Tight nosebands are a shortcut to nowhere

Tight Nosebands: A ‘Feel-good’ Shortcut to Nowhere

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Tight Noseband? A poorly fitted bridle can give your horse as much discomfort as a poorly fitted bit. Even today, many riders are not fully aware that bridle fit can also influence the breathing and biomechanics of your horse, potentially changing the way they move and perform. 

The International College for Professional Bitfit Consultants (ICPBC) is educating horse owners and professionals about the causes of common contact issues from a whole-of-body perspective with the mission of improving horse welfare.

At the ICPBC, bridle fitting is discussed alongside bit fitting because horses are individuals and there are now many different bridle models to choose from.

In this article, ICPBC founder Natascha van Eijk provides some examples of how the bridle influences the horse’s biomechanics, focusing on the part of the bridle that is most commonly misunderstood – the noseband.

Too tight

As a Horses and People reader, you are probably well aware that noseband tightness continues to be an issue. Among riders and trainers, when it comes to how loose or tight the noseband should be, it seems impossible to find anything resembling a consensus.

Many scientific studies have shown that horses are really uncomfortable when they are made to perform with an overly tight noseband, but no amount of logical reasoning and evidence is enough to keep many horse owners from tightening the noseband straps really tight.

I always try to avoid judging others so, instead of criticising, I have spent a lot of time wondering what reasons might lie behind this practice.

I believe every owner loves their horse so, why would they choose to tighten the strap so much? Why do some people think a really tight noseband is ‘not that bad’ when the science says that it is?

I have found several answers that allow me to talk about this issue from a different perspective.

But it feels good!

We all tend to believe that when something ‘feels good’ it’s got to be good or, at least, it can’t be that bad.

If tight nosebands really hurt the horse, how is it possible that the feeling in your hands is better with a tight noseband? Why is it that your horse seems to improve with it on?

This feeling is very real to horse riders. When you tighten the noseband, the mouth opening stops and the horse’s responses to your rein aids are sharper. It is no wonder that riders put aside their doubts by telling themselves it is only for one hour a day, or that if their horse was really uncomfortable, they would not perform or they would know for sure. After all, they feel so much better with the noseband tight!

Let’s look at this subject in a different way, one that might explain why riders are becoming confused.

Nosebands are a relatively new invention. Originally, they were just part of a halter that was kept on so the bit could be removed during rest times and the horse could eat.

But in some dressage schools, the noseband started to be adapted and used to ‘help’ the rider’s rein aids by preventing the horse from opening the mouth too wide and evading the rein aids, and thus, it made schooling easier and a bit safer.

Still, it is difficult to find a traditional horse training text that recommends tightening the noseband strap in the same way we see today. Could this be because in times gone by, horse training was a slow process that was expected to take many years, whereas today we are in more of a hurry?

Schooling a horse for any discipline is what we call dressage. The aim of good dressage training is to develop the horse’s capacity to move freely while carrying the weight of a rider – something that requires balance, flexibility and strength.

When balance, flexibility and strength are developed, and the horse understands the rein aids, they will show no contact issues – the rider will only need to use very light aids and the horse’s mouth will be quiet and soft.

Performance should, therefore, be evaluated upon these criteria and, when the rider feels like they have to tighten the noseband, the problem should be seen as a failure of our training to meet one (or all) of these criteria.

Tight nosebands points of pressure
A noseband pressures on many sensitive tissues and the effect on the various structures has a direct influence on the horse’s biomechanics.

Balance

Let’s start with balance. A horse needs to be balanced to carry the rider and maintain coordination and a proper connection. Helping horses find their balance can be difficult for riders, especially when the horses are young.

It takes time for a horse to learn how to stay balanced under the weight of the rider. And it is not surprising that the first contact issues show up during the early periods of their training. In fact, very tight nosebands are common in FEI young horse competitions.

The young horse is not born knowing how to respond to the bit and bridle so, movement in the mouth (oral behaviours) is quite normal while the horse is learning the meaning of the rein aids.

