How To: Western Bridle with Rio Rondo Hardware

Let me preface this blog post by saying that this is less of a tutorial and more of a walk-through. I’m not going to give you a list of materials, tools, or measurements or tell you what leather to use, but I will show you how to figure those things out for yourself as I walk you through my process for making a two-eared silver show bridle. There will be lots and lots of photos and (hopefully) helpful commentary, so buckle in!

Okay, so before we REALLY dive in, this post begins with the assumption that you know how to prep your leather and cut lace for tiny ponies. If you DON’T, here’s some prerequisite reading: Skiving Part I, Skiving Part II, and Cutting Lace. I’m using natural leather, but if you opt to dye yours, read this: Dyeing Leather.

I decided to make a curb bridle with teardrop-shaped cheek pieces with silver accents, two sliding ears that match the cheeks, and split reins. I’m using Rio Rondo’s Bitty Bijoux line of hardware (the Reno bit and Atwood buckles).

Ready now? Let’s go!

Leather Pieces

I start bridles like this at the cheeks. Generally, you want the heel of the buckle to be level with or slightly higher than the back corner of the horse’s eye. I know from experience how long that is for this mold and how much extra I need for comfort; you’ll have to figure a little of that out for yourself, but as a rule of thumb I like to have a quarter inch at each end of the cheek piece for gluing later.

I begin with a piece of leather that’s perfectly skived and treated with gum tragacanth and then draw both cheeks on the same piece to keep them symmetrical. I use a freshly sharpened pencil to draw a straight line, roughly the length of my cheek piece (including my overage), on the flesh side of the leather. I draw two parallel lines that terminate about a quarter of an inch early on either side of my center to mark how wide the strap should be. I leave that quarter inch for the bit - making this narrower allows more room to accommodate a curb strap. I use these lines to help me maintain symmetry as I draw the teardrop shapes. I want these to taper in and terminate around the middle of the cheek piece. I can comfortably eye straps like this, but if you can’t right now I recommend drawing your cheek pieces on an index card or something similar until it’s second nature. You’ll save yourself some leather (and work) that way.

Once I think I have it, I still hold my sketched pieces up to the horse’s face to make sure we’re good. I ended up wanting a little more room near the buckle this time.

Tweaks made, I cut the cheeks out. There’s likely to be a little bit of unevenness when you cut them; I can usually trim it up to my satisfaction, but every once in a while something goes awry and you have to make another one from the beginning.

I chose to do a little bit of carving on my cheek pieces. I compiled those photos into a single image. Upper left: I’ve used my finger and some clean water to dampen a cheek piece. Upper right: Then I use an old sculpting tool to create a scored line by repeatedly pressing it into the damp leather. It’s like stitchmarking, but with a line instead of a point. Lower left: halfway done with the first cheek. I find it best to move my leather, not the tool, to make sure that the angle of my impressions remains consistent. Lower right: both done; they look a little less choppy in person.

After I finished the cheeks, I decided to take care of all of the long, straight straps - the crown, reins, and curb strap/keepers - at once. This is where the cutting lace tutorial comes in handy. I cut everything from the same larger strip, skived down close-ish to the thickness I think I’ll need, but there’s always clean up. I determine the length of that strip by the length of the reins; a good rule of thumb is to make reins as long as the horse from bit to the tail head, but the actual length will depend on your model and rider, if you’re using one. I leave this strip long to allow for accidents and correct trimming later; you can always take some away, but you can’t put it back. The strip here was the first I cut off, and it was a little wider than I wanted for either reins or the crown piece. It’ll come in handy for some other project.

Pulling the leather off the tape always generates fuzzies, but I usually need to thin them down a little more anyway. When you skive, be careful not to go TOO thin. This is a real problem - too thick is obvious, but if you go too thin your straps don’t have enough body and end up looking odd and crinkled. I use some gum tragacanth on the flesh side to slick down the flesh side and to give the pieces a little more body. I do this on all of the straps.

I carved the crown using the same method as the cheeks. Reins are almost always smooth, never stitched, so skip the carving on those. I only carve what I need (plus a little wiggle on either end) for the crown; no point in doing a lot of work that may not have an application elsewhere.

Straps cut, I move on to the ear pieces. One of my BIGGEST pet peeves is using a piece of straight leather for a sliding ear loop. Just…just no, people. The process for making a curved one (the RIGHT way, y’all) is pretty much the same as the cheek pieces. Properly fitted, these hug pretty close to the ear. Some allowances may need to be made for funky forelocks. When deciding how long to make these, longer is always better. It’s very, very easy to underestimate how much room you need for folding and gluing.

