When introducing the horse to the double bridle there are some important factors to keep in mind. Correct use of the double will lead to improved collection and self-carriage. However, using a double bridle too soon can result in anxiety in the horse, mouth problems and irreparable damage. Always consult with an experienced trainer or USDF Certiﬁed Instructor when introducing the double bridle for the ﬁrst time.
The double bridle is used in order to reﬁne and ﬁnesse communication between horse and rider at the highest levels of classical riding. Having completed the training and work required at Second Level, and before the double bridle is introduced, a horse should be willing and able to carry his weight on the hind legs with uphill balance in the snafﬂe bridle. The best test of this is to execute a simple change of lead (a clear transition from canter to walk and back to canter without any loss of balance or trot steps in between). If you are schooling Fourth Level and have already successfully competed your horse at Second and Third Levels with scores in the mid to high 60s, well done! I would agree it is an appropriate time to introduce the double bridle!
In order to fully understand the importance of a correctly-fitted double bridle, we must look closer and understand the function of the individual pieces. The double bridle is made up of the Bradoon bit and the Weymouth bit, often referred to as the snafﬂe and the curb. The ﬁrst inﬂuences lateral and longitudinal ﬂexion and can elevate or open the frame as well as bend, supple and direct the horse’s neck left and right. The latter inﬂuences longitudinal ﬂexion, causing the horse to give his neck and bring his head toward the vertical line, also referred to as closing the frame. The crownpiece of the bridle puts pressure on the poll due to the mechanics of the lever of the Weymouth. Horses with a very sensitive poll may be more comfortable in a padded crownpiece. They are readily available in most tack shops today and some bridles are made with padding built in.
The shape of a horse’s mouth, his tongue, the height of his soft palate and the shape of the bars of the mouth should all be considered when selecting bits. The height of the port should relate to the height of the palate and the width of the port should relate to the size of the tongue. A horse with a thin tongue might like a straighter, low port curb, which puts pressure more on the tongue than the bars of the mouth. However, a horse with a big, ﬂeshy tongue will likely be more comfortable in a higher, wider port curb that leaves lots of room for the tongue and, as a result, puts more pressure on the bars of the mouth. A horse with a low palate may require a ﬂatter or ergonomically shaped port to avoid pressure against the roof of the mouth. A horse with a high palate will likely not mind a high port curb. Whatever the case, it is important to look at each horse individually and select bits most suitable for comfort and function. To some extent, this can be a matter of trial and error.
Setting up the double bridle can be a tricky task and should always be done under the supervision of an experienced trainer or USDF Certiﬁed Instructor. Part of the USDF Fourth Level Certiﬁcation Program tests a trainer’s knowledge of the double bridle, the setup, and function. Be sure the noseband is placed up near the cheekbone to achieve plenty of clearance between the bits and the cavesson.
The curb chain can be a tricky little puzzle at ﬁrst and it will take some practice to get it perfectly ﬂat. Otherwise it can cause pinching or discomfort. The curb lever should pull to 45 degrees when the curb chain is engaged. More than that, and the port will almost certainly be putting too much pressure on the roof of the mouth. Have your trainer check your work the ﬁrst 20 times and always discuss before tightening or loosening the curb chain.
Generally, the Bradoon should measure one-quarter inch longer than the Weymouth, and often times a horse will go up one-quarter inch in the Bradoon from his single snafﬂe size (but not always). This is in order to make room for two bits in the mouth, it often works well to raise the Bradoon a hole or so. (Even a half-hole will make a big difference). So, for example, if your horse normally wears a size 5.5 snafﬂe in his single bridle, it’s possible that in a double bridle, he will ﬁt well in a 5.75 Bradoon and a 5.5 curb. Again, this depends on the size of your horse’s mouth, so having the trained eye of a professional with you is imperative.
Your first ride: Sitting still atop your horse, pick up your snaffle reins in your hands as if you are riding in a regular snaffle bridle. (Ignore the curb rein for a moment.) The snaffle rein should be held between your ring finger and your pinky. Always keep your thumb slightly bent and on top of the rein. Shorten your reins and take contact. Now, with your middle and forefinger glued together (as if you’re going to take someone’s pulse), take them off the snaffle and hook them around the thin curb rein and close your fingers lightly with your thumbs still on top. Softly spread your hands about 3 feet apart, running your hand up the curb rein. When you bring your hands back together, you will have contact on all four reins. Be sure to keep the curb rein (your middle finger) soft until you have both become accustomed to the new setup.
I am always amazed at how simple the ﬁrst ride in the double bridle is when proper preparations have been made. Horses are amazing creatures and when they are trained well and effectively, they can deal with so much that comes at them. If your horse is strong and understands the concept of uphill balance, can execute some degree of self-carriage, and if he already has a well-established relationship with the contact, then the transition to the double bridle will be seamless. Nevertheless, take it easy the ﬁrst few times you introduce it. Perhaps your horse enjoys a relaxing hack around the property or stretching in the indoor. Allow your horse time to do what he is good at while getting used to a carefully set-up bridle and you will have many happy rides in the double ahead of you.
Ana Gilmour is a USDF Certiﬁed Instructor through Fourth Level and a USDF “L” Education Program graduate with distinction. She has trained extensively with Hilda Gurney, Juan Matute, Lendon Gray and Courtney King-Dye. She has trained in Wellington, Florida, as well as in Spain, Italy, Jordan and China, and is based in Loomis, California (anagilmour.com).