Take The Noseband Off
Nosebands designed to prevent horses from opening their mouths and ‘crank’ nosebands with a pulley mechanism for tight fastening that apply excessive and continuous pressure around the nose and jaw area are increasingly being used in dressage, show jumping and eventing. These restrictive nosebands cause pain and distress.
A ‘crank’ noseband.
Why Use Them?
Riders use restrictive nosebands to stop horses opening their mouths in the competition arena and attracting a penalty, as well as giving greater control by preventing the horse from moving their tongue over the bit. However, these nosebands cause significant discomfort, distress and injury.
Research shows restrictive nosebands deny horses the ability to perform normal behaviours such as yawning, licking and even swallowing. The excess pressure applied with these nosebands can cause both physical injury and psychological stress. A recent study proved that horses exhibited behaviours denied whilst the restrictive noseband was applied, such as yawning and swallowing, at a much higher frequency after the noseband was removed, compared to normal baseline levels.
Coding criteria of horse behaviors observed and recorded in the Observer program.
Physiological measurements from this study demonstrated stress caused by restrictive nosebands, providing further evidence they compromise welfare. Horses have been observed fighting against the constraint of the noseband in a bid to find comfort, increasing the risk of damage to the nasal bones. As nosebands are rarely used alone, the additional effects of rein tension, martingales or draw reins may further increase pressure and negatively affect behaviour and welfare.
Many riding manuals and competition rulebooks previously applied the ‘two finger’ rule, requiring the noseband to be loose enough to allow at least two fingers to be easily slipped under. In recent years this rule has been removed as it was not consistently measurable. Within FEI-sanctioned horse sports, there are no consistent guidelines for noseband tightness.
SES Taper Gauge designed to allow measurement of approximate noseband tightness.
The Dressage guidelines for gear detail the types of nosebands permitted, mandating double bridles at the elite level, and that “at any level of competition a noseband may never be so tightly fixed that it causes harm to the horse and must be checked as per the Stewards Manual noseband protocol”. However, until governing bodies articulate how nosebands may cause such harm, this guideline is difficult to monitor and enforce.
Eventing, Show jumping, Polo, Camp-drafting and Racing specify only what types of nosebands are permitted, but the acceptable tightness of nosebands for these disciplines is not explicitly stated. RSPCA Australia supports the International Society for Equitation Science’s position on restrictive nosebands which proposes changes to competition rules to require the routine use of a taper measuring gauge to measure and prevent the use of restrictive nosebands.
Many equestrian competitors are disregarding the potential dangers of tight nosebands. The study of 750 horses in Ireland, UK and Europe showed that 44% of horses had nosebands so tight the measuring gauge could not be inserted. Only 7% passed the ‘two finger’ rule. The highest proportion of very tight nosebands was found in horses used for eventing, with the lowest level in performance hunters. This study raises serious concerns regarding the short — and long term — effects on behaviour and health of horses subjected to very tight nosebands.
Some athletes do consider the horses mouth — professional event rider, horse trainer and coach Sophie Warren has had many successes at the highest level in eventing. She taught horse Eminence to go in a bitless bridle and rode him not only noseband-less, but bitless around CCI4* tracks with success. She loves working the horses bitless and testing their responses and self-carriage. We can only hope other competitors follow suit.
Thanks to the RSPCA for their original insights on this topic.