I opted to add a little tear-drop shape to what will be the outside edge of the ear loops. You can see where I’ve quickly sketched in some light lines to help me keep that shape consistent.

When you cut these guys out, do the inside of the loop first. It’s much easier to do when you have a larger piece of leather to hold on to.

I’m checking fit against the ear, here. I’ve done this often enough that I can usually get it right the first time, but if you’re not sure this is a great place to practice with an index card.

I carved the ear loops to match the cheeks. Remember to mirror image your design if you do something interesting! Drawing both ears at the same time really helps, but I have royally goofed on several occasions.

And here we are! All of the leather pieces have been prepped for hardware and/or silver. I put them in a little cup with a lid because things tend to float away otherwise. Note that I haven’t done the silver yet - that’s coming, I promise.

Hardware Prep

On to hardware prep! I have an old, abused pair of flush cutters that I use for snipping hardware off of sheets. Never, ever, NEVER use your good cutters for this. The photo etched sheets will eat them alive. Keep the hardware on the sheet for as long as possible; the more you have to hold, the less likely you are to drop something. I use a metal needle file and a regular two-sided emery board to clean up the cut ends.

Another composite image for hardware prep, left to right: I’ve clipped the rail off the end of the bit, then filed down the rough edge first with the needle file then the rough and fine grits of the emery board making sure to clean up any areas that feel rough, and finally you can see the finished bit.

Buckles are cleaned up the same way, then it’s on to tongues. You could leave them off, I suppose, but the buckles tend to flop around on the strap without a tongue to help keep them in place and the extra detail is just so nice. Even though I glue all of my straps down, I make working tongues. There’s just not a great way to get them to stay on otherwise. Right now I prefer 32 gauge wire for these Rio buckles, and you can see both buckle and wire in the photo below. Each of those little squares in the grid is a quarter inch.

My round nose pliers are just a little too big for this job, so I use a pair of pointy tweezers to make a loop that will fit the heel bar of the buckle. It’s less of a round and more of a rough triangle shape; these tongues don’t have to move freely, they just have to move enough to get the bridle buckled once. Make sure you leave yourself enough room to work on both ends of your loop.

I slide the buckle down the wire and gently push it into the loop. Sometimes I have to gently pry the two wire ends apart to give the buckle room to slide down, but they can be pushed back together easily with a pair of tweezers. Instead of pulling the loop open, try to push the two ends of the wire away from each other, kind of like expanding a slinky. It’s hard to describe; if this proves to be a major sticking point for people, I can try to get a video or diagram. In the photo below, I’ve got my tongue on the buckle and have gently tugged the two ends of the wire to straighten them out and snug up the loop.

And now I have my finished buckle! I snipped one end of the wire as close as I could to the area where they crossed. It’s good practice to try to keep that snipped end on the outside of the buckle, so that it can’t accidentally scratch your horse’s face. It also keeps the tongue flush with the buckle. I leave a little extra on the tongue for now; it can make buckling easier later. Repeat with the other buckle!

ATTACHING HARDWARE

Okay, just to recap: I have all of my leather pieces cut (cheeks, reins, curb strap/keepers, crown, and ear pieces), bits prepped, and buckles done. Now I’m ready for assembly.

The bits go on first. I carefully skive that loose end I left to help reduce bulk. I want it to be paper thin at the very end, but I want to get there gradually to avoid breakage later. I trim the end to a point because it looks cleaner; this is completely optional. I use a toothpick to apply a light coat of glue to the tab and then stick it down; sometimes it needs to be clamped with a mini clothespin, but I find that holding it for a second or two with my fingers is usually sufficient.

Once the bit is attached, I tack it to the corner of the mouth with sticky wax. It’s important to place the bit correctly here - if you don’t you’ll have an incorrect marker for your buckle. Try to visualize what the mouthpiece would look like based on how you’ve arranged the shank; if you have the shank perpendicular to the horse’s face, you’d be whacking him in the roof of the mouth with the port. You don’t want to go too far the other direction, either! Some time spent looking at photos of relaxed performance horses can help you identify correct placement.

Bit placed, I use an awl or similarly pointy tool to mark where I want the heel bar to sit on the cheek piece. Remember - ideally, the heel bar sits above the back corner of the horse’s eye. If you’re worried, mark it a little higher - it’s much better to be too high than to have the buckle bump the eye.

If you deconstruct any item with a buckle, you’ll usually find that the tongue sits in a slit, not a single hole. This reduces bulk and allows the tongue to move more freely. In Stablemate scale, I’m far more interested in the former than the latter. It’s a little hard to see in the photo below, but I’ve used the mark from the step above as my center point and made two other small marks on either side of it, then connected all three by cutting a slit with my exacto knife. I like to do this on a self-healing cutting mat or a piece of scrap leather; I find that I’m less likely to push too hard and mess up my cut. You’ll probably need to make this cut longer than you think - the cut needs to start at the base of the buckle, go over the heel bar, and you can put the buckle on, test fit, and pull it off to try again if you need to tweak.

