Nosebands: To tighten or not to tighten!

Are you searching for control, obedience and connection with your horse?  If you are truly looking for cooperation and communication with your horse, why would you consider tightening the noseband on your horse while riding?

Nosebands evolved many years ago with the practical solution keeping the jaws of horses from clattering as they galloped into war laden with heavy armor.  The design of the modern noseband, however, evolved to limit the horse from opening his mouth and giving the rider more sensitive control over the bit.  Fitted correctly, nosebands do just that, but fitted improperly, they cause much pain.  Recent research notes that horses wearing tight nosebands undergo a physiological stress response, are sensitized to bit pressure and may have reduced blood flow with potential to cause injuries and tissue damage including nasal bone deformities even when padding is used in the so-called crank nosebands.

Over the last few decades, there has been a steady increase in the design of nosebands to effectively mask the evidence of a horse’s discomfort and pain.   The International Society of Equitation Science (ISES) states “that the practice of over tightening nosebands to avoid penalties in competition is covering up poor training at the expense of horse welfare for there  is an incentive for riders to over-tighten nosebands as the rules of dressage penalize displays of discomfort such as opening mouths and lolling tongues".  These rules were written by the sport’s governing bodies to promote excellent training and the demonstration of qualities such as freedom, harmony lightness and acceptance of the bit without tension.  Restrictive tight nosebands can prevent the horse from displaying unwanted behaviours such as opening, gaping or crossing the jaw and are enabling competitors to mask those signs of tension which judges look for as evidence of inferior training.  Thus is has been suggested that nosebands may hinder effective judging.

Hayley Randle, PhD presented a recent study at the October 2011 ISES conference, which I attended,  stating “noseband tightness definitely seems to increase sensitivity to the bit, as it has an effect on rein tension applied to achieve medium contact.  This suggests that noseband tightening makes the horse more sensitive to the bit.  Essentially, tightening the noseband just one hole appears to reduce the amount of rein tension needed to maintain bit contact.”

The ISES recommends the return to the established practice of placing “two fingers” under the noseband  and that a standard taper gauge should be used by stewards at competitions.  The taper gauge should be placed without force at the nasal midline and be clearly marked to show the desired stop.  It has been suggested that with the taper gauge, stewards could ensure that the detrimental effects of over-tightened nosebands could be eliminated or at least lessened.

Horses are very sensitive social beings and their noses are more sensitive than our finger tips.  Horses rely on smell and touch for much of their communication and social bonding, so tying up the nerves in discomfort rather than allowing them to be used the way nature designed them to be is counter productive of the goal of proper training.  Although nosebands may look good and are a part of equestrian history, we all need to educate ourselves on the science of communication between horse and rider.

2 Responses

  1. When I was a little girl working in a fox hunting stable run by a horseman from Ireland, I was taught that two fingers needed to fit between the underpart of the horse’s chin and the noseband. Then twenty years later I was taught by my dressage instructor to put it on where it fitted without the two fingers in between. I remember being shocked, but gradually got used to putting the bridle on that way. After that I never thought about the horse’s being in pain. It seemed normal to me. Now reading this article I clearly remember my astonishment and laud the recommendation to go back to the “two fingers” rule.

  2. Lynne

    Amen!!! How a out NO nose band.

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