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13.12.2021 The Noseband Controversy

A Guest Blog by Sue Dyson

There is considerable controversy about the use of different types of nosebands, their tightness and potential to cause harm. Several recent studies explored the use of different noseband types and their fitting with the presence or absence of lesions within the mouth, with rather confusing results. Alongside these have been a variety of questionnaire-based studies which have explored the reasons why riders select specific noseband types. Equestrian Canada ran a ‘November noseband’ educational series promoting the ethical use of nosebands.

There is no doubt that different noseband types go in and out of fashion, depending in part on the discipline for which the horse is used, and also related to the level of performance in competition horses. However, the reasons given by riders for choice of a noseband type included ‘it was the bridle that the horse came with’, to stop the horse opening its mouth, for aesthetic reasons, to aid control of the horse and to comply with rules of competition.

The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) is unequivocal in their stance. The ‘two finger rule’ applied objectively by the use of a taper gauge of appropriate dimensions, should ensure that there is not excessive pressure placed on the nasal bones and adjacent soft tissues, allowing the horse to open its mouth to some extent. However, this technique really only applies to cavesson (±crank mechanism) or flash nosebands, not to the myriad of other noseband types (e.g., grackle, Micklem, drop).

The FEI rules differ among disciplines. In dressage the noseband tightness is assessed by the officiating steward at the side of the nose using fingers, as opposed to the recommendations of ISES that a purpose-designed taper gauge be used on the front of the nose. In upper level eventing the bit is checked, but not the noseband. No checks are routinely performed in showjumpers.

The use of specially contoured nosebands with appropriate padding has been explored to reduce pressure on potentially sensitive structures, but the success of any such noseband is hugely reliant on the appropriateness of the size and the fit of the noseband to any particular horse.

To my knowledge there are no scientific studies that have investigated whether the use of specific noseband types either facilitates control of the horse or limits mouth opening. Obviously a noseband that is excessively tight will cause discomfort. We have demonstrated that many horses are able to open their mouths with separation of the teeth for periods of 10 seconds or more, irrespective of the type of noseband used and its fit. Although the aim of dressage riding is to promote harmonious riding, ironically the frequency of occurrence of mouth opening was considerably higher in Grand Prix dressage horses, than in 5 event horses or low-level event horses. Perhaps the question that should be addressed is why do horses open their mouths? What are the underlying causes?

The FEI recently banned the trimming of the vibrissae (the whiskers) and other ruling bodies are following suit. Does this really make sense for equine welfare when many nosebands with straps which pass below the bit have the potential to pull on these delicate sensory structures?

We have demonstrated that horses with nosebands which have the potential to restrict mouth opening toss their heads more during bridling, are more likely to put their heads up during bridling and evade noseband tightening than horses without a noseband or those with a correctly fitted cavesson noseband. However, this does not necessarily imply a causal relationship between noseband type and these behaviours and could also be related to the anticipation of other musculoskeletal pain when ridden.

In conclusion, the use of nosebands and their fitting remain controversial issues, which demand more factual evidence-based information, based on observations, rather than reliance on questionnaires.

© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021

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