Skip to Content

War Bridles | How to use a Native American Bridle with Your Horse

A war bridle is a unique and very unusual 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.

Video still of a grey gelding wearing a Native American style war bridle.
Video still of a grey gelding wearing a Native American style war bridle.

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, hair loss, 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 experimentation 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!

cf 2006 war bridle bitless 1503

Horse in Native American War Bridle and Bareback Pad

How to Introduce your Horse to a War Bridle

Riding a horse with a native american war bridle

How to Introduce your Horse to a War Bridle

Get Familiar with the Tack

First, get familiar with the war bridle, how it works, and how to attach and put on a war bridle on your horse’s head. Ideally, you may wish to ride a friend or trainer’s horse that is already trained to ride wearing a war bridle. Once you are comfortable with the war bridle, it’s time to introduce it to your horse.

Introduce Your Horse to the Bridle

The rope mouthpiece will feel unfamiliar to a horse. It’s best to introduce them gently. Begin introducing the war bridle to your horse by placing the rawhide-covered rope mouthpiece of the bridle into your horse’s mouth while they are tied in a calm space. Let your horse get used to the sensation of the mouthpiece around its jaw.

Round Pen your Horse while Wearing a War Bridle

Once your horse is comfortable with the rope mouthpiece, lead your horse – using a halter – into a safe area such as a round pen. While unmounted, get your horse used to moving in the war bridle. Using a lunge line attached to the halter only, lunge your horse at a walk, trot, and canter. This gives them an opportunity to get used to the war bridle, how it fits, and feels before a rider mounts.

Evaluate

If your horse has adapted to the war bridle without acting uncomfortable or behaving erratically, and you feel like your horse is ready, mount up.

Mount and Ride

Keep the halter and lead rope attached, with the lead rope in your hand, secured within arms reach, or held by a handler on the ground until you are sure your horse can stop and turn reliably based on cues from the war bridle.

Only after you have confirmed a well-trained whoa and obedient turning should you remove the halter and proceed to ride in this simple minimalist bridle.

Get Professional Support

If these steps for using a war bridle are confusing or your horse’s behavior is concerning, stop and consult a professional horse trainer.

How I learned to Ride with a War Bridle

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 makes the mouthpiece softer, less abrasive, and wider (in the world of horse bits, generally wider=gentler, and narrower bits provide a sharper correction to a horse.)

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. This type of riding meant guiding their horse totally off their legs and seat. If they were in a dangerous spot, they would pick up a rein and cue the horse to move sharply.

horse painted and tacked up in Native American tack.
A Curly Horse horse painted and tacked up in Native American tack at an event.

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.

I learned this “loose girth” 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 very natural and arguably more comfortable than stirrups!


Riding a horse with a native american war bridle

Photos in this post feature my Bashkir Curly gelding in a Native American war bridle that was gifted to us by a fellow rider who is Native American. This horse, trained with classical dressage methods, happily works in a double bridle, war bridle, or no bridle at all! Although I typically ride dressage, I’ve enjoyed learning about Native American tack and riding styles as a way to connect with my own maternal great-grandmother, who was born into a Great Plains tribe, but whose history and even tribe affiliation were obliterated along with her entire immediate family in America’s violence against indigenous people.

cf war bridle tall

Can you use a war bridle with an English-trained horse?

Yes, the war bridle can be used on horses that have been ridden or trained exclusively English or Western. Despite popular belief, the differences between English and Western riding fundamentals are minor- especially from a horse’s perspective.

As long as your horse is trained to respond to cues from your seat and legs, horses may do well when ridden with a war bridle. When introducing any new tack to your horse, always introduce the item gradually, and give your horse a chance to get used to it without force, intimidation, or excess pressure.

Click to share:

Larry King

Saturday 7th of September 2019

Is it legal to ride a war bridle in aqha classes.

Amanda Argenbright

Saturday 23rd of June 2018

I would like to see the "saddle" used in demo in action so I can be as authentic in costume as possible with my mustang.

Tatum

Tuesday 26th of June 2018

Thanks for your comment! I can definitely see where it would be fun to create a costume for your Mustang that represents the breed history, but as a European-American, I'm not comfortable posting images of Native American saddlery for the purpose of costuming. If you have questions about costume you could try reaching out to the Tribal Nations known for that type of saddlery and asking about resources available for learning about their horsemanship, saddlery, and permission for creating replicas for your Mustang. I believe the saddle I described was used by a member of the Cherokee Nation.