The bridle has played an enormous part in the domestication of the horse and the ability of humans to use them for transport and war. A bridle, most often paired with some kind of bit, enables control of and communication with an animal far larger than us. Bits and bridles were invented far earlier than saddles and stirrups and enabled everyone from the Greeks and Romans to knights and Mongolian tribes to harness the power of horses.
Archeologists and anthropologists have discovered wear and marks on the teeth of equine skeletons found in Kazakhstan and thought to be around 5,500 years old. The bridles were quite rudimentary, consisting of a leather strap or thong which was placed in the interdental space we call the ‘bars’ of the mouth and tied under their jaw. The trailing ends were used as reins to steer and slow the horse. From this point on, various tribes and cultures used bits and bridles of varying styles and crafted from natural materials such as bone, horn, wood, rope and leather. The earliest metal bits are thought to have been used between the Bronze and the Iron Ages in Mesopotamia, now present day Iran.
We know from paintings and sculptures that bridles and bits were used by the Egyptians and Assyrian cultures for riding and chariot driving. A Greek general called Xenophon wrote extensively about the high standard of horsemanship both in his cavalry and in the Persian cavalry they were fighting against. This included improvements to the designs and standard of bridles and bits as well as school movements and training. Sadly, after the fall of the Greek and Roman empires, this knowledge was lost for hundreds of years. In addition, there aren’t many records of how horses were trained or what their tack looked like until the Middle Ages.
Historians do know the average height of horses increased in the Middle Ages, thought to be due to selective breeding for horses big enough to carry knights wearing heavy armour into battle. As horses grew bigger and stronger, harsher tools were needed to control them, and bridles with long shanks and big ports emerged. Thankfully, the riding skills of knights began to improve thanks to the advent of ‘tournaments’ designed to amuse the court of a king or queen and help fighters hone their skills. These tournaments were the ideal opportunity to impress ladies, so the knights focused on becoming more stylish and improving control of their horse.
During the Renaissance, a group of circus and trick riders who had escaped Constantinople settled in Naples, establishing the ‘School of Naples’ and elevating horsemanship to a new level. Their horses were highly trained and flashy, so they were in demand form all the courts of Europe, however the training practices and tack were very harsh. Bits with extreme mouthpieces and excessively long shanks ensured horses were ‘light in the hand’, but very fearful of pain. Thankfully during the 18th century (also known as the Age of Reason’), kinder training practices began to emerge. Young horses were schooled in snaffle bits, only graduating to curbs and shanks once they understood contact. The trainers aimed to build a relationship based on trust and confidence to achieve cooperation.
The practice of teaching novice riders and horses about contact using kinder bridles such as snaffles was cemented with the advent of formal military riding schools (which evolved into institutions still in existence today such as the Spanish Riding School of Vienna). These schools were first created to teach ‘ordinary’ cavalry soldiers to ride effectively (this level was known as ‘campagne’) and then teach officers more advanced and complicated movements (the ‘haute ecole’). The schools were necessary as wars and conflict meant that countries needed bigger armies and cavalries to fight for them. At ‘campagne’ level a rider would use a snaffle to limit pain and damage to the horse while they learnt, and once a partnership had reached a certain level they would graduate to a double bridle as we know it today.