A Bit About Bridles
Working drafts that are used in dense woods will benefit from the use of blinders to protect their eyes from branches, twigs and other potential hazards.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.
There's an old saying that has a lot of truth to it: "If you control the head, you control the horse." Those of us who work our drafts know that a good portion of communication is done by controlling our draft's head, both physically and mentally. While a successful and rewarding working relationship with your draft goes well beyond the control enabled with a well-fitting bridle, a well-fitting bridle is a reward that should be honored for every draft.
Of all the parts to a harness, the one I see new drivers pay the least amount of attention to is the bridle. While every part of the harness should be adjusted correctly at all times, asking your draft to work in a bridle that is of poor quality or maladjusted is setting you and your draft up for hours of discontent. The function of the bridle is to apply pressures to parts of the head and mouth in order to kindly direct the horse toward your desired actions. Any discomfort or improper adjustment not only causes a break in smooth communication, it often causes both physical and mental damage to your draft. While the physical injuries may heal, the tissues toughen and become less sensitive to kind communication. The mental scarring can further manifest in dramatically negative situations, such as extreme behavior in harness, or less physical but equally frustrating problems like being hard to bridle, not wanting their ears touched, or sensitivity of their mouth area.
Smaller drafts, such as young horses just starting out or draft crosses, typically need a 5.5 to 6-inch bit. As they age or mature, it's likely they will need a larger bit.
When it comes to bits and bridles, I can guarantee you'll get what you pay for. Cheap plastics, low-quality leathers and thin metal parts are all available in as many styles and options as high-quality items.
Identifying quality and a good fit for your draft is not hard to do. Typically, the thinner the leather or biothane, the less strength it will have. Run your hands along all parts of the bridle. If you feel any snags in the materials, stitching, metal buckles or snaps, these are areas that are going to irritate your horse. The head of a horse has the thinnest skin, making it extremely sensitive. This is great for driving and applying pressure in order to control the horse, but any sharpness from a bit or bridle that touches your horse's skin will also cut and scar.
Drafts that get to play a bit under saddle are often accustomed to life without blinders. Most will also easily adapt to a driving bridle without blinders.
Bits should be the same width as your horse's mouth. To determine this measurement, mark a line on a plastic drinking straw or other clean object of this sort. Set the straw in your horse's mouth where the bit sets, leaving the mark just outside one side of the mouth. Next, set your thumb on the other side, close to the horse's lip; then slide the straw out and measure the distance. Bits typically run in half-inch sizes, and if the measurement is in between, go to the next half-inch. Most drafts take either a 6 or 6.5-inch bit. Crosses and smaller drafts will be in the 5.5 to 6-inch range, while very large drafts can go 7 inches or more.
Other critical fitting indicators are blinders, also called blinkers by some manufacturers. These should rest gently but solidly on the side of the horse's face, and no light should leak behind the blinder. They should also sit in the middle of the eye to keep the horse from seeing above or below the blinder. Many drivers opt not to use blinders, and this is a personal choice. I agree that lots of horses do not need them. If your horse is solidly sane with things working behind it, and if your work does not involve the possibility of twigs, branches or other hostile items striking your horse's eyes, then not using blinders is certainly an option.
I personally like blinders, as I feel they keep dust, pollen, bugs and other debris out of the eyes while horses are working in the woods and fields. My horses go without blinders when we ride them. I suspect almost every one of them would adapt to no-blinders driving without issue.
Buyers of bridles also question whether square, round or pigeon-wing blinders offer any benefits. If the bridle is made of quality materials, I have personally found no difference in the use or fit of the different styles. You will find the occasional driver who feels that bridles with pigeon-wing blinders fit better to the face or that they are designed for drafts with more mule-shaped heads. There again, I suspect the differences are due to the quality of how the bridle was made and subsequently fit to the horse, and not to the particular style of the blinder.
Drafts that are used to working alongside equipment may be calm enough not to need blinders, but if the work involves close proximity to any potential eye hazard, blinders are recommended.
One item that does determine the fit of a bridle is how well it has been taken care of. If the blinders, brow band, stays or crown pieces have been flexed, packed or bent out of shape and the material's "memory" is lost, these bridles are much better cleaned up and left as display items on a tavern wall. They will rarely retain a shape that allows for a comfortable and proper fit. However, if you know a good leathersmith, the damaged parts can sometimes be replaced.
Sadly, I've met several drafts that were ruined by a poorly fitting bridle. One negative accident can influence a horse for the rest of its life, and it can take months, if not years, to regain the trust lost in the traumatic first few moments of an incident that causes injury, panic or struggle. Take the time to learn proper fitting of bits and bridles. Learn to recognize and appreciate quality craftsmanship. Reward yourself and your horse with good materials and good learning, as good-quality bits and bridles will most likely last your lifetime.
Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts, a 100- acre working draft horse farm in western Maine. The farm welcomes visitors and can also be visited online at www.troikadrafts.com.