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How To Use A War Bridle Properly

By Jeffrey Rolo

The very mention of a war bridle causes some horsemen to shiver, and for good reason: although you don't want to start a "war" when using such a bridle, you will likely never need to use one unless you're already having a serious battle of wills with a defiant horse. The fact that war bridles are an escalation of a handler/horse confrontation can cause enough wariness, but what puts this particular tool over the edge is that some of them are downright cruel, and unless a handler knows how to use a war bridle properly it can cause severe pain and injury to a horse.

(If you're uncertain whether you should consider using a war bridle, check out the article War Bridles: Are They Right For Your Horse?)

I'm not a fan of war bridles, and I don't recommend amateur horsemen use one since handler's errors will be amplified significantly when a horse is war bridled (which would be unfair to the horse). But since, in very limited circumstances, a war bridle might be useful, I'll provide a few thoughts about how to use a war bridle hopefully you'll never need to put them in action.

First and foremost I abhor war bridles that wrap from mouth to poll, or wrap around the bottom chin as shown in this illustration:

If a war bridle must be used, I strongly recommend wrapping the lower loop around the entirety of the upper nose rather than isolating the lower jaw. This will spread the pressure out among a larger area, and significantly reduce the risk of injuring a horse's sensitive mouth tissue or worse, breaking his jaw.

Another advantage of wrapping a war bridle around the nose is that it reduces (but doesn't eliminate) the chance of your horse rearing or drawing back. War bridles, like under-the-jaw chain shanks, can encourage rearing when the horse attempts to draw away from the "snap" or pressure. When a war bridle is wrapped around the lower jaw, there are two areas the horse will feel the pressure: the poll and the chin. The poll encourages a horse to drop his head, but the chin pressure may overrule these instincts and instead cause the horse to rear.

Although wrapping a war bridle around the nose won't reduce the chin pressure entirely, it does distribute the weight to the poll (encourages dropping the head), upper nose (encourages dropping the head), and jaw (encourages rearing). As such, while the horse might still rear or fight the bridle, the chances are reduced. It's more likely for your horse to drop his head, which is likely what you are striving for if you're using a war bridle.

Next, use a proper war bridle. This generally goes hand-in-hand with the above notation. Many cowboys and/or natural horsemen don't purchase war bridles, but rather fashion one from a lariat if needed. I think this is for the best. Some "specialized" war bridles that are sold include rings to attach a lead or gimmicks designed to give a handler further leverage this is unnecessary! Lariat war bridles will provide more than enough pressure; if you can't get an ill-mannered horse to behave with a lariat, then the horse might not be a good match for you.

When selecting a lariat, try and select one that is sleek enough to "give way" immediately once you remove the pressure. Too much friction on the rope can cause the war bridle to remain tight even after you've dropped the pressure, which is counterproductive since a horse must be rewarded immediately when he performs well (the reward is the complete removal of pressure). If a war bridle is necessary, I'd consider a nylon lariat I find them to be sleek, comfortable and effective (though naturally since all manufacturers are different, not all nylon lariats are created equal.)

Whether you are an experienced horseman or not, do not apply a war bridle in an uncontrolled area. Green horses, or horses unfamiliar with war bridles, should first be introduced to it inside a small, familiar area such as a round pen or paddock. Selecting a small area will increase your comfort, give you added control over your horse, and reduce the chance of your horse "flipping out," which is something we definitely want to avoid when a war bridle is attached.

You'll want to follow the same general rules when using a war bridle as you would when you use a chain shank: don't tug harshly on the bridle, and slowly increase pressure until your horse yields. Your goal is not to hurt your horse, but rather to firmly discourage undesirable behavior. You should strive for the least amount of pressure necessary to achieve that goal.

Playing the tug-and-release "game" with your horse, or using overkill levels of pressure, can actually make a situation worse rather than convince your horse to yield. Tugging and releasing, which I see too many horsemen do, encourages a horse to rear, draw back or become head shy. Too much pain and pressure, on the other hand, can cause a horse's survival/panic instincts to kick in, and obviously he won't be good for much in that state of mind.

The moment your horse yields, drop the pressure immediately. You can always reapply if he decides to resist again, but the general concept is that when he defies you, pressure is applied, but when he cooperates, pressure is eliminated. For this concept to work, pressure cannot be misapplied, otherwise it will remove the very vital reward phase of training, and will also confuse the horse to boot.

Finally, only use a war bridle for as long a period as necessary. Once he's accepting your requests in a timely manner and respecting your personal space, go back to using a standard halter and chain shank (or a rope halter) during your groundwork. And once the horse responds well to a chain shank or rope halter, transfer to a simple flat halter during the groundwork.

War bridles, chain shanks, and rope halters should only be a means to an end; they should not become crutches or encourage sloppy horsemanship.

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