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In the photo below, I’ve used an awl to wiggle the slit open so that you can get a better look. I’m writing this after the fact, and I’m guessing that I had to go back in and make it a little bit longer.

I skive the ends, trimming to a point. If I am very careful, I can usually start my skive in the center of that slit, to help reduce bulk without weakening the leather. Remember - you want to go down to paper thin gradually, otherwise you risk breaking the strap. I’ve used two white lines in the picture below to show the skived area, since it’s hard to see. It’s about a quarter inch - longer than that starts to add bulk, but shorter may not hold the buckle on well enough.

I’ve threaded my buckle on, wiggled the tongue into place, and glued everything down! The cheek piece is stuck back on the horse to make sure something hasn’t gone awry, and it looks pretty good this time.

Unless there are really weird things going on with the forelock, I use the completed cheek as my guide for the second. I line the bits up (these grid-lined index cards are great for that) and use an awl to mark where I’d like the slit for the tongue to begin and end. The rest of the buckle application is the same as before.

I check the cheek pieces against each other before gluing down the tab on the last one. And here we go - two completed cheek pieces. Luck was with me this time - nothing broke, bent or was lost.

Adding Silver

My preferred “silver” for mini scales is aluminum tape. This can be easily found at big box hardware stores and online for $5-8 dollars per roll, and a roll is going to last you a long, long time. This stuff is great - it can be etched, cut with scissors, and won’t tarnish over time like real silver. The downsides are that the adhesive alone isn’t strong enough, it can crinkle, snag, and otherwise be damaged, and sometimes pops off. It works well enough, though, and isn’t bulky which is incredibly important in small scales.

I’ve made a composite image below, detailing the not very complicated process. I use a pointed awl to draw the shape I want, but a thick needle or other pointed tool would work well, too. I draw each silver piece specifically for the place I plan to put it, since there are small variations in shape and size of the cheeks. Fitting the silver to each piece helps hide those differences from the eye. Once I’ve drawn the basic shape, I go back and add detail before trimming it out. I use the same scissors for everything because I’m a complete heathen, but it works for me. It might be wise to designate a pair specifically for rough tasks like this, or invest in a scissors sharpener. They’re under $10 at most office stores.

I use a toothpick to apply a dot of Loctite Super Glue Gel to the leather. I peel the backing away from the silver piece and stick the very edge of it onto a toothpick or something similar, and use that to help me place it. It’s very important to use a small amount of super glue and place the silver carefully - the super glue WILL discolor your leather. Some people prefer to scrape the adhesive off of the tape before applying glue, but I haven’t found that necessary. Below is the first completed cheek piece!

Then it’s more of the same on the other cheek piece and then the ears. Like the cheeks, I do the ears one at a time.

ASSEMBLY

Here we are - all of the pieces have had silver applied. I took a quick photo next to an American penny to remind you of the scale we’re working in.

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The first step in assembling the ear loops is marking where they should be glued. I tack a piece of scrap leather the same width as the crown (or a hair larger) down on the horse’s face where I’d like the headstall to rest. I want to mark where the headstall will cross the ear loops, so I put one of them down bottom up on the opposite side, so that I will have the correct placement when I flip it over.

I mark on either side of the crown with my pencil; you can see those marks in the image below. You want the ear piece to fit snugly but not look like it could be restrictive.

This step takes some coordination - I place the ear loop on my finger, then place the crown between my marks. I use my thumb to hold down one end of the crown and pin the other between my middle and index fingers so that my right hand is free to apply glue. I use a toothpick and apply the glue to the looped end, not the loose one, and avoid getting it too close to the crown. I want the loops to be able to slide freely. I should have put the glue a little closer in this photo, but it gives you the general idea. If glue is applied to the loose end, it sometimes ends up getting onto the crown.

I didn’t show this step, but I do check the fit of each ear as I go. It’s much easier to fix now than after the bridle is fully assembled. Below you can see one ear done, and then both! I double check for symmetry between the two ears when they’re off the horse, but it’s most important that it looks right ON the horse.

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Ear loops on the crown, it’s time to buckle everything up. I pick one end of the crown and trim it to a point.

I’ve tacked the cheek piece on in the right position (including the angle of the bit) and lined up my crown next to it to decide where the main hole should go. How much excess you leave is up to you; it’s a balancing act. Too much or too little and the bridle gives the appearance of being ill-fitted. You also don’t want to cover up too much of the silver you’ve worked so hard on! Check out full-scale examples that are close to what you’re working on to get an idea of where the ideal might lie.