The problem is that as soon as the horse has some idea of ‘steering’ and ‘brakes’, their riders forget they also need to develop the physical capacity to maintain their balance under the rider during turns and transitions.

People get impatient and fall for shortcuts and quick fixes as soon as their horse leans against the bit (gets heavy), moves the tongue, moves their head around or opens their mouth too wide as they struggle to respond to the rider and maintain their balance. This is the time when many riders and trainers tighten the noseband.

Unfortunately, with a tighter noseband, the horse starts to feel more ‘stable’ and ‘straight’. This is where the rider’s mind gets confused: If it feels this much better after tightening the noseband, it can’t be that bad, can it?

The good feelings help us forget about all the studies that have shown the very sensitive structures that are being directly affected by tight nosebands like the skin, muscles, blood vessels, nerves, fasciae, bones, etc., as well as the mental stress of all putting up with all the discomfort and pressure.

There should be space all around the noseband
There should be space all around the noseband

To make matters worse, your instructor or someone you trust to know better than you, will validate your feelings and congratulate you on the ‘improvement’ in your horse’s way of going, all of which makes you think tightening was the correct thing to do.

A major personal frustration for me in the Netherlands is that even bit fitters (of course, not ICPBC accredited) are strapping nosebands really tight. This is why I am so passionate about proper education in bit and bridle fitting.

There are, of course, reasons why the rider feels the horse is more balanced and stable with a tighter noseband, but none of them are beneficial to the horse.

Tightening the noseband will restrict normal function and influence many biomechanial aspects.

Tightening the nose strap restricts the caudo-rostral movement (dropping down) of the mandible that is necessary (and natural) for the horse to lower the head correctly. Thus, with a tight noseband, the horse might stay in a higher posture, more resembling of a competition frame, something that is unfortunately seen as a benefit but is not correct or healthy for the horse’s stage of training.

In a high competition frame, the young horse looks  collected and in ‘self-carriage’ but, in fact, he is being propped or carried by the rider’s hand.

Without allowing for the gliding motion in the jaw joints (the temporomandibular joint or TMJ), the horse will compensate by overworking other areas. A tight jaw will result in a tight neck and a tighter body, and on a young, unbalanced horse, the picture you see is a false balance.

The horse does not become suddenly balanced, he is just shortening his frame by tightening his muscles and therefore, losing suppleness and flexibility.

Walking in his shoes

To help horse owners understand that this short cut is neither comfortable nor sustainable long-term, I sometimes compare tight nosebands to wearing shoes that are a size too small.

This metaphor has been used by others and I like it because, when you imagine wearing those tight shoes, you might empathise with the horse and you may agree that they would make you run slower and pay attention to where you put your feet.

The next step is asking yourself whether this stilted movement classifies as balance and contributes to the overall physical and mental development that is required to produce an elite athlete…

A dynamic, interconnected system

When used improperly, the noseband restricts the tongue’s movement which influences swallowing and restricts the function of the hyoid apparatus.

The hyoid apparatus has a huge influence on the horse’s breathing and biomechanics because it is a junction for a number of muscles that connect the horse’s entire body – such as the omohyoid that connects with the sub-scapular fasciae and the sternohyoid which connects the tongue with the sternum in the horse’s thorax.

You can learn more about the anatomy and function of the hyoid apparatus in the article by Dr Lesley Goff on pages 44-51 of this magazine.

This muscle chain has a huge influence on stride length and restricting its function will have deleterious effects on your horse’s development that, you may not notice immediately but are sure to arise.

When you skip or shortcut the criteria of balance, all you are doing is delaying the appearance of problems. This is a subject that is too large to discuss in this article, but I hope will make you think differently about the idea that, just because something ‘feels good’ doesn’t mean it is good in the long-term.

 Strength

Another criteria of good training is the development of weight-carrying strength. Horses need tremendous strength in order to transfer the weight from their front legs towards their hind legs – what we call ‘collection’. We should expect that developing enough strength will take several years of careful training.

Most horses will show contact issues because they lack the strength to perform in the way we require. With this in mind, when your horse leans against the bit and maybe opens the mouth, he is simply telling you he is not strong enough, not ready yet.

