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Nosebands and horse sense

AS we edge closer to more normal times, when shows, competitions and training can resume in earnest, we will once more be making decisions on a daily basis that affect the welfare of the horses under our care. A topic which has provoked a lot of discussion and debate in recent years is tack usage, which equipment works best, but also which equipment is least likely to injure, cause pain or distress to our horses and ponies. One particular item, which has come under intense focus is the noseband.
Nosebands were originally used to control horses, but more recently, have been used mainly as a result of tradition and the appearance on the head, to which we are all accustomed, of the noseband as part of the bridle. The reason nosebands have come under such recent focus is that a trend developed, within the last 20 years approximately, of tightening the noseband to a greater extent than was previously the custom.

Guidelines in textbooks dating from the mid-1950s recommend that when fastened, we should be able to fit two fingers flat on the horses face beneath the noseband. It is unclear where this guideline originated from, but it has been reproduced in text books and riding manuals internationally throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Despite these guidelines, recent studies found that this approach is no longer being adhered to by the majority of riders. This is clearly reflected in the growing popularity of nosebands, which can easily be tightened to a greater extent (originally known as the Swedish noseband, now more commonly known as the crank noseband). Indeed, in many cases, this type of noseband can be more easily purchased than the standard Cavesson noseband.

Why do riders tighten the noseband more than was

previously the custom?

Several factors have led to this development. Judges within some disciplines, notably dressage, may penalise a rider if the horse is seen to open the mouth or protrude the tongue. Such behaviours are judged as evasions or a lack of submission. The remedy, chosen by some riders, to prevent this happening is tightening the noseband to a greater degree, so that this behaviour is made difficult or impossible. In addition, riders may find a horse easier to control when the noseband is extremely tight. This has given rise to a trend, which is being taught to and encouraged among young riders.

Is this a problem for the horse?

A number of research groups both within Ireland and around the world, composed of scientists, veterinarians and welfare experts have, in response to growing concern, been carrying out research into different aspects of noseband usage in horses. The results of their studies should cause concern, and provide ample evidence for the need for a change in approach with regard to noseband tightness.

Studies into this topic show that horses are indeed more susceptible to bit pressure if the noseband is extremely tight. This is most likely because the tongue and other soft structures of the mouth are compressed against the bit when the noseband is excessively tight, allowing the rider to exert more painful levels of pressure via the reins. In addition, excessively tight nosebands have been shown to restrict a variety of normal behaviours such as licking, chewing and indeed swallowing.

Swallowing, as a natural response to the accumulation of saliva in the mouth, is not a behaviour which should be prevented routinely during exercise. A recent Danish study, looking at damage to the mouth and lips found a 64% greater likelihood of skin wounds on the lips when a tight noseband was used and an Australian study found reduced skin temperature in the area of the tight noseband, suggesting possible reduced blood supply to that skin when the noseband was excessively tightened.

Does all of this cause any stress or pain to the horse?

Several studies have investigated this question and found that the horse’s heart rate was affected by a tight noseband: increased heart rate and reduced heart rate variability (both indicators of stress) occurred when the noseband was excessively tightened. Eye temperature (measured by a thermography camera) is recognised to be an indication of stress. Again, increased eye temperature has been found in horses with excessively tight nosebands.

What about pain?

Pain is difficult to measure in horses. Progress is slowly being made in the development of methods, which will help owners to recognise pain in their horses. However, as a prey animal, the horse has evolved to not show signs of pain in many instances, as they would be picked out by predators as being vulnerable and easiest to capture. The fact that a noseband is mainly in use in the moving horse also makes it difficult to identify subtle changes in facial expression and behaviours, which would help answer that question.

However, measurement of the pressures beneath the noseband revealed alarmingly high levels of pressure, particularly at the left and right nasal bones at the front of the face and at the jawbones (on the underside of the face). These pressure levels increase rapidly once the noseband is tightened beyond one finger (where one finger can be fitted beneath the noseband at the front of the face). The pressure levels recorded are clearly high enough to cause damage to the skin, bone and soft tissues beneath the noseband, and certainly to cause pain.

Following on from this evidence, some early studies are finding radiographic evidence of bone changes (creating apparent bony lumps at that location, caused by new bone laid down to try to repair bone damage, or indentations, due to bone being absorbed by the body following damage) at the location of the noseband, possibly caused by how tightly nosebands were fastened on those horses.

Additional padding

It is no coincidence that many nosebands are now manufactured with additional padding added, no doubt to try to reduce the skin and bone damage that has been seen in many horses as a result of excessively tightened nosebands. This has a downside however. At the side of the face, padding will help to press the soft cheek tissue against the sharp outer edges of the first two cheek teeth (premolars). This regularly results in laceration or cuts to the soft inner cheek tissue.

Check noseband tightness

So when you ride, if your horse is throwing up his head, shaking his head, opening his mouth, tail swishing, tense, or resisting having the bridle put on, it may be worth investigating whether pain, fear of further pain and attempts to avoid this, may be contributory factors in your horse’s behaviour. Checking of noseband tightness has been made easy by the availability of a small, easy to use, taper gauge (the ISES Noseband Taper Gauge, available through www.equitationscience.com) that allows a rider check whether two fingers of space has been left under the noseband when fastened.

Is it safe to simply throw away the noseband?

In most cases, no, probably not, but beginning with young horses entering into training, reliance on a tight noseband to achieve and maintain control over the horse is ill-advised. With careful training, and a focus on teaching the horse to respond to pressures, with immediate release of those pressures, horses can be trained to respond to low levels of pressure, without ever having a need to force the mouth closed through the use of an excessively tight noseband.

Ideally, with older horses, riders should be encouraged to ride with a looser noseband, initially in a safe environment to investigate whether in fact a tight noseband is required. Many riders report a much more relaxed horse, with less mouth opening, fewer head movements and greater relaxation when the noseband is loosened.
So, while the origin of the traditional guidelines for the two finger space beneath the noseband is unknown, growing evidence suggests that that guideline is correct and is one we should all as riders aspire to, for the sake of the horse.

For further information on this and other behaviour issues, please contact Dr Orla Doherty at The Animal Behaviour Clinic in Malin, Co. Donegal, www.animalbehaviourclinic.ie; Email: erica@animalbehaviourclinic.ie or Tel: 00 353 (0)87 3625540.

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