The Science About Tight Nosebands
Anyone who has spent time on the internet has heard that “horse bits aren’t harsh unless used with harsh hands.” But here’s the thing about using tight nosebands – it’s always harsh. Constant harshness, as the pressure applied is tight and unyielding, unlike using a bit. This is a horse welfare issue, and luckily, there’s SCIENCE that has started to collect and analyze data about tight nosebands.
What do nosebands do?
- The most apparent thing nosebands do is keep your horse’s mouth shut. This prevents your horse’s jaw and mouth from opening to evade the bit pressure. Some horses will open their mouths like dinosaurs, others will cross their jaws, and some horses can even flip their tongues over the bit.
- Nosebands are also anchor points for standing martingales. I’ve seen some particularly horrible nosebands with tiny tacks in them, over the nasal bones. When attached to a martingale, any upward lifting of the horse’s head results in a stabbing.
- Nosebands also restrict tongue movements, and in some cases, the soft tissues of your horse’s inner cheek become limited as well. Tight nosebands often squish the inner cheeks into and against the teeth, creating sores and wounds on the inside of the mouth and cheeks.
This is a plain cavesson! The brown color and stitching suggest it’s for the hunter ring.
Types of nosebands
- The plain cavesson noseband is the simplest in design. It’s a leather band positioned about two fingers’ width below the cheekbone. The buckle is simple but can still tighten too much.
- Crank nosebands are also plain in design, but their closing mechanism is different; the extra-long leather loops through a ring and then back to a buckle. The loop allows someone to tighten the noseband using leverage. Most are padded, but does that balance out the intense tightening that can happen?
- Flash nosebands attach to the cavesson in the middle of the nose and drop down to wrap around your horse’s lips, below the bit. It can connect to a plain or crank noseband. Using a flash noseband allows a rider to restrict the mouth with both the noseband and flash and anchor a standing martingale to the cavesson.
- For the double bridles that dressage horses wear, there is not a flash. Usually. Some riders use a flash attachment to wrap below the two bits to keep the mouth closed.
- Dropped nosebands are a sort of hybrid between a flash and a plain cavesson. The noseband is lower, but still over the nasal bone, and the back half of the dropped noseband sweeps under the bit.
- Figure 8 bridles are often seen in the jumper ring and on cross country. From the front, they look like a big X on your horse’s face, with the center of the X resting a bit higher than a plain noseband. The top sections of the X attach below the eyes and the bottom of the X loop around the lips like a flash. The theory is that these allow more air through the nostrils and don’t press cheeks into teeth as much.
This figure 8 is snug, and missing the usual fleece under the intersection of the noseband and flash.
The scientific studies about nosebands
This famous study puts the pressure of a tight noseband into a painful perspective!
An Objective Measure of Noseband Tightness and Its Measurement Using a Novel Digital Tightness Gauge Read the full study here.
- Here, researchers measured the pressure applied by nosebands, using numerical values that correspond to units of pressure. For comparison’s sake, 250 mm Hg of pressure is the same as a painful tourniquet, designed to stop blood flow completely.
- This study found that nosebands produced between 200 and 400 mm HG. At these levels, nerve damage happens, not to mention the lack of blood flow.
- The authors also discuss the seemingly helpful practice of adding padding or using a wider noseband to distribute the pressure. When looking at tourniquet studies, blood clots occur at lower pressures when the tourniquet is wide. The authors also discuss that padding may push more soft tissue and inner cheeks into the horse’s teeth.
Another study looked at the physiological responses of horses when wearing a tightened noseband.
The Effect of Noseband Tightening on Horses’ Behavior, Eye Temperature, and Cardiac Responses. Read the complete report here.
- Horses who had never worn a double bridle were used in the study to eliminate any horse that might have become acclimated to wearing a double bridle.
- This was a small study of only 12 horses, and grouped into categories based on the tightness of the noseband. One group did not have a noseband, one group had two fingers of space under the noseband, another with one finger of space, and the last group had no space under the noseband.
- Researches measured a horse’s heart rate, which increased during stress. Heart rate variability (HRV) was also measured, which looks at the different durations between heartbeats. Stressful situations decrease HRV. Lastly, researchers measured eye temperature. An increase in eye temperatures also indicates stress and correlates to increased cortisol levels in saliva, also a stress indicator.
- Results show that horses with tight nosebands had an increased heart rate, a decreased HRT, and increased eye temperatures – indicating stress.
- The researchers also documented behaviors observed as the nosebands increased in tightness. Both chewing and swallowing decreased as the nosebands became tighter, and yawning and licked disappeared.
- There are things to further explore from this study. How much of the results were influenced by pain and discomfort versus the inability to move?
- It’s also interesting to note that researchers discuss what happens in the mouth as nosebands tighten. The noseband restricts tongue movement, making the evasion of bit pressure disappear. The horse then becomes more sensitive to rein pressure, creating false responsiveness.
The horse’s skin around the corners of his mouth is pulled and squished. The cavesson is also being pulled down – it should be horizontal.
Now for some science about nosebands in competition.
Noseband Use in Equestrian Sports – An International Study Read this study here.