When the noseband is tightened, the skin under the strap and the fleshy inside of the cheeks is pressed against the teeth. Equine dentists can show you images of ulcerated wounds on the inside of the mouth caused by nosebands pushing the lining of the mouth against the sharp edges of the molars. And while dental care is very important, we should also not tighten the noseband.

When you look at the upper and lower jaws of the horse, you will see the upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw. This means that, even without sharp points on the molars, the inside of the cheeks will still be compressed against the upper jaw, creating discomfort to the horse.

A false frame

Some horses will try to move away from noseband pressure by moving the head  towards the rider, which creates a shorter frame and a false sense of security.

Because the horse is not ‘pulling’ or leaning against the bit anymore, the rider might think he is more comfortable when he isn’t. He is simply trying to avoid the oral pain by over bending.

This shorter frame is not generated from the back end of the horse, it is just a way to reduce the amount of contact (rein tension) which does give the rider a lighter feel in the hand but at the expense of dropping the sternum down (remember the connection between the tongue and the sternum), and creating more extension in the back as he loses the capacity to bring the hind legs under the body.

Even though it feels better and lighter, the horse’s body is not working better and this has consequences on the whole horse’s biomechanics.

We should not exclusively consider the opening of the mouth as something the horse does to avoid the rein aids. We should look at all contact issues like opening the mouth, pulling or leaning on the bit as feedback from the horse that means our schooling and training is either incorrect or our horse is just not balanced and strong enough yet to perform the exercises we are asking for.

Flexibility

Ultimately, it is up to the human to make the change. If we want to change the rider’s behaviour from choosing tight nosebands to a looser noseband, the best way is to show this in another criteria of good dressage; flexibility.

A part of flexibility is the ability for the horse to perform lateral flexion (bend). Many riders like to use lateral flexions as a means of suppling their horses. If you find you are struggling with this and your horse does not seem flexible, ask yourself if your noseband could be too tight. This is a very common problem.

Just as I explained above, restricting the movement of the tongue and jaw places the TMJ under a stress that will cascade down a tight neck. The horse will seem fine in a straight line, but will not be able to bend laterally.

I think it is particularly sad to see riders and their instructors struggling and using stronger aids to force the horse to bend through the neck, when the tight noseband is restricting the horse’s range of rotation and lateral motion. Loosening the noseband is a better solution.

To get this idea across to riders, I often show them an exercise they can do to help them feel what a blocked TMJ does to their own range of motion. Watch the video below and try it for yourself.

Longer is shorter

Unfortunately, riders who prefer to skip the balance, strength and flexibility criteria during their horse’s training will be masking over many basic training problems. Inevitably, these will show up sometime down the track and require going right back to basics.

Working on balance, strength and flexibility with a long-term view will be much more rewarding in the end – the reward being a much happier, healthier and free-moving horse that travels in self-carriage and responds to light aids, achieving higher scores in competition and becoming a pleasure to ride.

Let the contact issues that arise during your training become the signposts that inform you of the areas that need more work and/or time.

Loosen your noseband to give your horse the opportunity to speak and be heard – if you listen, you will know when you can progress your training further or your horse needs more time.

I can assure you that this is the right way to train, that avoiding shortcuts will actually save you time in the longer term and that both you and your horse will definitely feel better about your relationship.


This article, Tight Nosebands: A ‘Feel-good’ Shortcut to Nowhere, was published in the July-August 2020 issue of Horses and People Magazine.

Natascha van Eijk ICPBC
Natascha Van Eijk

Natascha is the founder of the International College of Bitfit Consultants (ICPBC). She has made a fulltime profession of bit fit consulting and educating people about bit-related problems. From the Netherlands, she is also a specialist in muscle therapy and manipulation of the spine, which she uses during bit fit consulting. Her main mission is to improve horses’ welfare by educating horse professionals but also horse owners (by writing articles and giving lectures) about the importance of a correct contact with the bit and how to avoid problems of poor bit fitting.

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