Almost a fifth of horse caregivers who responded to an online survey on nosebands reported physical and behavioural complications related to their use.
Nosebands are common in racing and many equestrian disciplines.
Despite industry knowledge regarding the correct adjustment of nosebands, there seems to be a trend of overtightening them and exposing horses to high pressures that restrict normal behaviours.
Dominic Weller and his fellow researchers reported on the findings of their survey, disseminated across various interest groups, to which 3040 horse owners, riders and trainers responded.
The study team, writing in the journal Animals, posed a series of questions that explored the types of nosebands used, the reasons for using them, design preferences in different disciplines, and approaches to noseband tightness and monitoring.
It also delved into the incidence of negative impacts related to noseband use.
It was found that 2332 of the respondents used nosebands. A plain cavesson was most commonly used (46.6%), followed by the hanoverian (or flash) (24.8%). So-called “cranking” systems were also found to be common, used by 28.9% of those who employed nosebands.
Reasons for using nosebands varied widely among respondents according to noseband type and discipline.
Preventing a horse’s tongue from moving over the bit, improving the appearance of the horse, and aligning with the rules of the sport were the most nominated options.
“Almost a fifth of respondents reported physical and behavioural complications related to noseband use,” the researchers reported.
“The most common complication was hair loss under the noseband.”
Most respondents said they checked noseband tightness at the bridge of the nose.
The study team noted that nosebands originated in the military due to their potential use as a head collar, and come in many traditional and contemporary designs.
“Today, they are commonly used to deter horses from opening their mouths and displacing their bit.
“Aesthetically, nosebands are said to ‘frame the horse’s face’, which is why some equestrians regard horses without them as “undressed”.
“Tightening nosebands seems to result, at least in the short term, in the horse being more sensitive to rein tension.
“The link between noseband tightness and rein tension may explain, in part, why nosebands may be applied so tightly as to be restrictive.
“The risk of over-tightening is amplified by the current lack of consistent international rules for monitoring noseband tightness.”
The researchers note that the International Society for Equitation Science has instituted a benchmark of a two-finger spacing, measured at the nasal midline (flush on the nose).
“Although this standard mirrors conventional industry practice, the benchmark is non-binding.
“The two-finger spacing is also recommended by a number of horse welfare organisations, including the Royal Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in the UK and Australia, as well as The Horse Trust.
“Despite this, the two-finger spacing benchmark is yet to be endorsed by the international equestrian and racing governing bodies.”
They note that some national equestrian federations in mainland Europe have recently specified that a minimum spacing is required under the noseband at the nasal midline. Although a step in the right direction, they remain difficult to enforce and comply with until a standardised measuring tool is provided to stewards and riders.
In contrast, the British Dressage Rulebook follows the guidelines set by the FEI that state the tightness check must be performed with the steward’s index finger between the horse’s cheek and the noseband.
“This location, however, is uninformative due to the much flatter and, in places, concave or hollow, shape of the horse’s face at the side.”
“Restrictive nosebands are primarily designed to keep the horse’s jaws closed and reduce behavioural signs of resistance, ranging from mouth-opening to tongue-lolling.
“These signs appear as the horse attempts to seek comfort, either by seizing the bit between its premolars or retracting its tongue to form an effective cushion to bit pressure. Both of these behaviours rely on the horse being able to open its mouth.
“Limiting such responses is likely to increase discomfort from the bit.
“Thus, restrictive nosebands increase the rider’s control over the horse through a negative enforcement method.
“Because restrictive nosebands can impose sustained pressures on soft tissues and bones, pressures that peak when the horse attempts to perform normal jaw movements, such as those involved in chewing, are thought to compromise welfare.”
Discussing their findings, the research team says the 3040 respondents make the study one of the most comprehensive to date on the subject of noseband use across a variety of equestrian disciplines and racing.
The findings, they say, show that reasons for noseband use vary considerably and that the reported effectiveness depends on their design and the context in which they are being used.
Respondents who did not use nosebands were most likely to be engaged in Natural Horsemanship, Western riding and Endurance.
“This may be due, in part, to these sports either not requiring noseband use or not penalising those displays of discomfort such as mouth-opening which nosebands can reduce.”
Of the 1837 participants who answered that they did not always use nosebands, about half said there was no need. “Many of these respondents stated that they wanted their horses to be able to open their mouths.”
The results showed that only 4.1% of respondents — 96 individuals — were familiar with the taper gauge offered by the International Society for Equitation Science.
“It would be useful to know the factors that influence this device’s take-up in sports, especially in light of our findings that respondents did not check for tightness in any measurable/consistent manner.”
“It is worth noting that the Danish Equestrian Federation has introduced a 15mm gauge to be used to check noseband tightness at the bridge of the nose of horses competing in all sports.
“Furthermore, Dressage New Zealand has also taken steps to limit noseband tightness in competition, where a minimum of one finger must be able to fit under the noseband at the bridge of the nose at all times.
“It is encouraging that some federations are taking the initiative in demanding that these spacing guidelines be stated and enforced.”
While plain cavesson nosebands were the most widely used in most disciplines, the findings provide evidence of a preference for some designs over others in certain disciplines, such as a preference for Hanoverian nosebands in eventing, show-jumping and dressage, as well as grackle nosebands in racing.
The evidence suggests that, in general, nosebands were not chiefly used for a competitive advantage.
They say the use of crank systems by 28.9% of respondents is of concern because these devices can be excessively tightened, minimising jaw and tongue movement and may compromise horse welfare.
“This concern is borne out by the increased rate of reporting complications by crank-using respondents compared with their non-crank-using counterparts.
“Finally, this survey provides evidence that although most respondents check for tightness at the bridge of the nose, many still check for tightness in uninformative locations.”
Weller, D.; Franklin, S.; Shea, G.; White, P.; Fenner, K.; Wilson, B.; Wilkins, C.; McGreevy, P. The Reported Use of Nosebands in Racing and Equestrian Pursuits. Animals 2020, 10, 776.