A war bridle is a unique, and very rare, piece of horse tack. There are several variants of a war bridle, but the most common is comprised of a loop of rope that encircles the horse’s lower jaw. The loop of rope passes through the horse’s mouth and rests in the same area that a typical bit would rest.
The rope stays in place in the mouth because it 1. is seated in the natural resting place in the mouth where a bit sits, and 2. is held by the tension of the rope loop, which is secured snug (but not tight) around the lower jaw. Simple reins connect to this loop and allow the rider to control and direct their horse without the use of a bridle, headstall, or traditional bit.
Traditionally, the reins on this type of bridle would be very long- allowing a rider to loop them partially over a shoulder, so a rider could have both hands free to load arrows, shoot a bow, etc.
When to use a War Bridle
Technically, because the (“Indian”) War Bridle does pass through the horse’s mouth, it is not a bitless bridle, however it may be an excellent option for well-trained horses who, due to physical issues around the ears, eyes, or face, might not be able to wear a traditional bridle or a bitless bridle. (Growths or skin issues around the eyes or ears are potential reasons a horse might not be able to comfortably wear a bridle for a period of time while the issue is treated)
War Bridles are for horses with plenty of training teaching them to respond to cues from a traditional bit. Certainly, history would show that many horses have been broken to this style of bridle without previous training, but for safety, comfort, and sanity of both horse and rider you’ll want to first have a horse that responds well to gentle rein cues and turns off pressure from your legs before transitioning to a war bridle.
If you are a rider who stops, steers, and turns primarily via your reins, the LAST thing you want is to tie a knot around a very very sensitive part of a horse’s body and let that be your only method of control. A war bridle is not for casual DIY or for green horses or riders.
A war bridle can be a fun way to challenge yourself and your well-trained horse. Before trying out a war bridle, try riding your horse with dropped reins. When you can reliably turn, slow, and stop your horse using only your seat and legs, give it a shot!
Horse in Native American War Bridle and Bareback Pad
In the early 2000’s I had the opportunity to ride in a clinic instructing curious riders on the riding styles of a particular tribe of indigenous Americans. This purple war bridle was my take-home gift, as a thank you for being the demo rider. Mine has an elk hide wrapped mouthpiece. Simple, uncoated rope could make for a very harsh correction in a horse’s mouth, but wrapping it in hide made the mouthpiece softer, less abrasive, and wider (wider=gentler, in the world of horse bits)
The Native American war bridle takes a piece of rope and runs it through the mouth where the bit would sit, ties around the jaw to stay in place, then runs back as reins. I don’t think any company is currently producing these, but if you searched and checked with local resources for indigenous horse trainers you could probably find a craftsman making them.
This headstall-less bridle makes it look as though the horse is wearing no bridle at all. It was, as I understand, the bridle native people would use for war or hunting, where sometimes they needed their horse to move more precisely than their seat-cues could communicate when their upper bodies were engaged in hunting or another active activity. Native riders were generally excellent horseback riders and rode with their whole body- guiding their horse totally off their legs and seat- only if they were about to run into a dangerous spot or needed to turn and flee would they pick up a rein and cue the horse to move sharply.
One Unique Native American Saddle Type
I’m sure there are many variations of saddles used by indigenous Americans, but one fascinating thing I experienced as a rider in the clinic was the “saddle” I was allowed to use: It was similar to a bareback pad, but instead of stirrups there was a rawhide rope encircling the horse’s barrel like a very very loose girth. This “loose girth” I learned, would allow me to tuck my knees under the rope and use the rope and my body to hold myself on the horse. I was instructed to slide my knees (but not my feet- in case I fell) underneath the rope. As I rode, I found that if I needed more security in the saddle, I could spread my knees and the rope would tighten and pull my seat down into the saddle. Surprisingly, it was actually very natural and arguably more comfortable than stirrups!
Photos in this post feature my Bashkir Curly gelding in native American war bridle and suede bareback pad. This horse, trained with classical dressage methods, goes well in a double bridle, war bridle, or no bridle at all.