I’ve used an awl to lightly mark where I want that first hole to be. I try to place it near the top of the buckle opening, because that’s where I want it to sit when all is said and done. You can see that I’ve left the tongue long here - I find it’s easier to buckle when I do that. I’ll trim the excess later.

Then I take it back to my desk and poke the rest of the holes. I really only need one “hole;” everything else is just for show. Remember that holes never go all the way to the end of the strap. I usually do two below and one above my “main” hole.

Then you buckle up! I sometimes need tweezers to coax the strap through the buckle. These straps, in fact, are a little snug and needed to be gently bent in half long-ways to fit through. I put a dot of glue just below the buckle and tack down the loose end of the crown. I don’t glue the entire length of the excess; if you need to adjust something it’ll make you cry, and I think it just looks more natural if it’s left to it’s own devices. I trim the excess tongue once I’m certain of where the strap will go. With big buckles like this, remember that the tongue shouldn’t extend the full length - it should go just far enough past the opening of the buckle to keep the strap in place. I usually do the keeper for each side as it’s finished, I just don’t have a photo of that step.

Wash, rinse repeat on the other side.

But BEFORE YOU GLUE IT DOWN or get out the scissors, put the bridle on, adjust things, and make sure it’s all even. If so, trim the free end so that it’s approximately even with the free end on the other side, then glue it down, trim the tongue, and apply your keeper.

Now curb strap. These holes are small; I didn’t want my curb strap to be much narrower than this, so I compensated by trimming the area that goes through the hole just a little narrower. Skive the ends, too - you want as little bulk as possible.

Bridle back on, I wrap the excess curb up and use an awl to mark the correct length. Err on the side of too long; it’s easier to disguise a slightly loose curb than a too tight one.

You can see my tiny dot here. You don’t want to poke through, that might weaken the strap.

I skive the loose end from that mark on, roughly indicated by the red in the photo.

It can be hard to find your mark after you slide the curb through the hole - I like folding it ahead of time. If I’m careful, I won’t lose it this way.

Tada! All done. On to reins.

Reins are tricky. There’s not a set length that works for every model; it depends on length of neck, what event the bridle is intended for, whether or not you’re using a doll, etc. At least as long as the body of the model is a good place to start, longer if possible. You can always take some away.

You should check on the proper rules, but generally speaking the bight (or excess rein) when using splits goes on the same side as the hand you’re holding them with, which is usually (but not always) the left hand. Reins should be loose but have some contact; the exact amount should be determined by what your horse is doing and by the event. I determine the length of reins by setting the drape as I’d like to see it in a show and trim the bight to an appropriate length. I like it somewhere mid-forearm. I trim the ends at an angle for appearance.

I line up the reins from the bit onward for a straightforward horse like this and trim the ends. If the horse has excessive mane on one side, I might fudge it a little so that the bight looks more even.

And we’re ALMOST done! One final step!

SEALING

Sealer protects both leather and horse, and even if you’ve used predyed leather or lace it’s a solid idea to throw a coat of finish on it, just in case. I use Eco-Flo Satin Shene (ugh, Tandy, WHYYY [says the person who chose to spell her business name ‘flite’ so uh…]) and a small, soft brush to seal. I run it over all leather pieces, inside and out, and then pop the bridle back on. Make sure you adjust things just the way you want them on the horse - as the sealer dries, it will add a little body and help hold things in place. Maybe your cheek placed the buckle a little too close to the horse’s eye or the ear pieces were a little wonky; some careful positioning now can minimize those flaws.

I seal but don’t usually place the reins yet; I find that those can look stiff and unnatural if you try to drape them wet. I usually run them between my fingers a few times after the sealer has dried to soften them up again. Then, holding a single rein flat between thumb and forefinger I pull it through in small sections at a slight angle, starting near the bit and moving toward the end. It’s hard to describe - if this is a sticky point, I can nab a video later. What it does is gently, gently stretch the leather into a soft curve from bit to “hand,” or where the rider’s hand would be.

Be careful not to overload your piece - you want to dampen the leather, not soak it, or you risk compromising the glue. That’s what happened to this ear piece - oops! It’s a quick fix later, once everything has dried out again, but it’s always better to skip that kind of thing.

And DONE! This bridle took two days to make, but that’s with a small person at hand and not counting the ear repair, which had to wait a day or two because of life. I’d guess that it was a 5-6 hour project, all told, and might have gone faster if I’d been able to work on it in one or two sittings instead of five or six.

If you make a bridle based on this walk through, I’d love to see it! And as always, if you have any feedback I’m all ears.