A survey into noseband use asked riders why they choose nosebands and, one in five respondents reports complications related to their use.
They look nice.
They frame a horse’s head.
They’re part of the standard equipment used in my discipline.
They keep the tongue in the right place.
So many nosebands, so many reasons for using them. Yet still so little knowledge about how they affect horses and, in particular, how to be sure they’re not too tight.
That’s what Australian researchers have found recently in a wide-reaching online survey across racing and equestrian disciplines concerning the use of nosebands.
Gathering responses from more than 3000 riders worldwide, the scientists were able to get a useful overview of what’s happening with nosebands in horse sports. And what they’ve determined is that there are many ‘passive’ or ‘aesthetic’ reasons for using nosebands—as well as many complications. And meanwhile, there’s very little standard on evaluating tightness or comprehending its effects.
In particular, few riders use any kind of objective measuring gauge, like the taper gauge developed by members of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), according to Dominic Weller, MSc candidate at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science in the Faculty of Science of the University of Sydney, Australia.
That, combined with vague recommendations and rules from federations and clubs, can give riders unreliable feedback about how tightly they’re attaching their nosebands—and the importance of measuring that tightness.
“If we take the FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) for example, they still recommend a noseband be not fixed so tightly as to cause harm to the horse, and broadly recommend checking by sliding one finger under the strap on the side of the face” Weller said. “With respect to the FEI, this is unhelpful due to the variability in finger size from human to human. The only way to objectively test it is to use a standardised device (like the ISES’s taper gauge).
“We firmly stand behind the idea that this (the taper gauge) should be a compulsory piece of equipment for stewards to check for noseband tightness more frequently,” he said.
In their survey, fully completed by 3040 of the 3236 respondents from primarily Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and North America, Weller and his fellow researchers probed into the demographics of riders using nosebands, or not. They also looked at reasons for using nosebands, any recognized issues with noseband use on respondents’ horses, and how they assessed tightness.
Nearly 40% of the respondents always used nosebands, and nearly 19% usually used them, the scientists reported. Approximately 11% sometimes used them; 7% rarely used them; and 23% never did.
Nearly half the riders not using nosebands rode primarily for leisure, pleasure, and trail riding, they said.
About 10% declared their primary discipline as natural horsemanship. Interestingly, nearly 13% of non-noseband users said they rode dressage—the discipline most commonly associated with noseband use. (It’s worth noting, however, that dressage riders represented about a third of all respondents combined.)
For people using nosebands, the most common noseband—representing about 50% of all styles—was the plain cavesson.
About a fourth use a Hanoverian noseband, and 14% use a Micklem. Drop nosebands and figure-of-eight nosebands represented about 7% of the total styles each.
Nearly 30% of noseband users (28.9%) reported tightening with a crank tightening system, the scientists said. “Crank nosebands have grown contentious in the literature over the past decade due to their ability to be overtightened,” Weller said.
As for why people rode with nosebands, about a third of the reasons were “passive”—meaning the rider didn’t necessarily make a determined decision about the use of a noseband, according to the researchers. These reasons included going along with the tack rules for the discipline, other people in their sport using them, or even just because the bridle was sold with one.
Still, people also sometimes had what the scientists called “anatomical” reasons—meaning the noseband plays a specific physical function on the horse, they said. The two top anatomical reasons were preventing the horse’s tongue from going over the bit, and preventing the bit from sliding through the horse’s mouth.
Finally, there were the “consequential” reasons—what the effect of noseband use was. Topping this list were improving the horse’s acceptance of the bit/contact, and improving the appearance of the horse, the researchers stated.
“The prevalence of passive reasons for noseband use was interesting to see,” Weller said. “You would assume that each piece of equipment that a horse wears has a specific reason behind it, whether it’s for increased performance generally or to improve the appearance of the horse (as two examples). As nosebands can be used incorrectly to the detriment of the horse (inferred by 18.6% of noseband-using respondents reporting one or more complications), it’s concerning that more thought isn’t placed into their use.”
The complications reported by riders included primarily loss of hair under the noseband area. But riders also reported behavioral signs of anxiety or distress, lip injuries, soreness under the noseband, bleeding, and head shyness, among others, he said.
Generally, riders appeared to be aware that it’s necessary to check tightness, with about 96% of respondents stating that they always or usually check how tight their nosebands are, the researchers stated. However, there was a general difference in how they checked tightness: 60% checked along the bridge of the nose, 21% under the chin, 10% at the cheek, and 6% somewhere else.
Interestingly, only 4% of respondents recognized a picture of a taper gauge, they reported. “This is really a concerning issue,” Weller said, adding that objective measurements help ensure the safe use of nosebands.
“A noseband is a pretty unassuming piece of tack,” Weller told Horses and People. “However, the literature is very clear: if a noseband is applied incorrectly or too tight, it is likely to cause your horse to experience stress.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean nosebands shouldn’t be used at all, though. It just means riders need to be more aware of the risks of using them incorrectly, and understand how to ensure they are loose enough. It also means federations need to get more involved in monitoring.
“Simply put, riders need to be made aware of the risks of every piece of tack they use on their horse,” said Weller. “A noseband, if used incorrectly, can seriously impact the welfare of your horse. For industries and federations, the current guidelines aren’t consistent or clear enough. They should employ the use of a standardised gauge, and update their guidelines accordingly so that a minimum spacing between the noseband and the nasal midline is precisely set.”
At a grassroots level, regardless of discipline or competition or federation, riders themselves can learn to use nosebands more responsibly for their horses’ comfort and welfare, he explained.
“Ultimately,” said Weller, “everyone involved with horses needs to be more mindful and able to justify the reasons they choose the tack they use on their horses.”
The study titled The Reported Use of Nosebands in Racing and Equestrian Pursuits, by Dominic Weller, Samantha Franklin, Glenn Shea, Peter White, Kate Fenner, Bethany Wilson, Cristina Wilkins, and Paul McGreevy is published in Animals and is open access.