- Now let’s look at an oft-quoted study from 2017. This sweeping study included 750 competitive horses in several disciplines.
- The researchers used a taper gauge, a wedge that slides under the noseband in the front, to measure the room between the nasal planum and the noseband. The taper gauge is suggested by the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES) as a measuring device. The wedge measures distance as it relates to fingers, ranging from zero fingers (no space at all), to two finger’s width.
- Almost HALF of the horses (44%) had nosebands so tight the taper gauge couldn’t be inserted. Only 7% of the horses had the breathing room of two fingers. The remaining horses were somewhere in the middle.
What do nosebands do to the actual bones in a horse’s face? Well, we have research to look at.
An opportunistic pilot study of radiographs of equine nasal bones at the usual site of nosebands. Read it here.
- Scientists looked at the x-rays of 60 horses, looking for changes in the nasal bone. The study wasn’t entirely conclusive, mainly because the equipment and techniques used for the radiographs varied from horse to horse. This leaves the door open for a wide range of interpretations.
- However, there were enough horses with changes to their skulls to warrant further investigation.
There’s a lot going on here. You can see gaps along the sides of the flash, but that doesn’t mean it’s not tight across the nasal bone.
But, we’re in luck! There’s another study that looks at bony changes possibly due to nosebands.
Prevalence and Distribution of Lesions in the Nasal Bones and Mandibles of a Sample of 144 Riding Horses Read the study here.
- This study looked at 144 horses, and examined their facial bone structures via x-ray, and by palpating and visualizing them. Two radiologists, working independently, had some interesting data to share!
- Almost 38% of the horses showed changes to the nasal bone on x-ray. Almost 14% of the horses showed changes to the mandible (jaw bone) on x-ray.
- They go on to discuss the occurrence of bone deposition, the process of bone crystallization. Minerals from the blood deposit on the bone. Bone thinning was also found.
- For the horses in this study, about 83% had palpable bone disposition of the nasal bone and about 33% showed bone thinning in the same area.
- In the jaw bones, bone deposition showed up in about 31% of the horses, and almost 11% had palpable bone thinning.
Now let’s look at a study that included 3,143 horses.
Read the summary of the study here from one of the participating scientists.
- This is like the mothership of data about nosebands. And there’s quite a lot to unpack!
- In this study, there’s a possible relationship between tight nosebands and injuries to mouth corners. The results also show a correlation between bitless bridles and sores in the corners of the mouth!
- As a horse has more freedom to open his mouth, this creates more surface area for the bit to be maneuvered by the rider’s hands into the mouth corners. For horses without nosebands, sores in the mouth corners were more likely than horses with nosebands.
- I promise I quadruple-checked the previous sentences. It doesn’t make total sense, but it actually does.
- The study suggests that the tighter the noseband for horses with nosebands, the more lesions were found. As the noseband gets more restrictive, more soft tissue is crammed into smaller spaces with teeth, leather, and bits.
Lots of bridles don’t have nosebands to start with!
Food for thought about tight nosebands
- A little background on why this is so fascinating to me. As a dressage groom, I worked with some of the sport’s greats, and many tightened the SNOT out of their horse’s nosebands, and sometimes curb chains, too. This never sat well with me, but I didn’t know as much as I do now.
- Another tidbit of wisdom entered my brain – the use of the word evasion in dressage. A horse that opens his mouth or sticks out the tongue is thought to be evading the bit. Why is the response forcing it shut? This defeats the entire purpose of harmony with your horse.
- A horse that can’t open his mouth is in a constant state of negative pressure. Positive reinforcement is rewarding good movements; negative reinforcement is the removal of the aid as a response to a correct reaction from your horse. A horse can’t do anything about the noseband. It’s a constant.
- I also wondered why a rider would want to shut off a horse’s way of communicating. An open mouth is your horse’s way of telling you something isn’t fair or correct. A horse ridden classically from the hind leg, over the back, who willingly takes the bridle, will have a closed mouth that is soft and responsive. By lashing the bridle tightly, the horse loses the ability to tell you to ride better. There’s no partnership there, only domination.
- Fast forward a few years and I’m chatting with an amazing vet with expertise in biomechanics. She’s also delightfully kind and willing to humor me as I pepper her with questions! After I asked her about nosebands, she said to me that the lower jaw needs to slide as a horse approaches the vertical head position. How is that even possible when the noseband cranks shut?
- About this same time, Migs had been enjoying his semi-retirement as a glorified trail horse with a loose noseband. I felt pretty good about my decision to never tighten another noseband, under any circumstance. Then at some point, I also get pretty lazy about cleaning tack. Honestly, permanently removing that cavesson seemed like a legit way to save time cleaning tack.
- While there may be an increased chance of Miguel developing a lesion or sore because of a missing cavesson, he’s not ridden with contact. I also installed an emergency brake so he will stop on a dime if needed. I simply scream Dammit Migs and he’s right back with me, no pulling required.
For most riders, a noseband is a valuable piece of equipment. When used loosely, it provides bit stability and a pleasant picture. When use tightly, there is no benefit. You miss out on opportunities to learn from your horse’s body language, and your horse’s body and mind will never benefit.
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