Cavesson, Surcingle and friends

I discovered several strange words in the world of horses. Although, to be fair, it’s easy to do.

What can be difficult is getting to the root of these words and working out how they came to be so common to us and so foreign to everyone else.


Greek or Thracian copper alloy (bronze) cavesson band from the 1st-2nd centuries. Information from the Met Museum and image from Wikimedia Commons.

“Yes, hello. I’m looking for a cavesson band and a lunging (or miss as some prefer)
Cavesson, please.”

For us, these are two different pieces of equipment. One fits over the bridle and is a flat band and the other is more halter-esque with metal rings on the nose piece to attach the lunge line to. Even though there are marked differences, they are essentially the same thing.

The word cavesson is not in my perfect dictionary or my favorite etymology site. I was under the illusion that this was a common enough word to be found in every one. I randomly searched the word online and sure enough, all kinds of horse related websites came up. I guess what I was looking for was, who actually knows what this word means outside of the horse world?

I refined my search and entered the meaning of cavesson and gave me the definition for “bridle band or bridle”. I was pleasantly surprised by this, but none the wiser as to its origin. However, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary gave the definition, and I quote, “a band of metal or other rigid material well padded and used on horses especially during breeding or training.”

And while I don’t totally agree with their meaning, I have to admit that I was a little shocked to find out that I think these things are made of metal or “some other rigid material”.

I feel like the “well padded” bit was a late addition made in the act of giving back. Cavessons today are generally well padded, but certainly not metal. Merriam-Webster seems to be straddling two different eras here in one unpunctuated sentence.

However, they tried.

Out of curiosity and for the love of all horse noses, I did a quick search and found out that Cavesson bands were indeed metal. It seems odd that Merriam-Webster is focusing on a band from the 1st-2nd century rather than, I don’t know, the 21st century. I’d even take the 20th century, but I’m not in charge of such things, so a to let him go For now.

Since my normal resources failed me on this topic, I was forced to stick with Merriam-Webster for the etymology portion.

The word cavesson it has been around since the 16th century and comes from Italian cavezonemeaning bridle with noseband, as bridle is in Italian cage. I won’t even question how a halter without a noseband works. These words go back to Latin and the word capitalwhich is of course the opening of a tunic to put your head through. Caput/caput means head and where the word cap comes from, FYI.

So, in short, in short cave part of the word has more to do with the head and nothing to do with a cave or hollow. This makes sense because a cavesson, no matter which one, fits our horse’s head.

Ear rings

We now return to the source. I always felt this was a common word. One that everyone from all walks of life knows and uses liberally. My assumption, as always, was wrong.

A surcingle is a kind of belt. It goes around the girth of our horse where the girth would normally be. It is commonly used nowadays for lunging, instead of a saddle, or can be used to hold the horse’s blanket in place.

My dictionary chose to exclude this word, however, chose to run with it. Phew.

From Old French of the late 14th century, today’s word comes from surcangle. gray meaning over and cangles sense waistwhich comes from Latin cingulum which is the belt or circumference.

I like that. A clear and simple explanation of why a word is the way it is. Why can’t everything in life be so simple?

I was going to end this post here, but since surcingle was so simple, I thought maybe we should look at that word as well.


While I’m here, I thought I might briefly touch on the highlights circumference.

Circumference derives from waist and is born Germanic rather than Latin. In the early days, it was like that gjord which is Old Norse and then turned into close before turning into a belt and girdle.

I switch to Cinch.

I found this five is more commonly used in the Western world than in English, although I tend to say “Beware, he tends to be a bit easy” rather than great. I’m not sure why I do this, but I do. prevailed again. Cinch comes from the Spanish word cinch which means girth, which is just a fancy way of saying girth. And the word cinch it goes back to Latin cingulumwhich means this portion of the post has come full circle, and I’m pretty happy with that.

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