The nosebands on more than half the competition horses assessed in a new study were so tight that they could not accommodate a finger beneath them.
Indeed, the nosebands on 44 percent of the 750 horses in the study, assessed using a specialist taper gauge, were not even able to accommodate half a finger, earning a rating of “zero”.
“The findings are of concern,” the researchers from Ireland and Australia reported in the open-access peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.
Tight nosebands were a common feature of equestrian competitions in Ireland, England and Belgium, where the study was conducted, they concluded.
Nosebands are used by riders to prevent the horse from opening its mouth, to increase control and, in some cases, to comply with competition rules.
The study team noted that while equestrian texts traditionally recommended that two adult human fingers should be able to fit under a fastened noseband, tightness levels generally were not regulated in competition.
Possible harmful consequences of tight nosebands included discomfort, pain or tissue damage.
University of Limerick researchers Orla Doherty, Vincent Casey and Sean Arkins, and the University of Sydney’s Paul McGreevy, set out to explore noseband use in competition.
Information on noseband type, position, width and tightness was collected for 750 horses competing in eventing (354), dressage (334) and as performance hunters (62). The competitions were in Ireland, England and Belgium.
Measurements were collected immediately before or after the performance, with an International Society for Equitation Science taper gauge used as a guide.
The results were classified according to the number of “fingers” that could fit under the noseband at the nasal planum. The results were categorised by six groups: greater than 2 fingers; 2 fingers; 1.5 fingers; 1 finger; 0.5 fingers; and zero fingers. A calliper was used to measure noseband width, which ranged from Noseband width ranged from 10mm to 50mm. and its position relative to the facial crest.
They study team reported that 44% of the horses fell into the zero fingers classification, while only 7% were in the normally-recommended two-fingers classification.
There were significant differences between disciplines, with the highest levels of noseband tightness found among eventers followed by dressage horses, then the performance hunters.
The flash noseband was most commonly used, employed on 326 of the 750 horses. These were found to be significantly tighter than the cavesson, drop noseband and the Micklem.
Noseband position varied widely, the researchers reported.
The high proportion of very tight nosebands found in the study raised concerns regarding what the short and long term behavioural and physiological consequences of such tight nosebands were for the horse, they said.
The authors pointed to a growing awareness of horse welfare, which has been accompanied by concerns regarding some common traditional practices in equitation.
The practice of over-tightening nosebands was of concern to equitation scientists and some veterinarians, they said.
“In dressage, riders are penalised if their horses open their mouths, so there may be an incentive for riders to prevent mouth opening. If this practice increases the riders’ control of their horses, an additional incentive arises.”
They continued: “Tight nosebands may have an appeal to riders but may mask undesirable oral activity and increase sensitivity to the bit(s) at the expense of horse welfare. It is possible that tight nosebands cause pain and possible tissue damage as the horse fights against the noseband in attempts to seek comfort through various oral activities.”
Preliminary research suggested the possibility that vascular flow to the muzzle may be compromised by tight nosebands. As a response to growing concern about over-tightening, the International Society of Equitation Science designed a taper gauge to allow riders and competition organizers to assess and regulate noseband tightness.
“However, over the past four years, the uptake of the taper gauge by equestrian governing bodies has been negligible,” they noted.
“This may reflect the lack of available data on the prevalence and possible consequences of excessively tight nosebands.”
The study team said their findings indicated a widespread tendency to tighten the noseband to a substantially higher level of tightness than that suggested in equestrian texts. Indeed, over half were tightened to 0.5 fingers or tighter, and only 7% were fitted at the tightness level of 2 fingers. Just one noseband among the 750 horses had space for more than 2 fingers.
“The findings … highlight the need for further research into riders’ motivations to tighten nosebands excessively,” they said.
The authors continued: “Regulations within some equestrian disciplines prohibit certain noseband types while others, such as elite dressage competitions mandate double bridles with cavesson noseband (of which the crank type is the most common). Crank nosebands allow a doubling of the tightness achievable for a given amount of handler tightening effort.”
The tightest nosebands were found among eventing horses.
“This is not entirely surprising since the control of a horse is inherently more challenging as the horse is ridden at speed towards, and over, obstacles and over uneven terrain.
“However, any use of relentless pressure defies the principles of learning theory since it does not provide an opportunity to release the pressure and condition the horse through negative reinforcement. Thus, riders who come to rely on tight nosebands are effectively training their horses to work only with such devices.”
They noted that, in performance hunter classes, horses were frequently ridden in a show-type bridle which typically included a plain cavesson noseband without the crank functionality. “The absence of the crank function may, in part, explain the lower noseband tightness found in the performance hunter class in this study.”
They continued: “This study reveals the prevalence of restrictive noseband usage on competition horses of all ages.
“Noseband tightness levels do not appear to be influenced by the stage of training or the particular traits of the horse being ridden since tightness did not differ significantly between young and older event horses in the study.
“The widespread use of tightness levels of less than two fingers may be indicative of habitual or routine over-tightening of nosebands as a pre-emptive response rather than as a consequence of previous training or control problems.”
The authors noted that some equestrian sports such as reining showed no reliance on nosebands.
“In the absence of regulations or guidelines outlining recommended or permitted noseband tension in competition, competitors are free to adjust the noseband to the tightness level that they deem necessary or appropriate.”
The widespread use of tight nosebands in the three European countries and across the disciplines of eventing and dressage under FEI and national federation regulations pointed to the need for similar, more extensive studies to establish the prevalence of this practice worldwide, they said.
“The lack of regulation of noseband tightness in competition may reflect the lack of available data on noseband usage and on the possible consequences of excessively tight nosebands.”
Doherty O, Casey V, McGreevy P, Arkins S (2017) Noseband Use in Equestrian Sports – An International Study. PLoS ONE 12(1): e0169060. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169060