Inside William Micklem’s Skull

Niklas Lindbäck and Cendrillon won the dressage at Boekelo last year in a Micklem bridle. Photo by Jenni Autry. Niklas Lindbäck and Cendrillon won the dressage at Boekelo last year in a Micklem bridle. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Legendary horseman William Micklem’s been traveling the world with a big old horse skull. Does he enjoy freaking out T.S.A. agents? No. But it’s worth it to have such an ideal visual aid when he’s explaining how his Rambo Micklem Multibridle works. He designed the bridle as a more humane, more effective alternative to the traditional bridle.

You might have noticed more and more pros appearing with Micklems. Increasingly, amateurs are discovering it here in the states as well. But we’ve not embraced it as much as they have across the pond. People are a little leery of trying something that looks different. Micklem told me when I met him (and got to touch his skull!) at the American Equestrian Trade Association show. Top riders have not had such worries. Micklem fans include Karen O’Connor, Mark Todd, William Fox-Pitt and Andrew Nicholson. You think The Silver Fox cares if people think his bridle looks different?

Micklem designed the bridle about 20 years ago in a quest for something that worked better and was kinder to horses. Has he succeeded? Clearly the top pros using the bridles think so. But some people remain doubtful. “They say, ‘Ah, William … He’s full of the talk …’” said Micklem, blue eyes sparkling as he smiled, “’… It’s too good to be true.’” But it’s not. Testimonials reveal how much happier and more willing horses are after switching from traditional bridles. (I figure it’s got to be similar to getting rid of the horse/bridle equivalent of wearing the most uncomfortable underwire bra — on your face.)

Here are the five main areas where Micklem’s improved on the traditional design:

1. Behind the ears. “This is such a sensitive area,” said Micklem, “genuine Indian hackamores worked solely off pressure at this point.” He designed a wider-in-the-rear headpiece with built-in padding that disperses pressure. Plus, because there’s no cavesson strap threading underneath it, the design alleviates even more potential pressure.

2. Facial nerves. Micklem points to two holes in his skull  between the nostril and the eye. “This is where main facial nerves come through,” he said.

[Skull:Kappmedical.com]

Skull via Kappmedical.com

A traditionally-placed noseband pinches those nerves. “It numbs the face. It makes less sensitive the very part you want to be most sensitive,” he said. He explained one demo he’s seen countless times. Poke a horse lightly above the nostril with a pin. He’ll flinch. Tighten a traditional noseband, wait 10 minutes and try again. “They won’t even notice,” said Micklem. He designed his bridle’s unique noseband around the nerves, using angles that avoid such numbing pressure.

3. Flesh and tissue around the teeth. Growing up in Cornwall, William learned a ton about equine teeth from his father, a horse trader and young horse specialist, who knew boatloads more about equine choppers than your average dad. “Look how far the top jaw protrudes over the bottom jaw,” he said, pointing to his skull.

cliff pointfinal.png

It’s like an an overhanging cliff of giant yellow teeth. “With a traditional and tightly strapped flash noseband or bitless bridle, the flesh over the teeth gets squished or lacerated,” he said. To help prevent it, people have the teeth floated. “But a horse’s teeth are like lead pencils; you can file them down to nothing. And when you shorten a horse’s teeth, you’re shortening their life.”

Micklem gave me a stunning example of the damage a traditional noseband can wreak. Legendary grand prix showjumper Boomerang, ridden by Eddie Macken, famously went in a bitless bridle. But pull back the jumper’s lips and you’d see he lacked two molars. “The noseband had literally broken those two teeth off,” said Micklem. He created a bridle that works around those overhanging molars.

4. Nasal bones. Even if you’re a frequent snout-smoocher (guilty), you might not know just how fragile the thin bones at the end of the horse’s nose are. On Micklem’s skull, they’re about half a chopstick thick. It’s easy to see how they’re sometimes fractured by too-tight nosebands. Not with a Micklem. The noseband’s designed to be fastened only as tight “as you hold your frail granny’s hand crossing the street,” said Micklem.

5. Bars of the mouth. Micklem had me run my fingers along the bones that sit in a horse’s mouth under the tongue. I had no idea how sharp these suckers were until I felt them on the skull. Looking at bit fitting, I’ve always focused on how the bit sits on top of the tongue and teeth. “You’ve got to also look at the underside of the tongue,” he said. The clips that hold the bit on the Micklem are designed to keep the pressure on the top of the noseband, rather than the sensitive tongue.

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Here’s how the entire bridle sits on the skull, its angles working around the bone, nerve and teeth:

[tackntogs.co.za

Photo via tackntogs.co.za

The “multi” aspect of the Micklem bridle means you can seamlessly transition from lunging to riding, with a bit or without, something Micklem appreciates working his youngsters at Annacrivey Stud, where he stands Jackaroo (brother to Mandiba and High Kingdom).

Zara Phillips' High Kingdom with multibridle as lunging cavesson. [Photos courtesy WIlliam Micklem]

Zara Phillips’ High Kingdom using the Micklem Multibridle as a lunging cavesson. Photo courtesy William Micklem.

The bridle’s legal for dressage.

Aidan and Wilson at the Nations Cup in Aachen, Photo by: Jenni Autry

Aidan Keogh and Master Tredstep at the Nations Cup in Aachen. Photo by Jenni Autry.

And for snacking in the kitchen.

Micklem's daughter Holly on Buie (Drambuie), their 30-year-old Kerry Bog Pony who can jump his own height [Photo courtesy William Micklem]

Micklem’s daughter Holly on Buie (Drambuie), their 30-year-old Kerry Bog Pony who can jump his own height. Photo courtesy William Micklem.

Micklem’s delighted his bridle’s catching on in the U.S. (In fact, the pony on your USEA membership card’s sporting one). You can order them through SmartPak, where you can also find out more about accurate fitting, which is important. Meanwhile, armed with bridle and skull, William Micklem continues on his mission to make horses more comfortable and happy in their work, one bridle at a time.

Have skull. Will travel.

Have skull. Will travel.

* Full disclosure, I use a Micklem on my draft-cross, whose head weights nearly as much as my whole body, a fact I know very well, as I’ve been carrying it around for years, resulting, sadly, in biceps bigger than my boobs. With the Micklem, my guy’s lighter in my hands, higher in the poll and less likely to throw me his “f***-you” face when I ask him to engage his substantial butt.

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