might earn a figure-8, we'll see. We got miles to go.

  18. Wow, I've galloped a racehorse, I'm in the legit category! I was so bad at it. I'm glad you addressed the function vs fashion of a figure 8. I've thought about buying one because I think it would look good on Con, but I've held off because I don't think I need it. Now I'm going to go shopping...

  19. UMMMMMMM You forgot the absolute best and #1 piece of horse equipment for me - the drop noseband! Should I take some pics for you and email them over for a follow up?!?!


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