War Bridles: Are They Right For Your Horse?By Jeffrey Rolo
Due to the inherent size advantage that horses possess, throughout history horsemen have used various methods and tools (such as war bridles) designed to provide them additional leverage over an ill-mannered horse. Two of the most common tools we use today while leading naughty or overly energetic horses are the chain shank, which affects the nose, chin or mouth depending upon how you place it, and the rope halter, which affects various pressure points about the head.
The war bridle is far lesser known among horsemen, but it's still used today, particularly by practitioners of Western. So let's start off with the basic question: what are war bridles?
Although war bridles vary somewhat in design, in a nutshell they consist of a rope or cord that runs through a horse's mouth, around the chin, and over the poll (just behind the ears). There are some variances in how people use a war bridle, such as placing the bridle around the nose rather than around the chin, or adding pulleys to the straps to give the handler added leverage. See the illustration below to see how a basic war bridle is fashioned:
They are designed so that when a handler pulls on the rope/lead, serious pressure is applied to the poll as well as the chin (or the poll, nose and chin, in the case of bridles wrapped around the nose rather than the lower jaw). Make no mistake: a war bridle is significantly harsher than a rope halter, and it makes an over-the-nose or under-the-chin chain shank look like child's play. War bridles mean business.
As with most tools, the severity largely depends on the handler's prowess. In the hands of an experienced horseman that possesses a natural feel for how much pressure is necessary to get the desired results, a war bridle may not be all that more severe than a typical chain shank. But in the hands of a heavy-handed or amateur handler, a war bridle can be as harsh as its name implies.
Luckily I've never owned a horse that couldn't be suppressed over time with consistent training and a chain shank (or rope halter), so I personally have never included a war bridle in my training regimen. That being said, not all war bridles are outright abusive, despite what some believe.
Should you use a war bridle for your horse? Here are my thoughts:
First, try a chain shank or a rope halter. The only time you should graduate to a war bridle is if the horse's defiance is severe enough that productivity or safety are hampered. Remember, when working with horses you always want to use the least force necessary, and increase the force only as necessary.
If you do find that a war bridle is "necessary," I strongly recommend using one that circles the entire nose rather than one that is looped around the lower jaw. Wrapping it around the nose will spread the pressure out on the poll, nose and chin, and reduce the chance for serious injury. Mouth/chin war bridles can seriously harm a horse if used improperly, and potentially break their jaw. They are ugly, borderline dangerous, and arguably abusive – I won't use one that enters the mouth.
Remember to never tie a horse down with a war bridle, or even ground tie a horse (since the horse could accidentally step on the lead line and/or lariat). War bridles are too severe to handle the drastic pressure that can be caused by a horse stepping on a lariat or pulling away from a tying post/fence/etc. in a panic. Depending on the type of war bridle you're using and the level of pressure applied, you can break a jaw or shred a mouth.
And most importantly of all, know what you're getting into. Too many horsemen use various bits and/or pieces of riding gear without understanding that what may appear to the untrained eye as being minor differences can drastically alter the severity of the item. War bridles in their most basic form look like a modified rope halter, but do not underestimate their potency: war bridles are designed to inflict serious discomfort to any horse that resists the handler.
Using a war bridle isn't exactly rocket science, but it's important to know how to use a war bridle in a manner that enhances your productivity while simultaneously protecting your horse's health and safety.