By: Antonia J.Z. Henderson, Ph.D.

Research says it’s time to tighten the rules and loosen the nosebands.

Thumbnail for Noseband Science: How Tight is Too Tight for Your Horse?

I am an amateur rider. I have a tendency toward right arm rigor mortis that no amount of coaching has corrected, and when that right arm locks up, my horse opens her mouth and crosses her jaw. She is a dressage horse and this not okay. So I tighten the noseband and close her mouth. This too is not okay.

The research is clear. My horse’s noseband is too tight. It is at the very least causing my horse discomfort, probably pain, undoubtedly stress, and possibly physiological damage.

Are nosebands on horse bridles really that tight?

I am somewhat comforted in that I am not alone with my overtightened noseband. This practice has been exacerbated by the introduction of the crank noseband and its leverage buckle which allows nosebands to be excessively tightened with much less force (and possibly awareness) than the traditional cavesson.

In 2017, equine scientist Orla Doherty and her research group in Ireland tested 750 horses competing nationally and internationally under FEI regulations across eventing, dressage, and performance hunter. These researchers used the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES) recommended “taper gauge,” a plastic wedge that can be inserted under the noseband on the front of the nose that precisely and consistently measures the space between the nasal planum and the noseband, from the ISES-recommended two-finger width to one finger or no fingers. Doherty found that 44% of horses had nosebands tightened to zero fingers, where the taper gauge could not be inserted under the noseband and only 7% were adjusted to the recommended two-finger space. The remainder fell somewhere in between.

Are tight nosebands harmful to horses?

Since we cannot interview horses and ask them how their nosebands feel, we cannot unequivocally say that tight nosebands are causing pain. However, there is fairly convincing evidence that this is probably so. Vincent Casey and colleagues (2013) found that peak noseband pressures exceeded those applied when using a tourniquet, which in humans restricts arterial blood flow and causes significant pain and potential nerve damage. Human guidelines place the upper extremity of tolerable, but painful, tourniquet pressure to be 250 mm Hg. Yet the pressure on nasal bones by nosebands ranges between 200 and 400 mm Hg (Casey et al., 2013;
Fenner et al., 2016). Overtightened nosebands are also associated with ulcers inside the mouth when noseband pressure pushes the inner soft tissue into sharp molars (McGreevy, 2012) and lesions on lips and tongues (Uldahl & Clayton, 2019).

Horses wearing tight nosebands, even while at rest, have demonstrated physiological stress responses such as increased heart rate, decreased heart rate variability, increased eye temperature (Fenner et al., 2016), and decreases in the facial skin temperature, suggesting restricted blood flow to the face (McGreevy, 2012). Tight nosebands also compromise welfare by preventing horses from performing normal oral comfort behaviours such as chewing, licking, yawning, and tongue resalivation (Fenner et al., 2016; McGreevy, 2012). Equine researcher Kate Fenner comments that elevated stress responses may arise because of not being able to perform these behaviours, from pain, or from a combination of both.

There is even evidence that excessively tight nosebands may cause physiological damage to equine nasal bones. Fiona Crago and colleagues (2019) had independent radiologists examine 60 archived radiographs of equine skulls for changes in the nasal bone. Although the specialists were not in total agreement as to whether nasal bone changes were within normal range or radiograph abnormalities, Crago noted that there was sufficient evidence from these initial findings to pursue research on the possible relationship between tight nosebands and bone damage.

Wider padded nosebands do compensate for greater discomfort by distributing the pressure on the nasal bones over a wider area. However, human studies have indicated that the wider the tourniquet, the greater the obstruction of blood flow. Wider nosebands also increase the surface area that pushes the cheeks into the molars. Padding that is added to alleviate the pressure of an overtightened noseband in fact exacerbates the problem by pushing more of the cheek against the teeth (McGreevy, 2017). Equine scientist Paul McGreevy comments that no amount of padding counters the negative effects of a crank noseband, and padding is completely unnecessary if the cavesson is fitted correctly.

Tight nosebands may also be psychologically harmful by placing the horse in a situation of inescapable and unrelenting excessive pressure. The key mechanism for training horses under saddle is the pressure and release that underpins negative reinforcement. A rider applies rein pressure, the horse responds by slowing the gait, the pressure is released, and the horse is rewarded through the removal of that pressure. With no release, the horse is instead punished for offering the correct response. An overly-tight noseband could potentially make horses vulnerable to the severely depressed state of ‘learned helplessness.’ When no offered response will relieve the aversive event, an animal eventually shuts down, endures the pain, and gives up trying (Seligman, 1972).

What is being done about tight nosebands in equestrian sports?

Sadly, few governing bodies of equestrian sports assess and regulate noseband tightness. The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) has made some small steps, stating in their 2019 dressage rules that “at any level of competition a noseband may never be so tightly fixed that it causes harm to the horse” and that stewards must check nosebands. According to the steward’s manual, “the tightness check must be done with the steward’s index finger between the horse’s cheek and the noseband” and that “ideally the finger size of stewards appointed for the noseband check at different competitions throughout the event shall be of similar size.”

McGreevy and colleagues (2012) note that variability in finger size between men and women, how far the fingers are inserted, and where the measurement is taken allow for considerable variability. Of particular note is that nosebands can be excessively tightened to the point where physiological stress responses are activated and blood flow is restricted, while still being able to insert one finger at the side of the horse’s face (Doherty et al. 2017b, McGreevy et al., 2012).

Rather than adopt the two-finger space measured with a standardized taper gauge at the front of the nasal bone as recommended in the position statement developed by ISES, the FEI came up with an ineffectual compromise that violates their edict that a noseband should never be so tightly fixed that it causes harm to the horse.

What should be done about tight nosebands in equestrian sports?

The FEI needs to step up
Rather than blindly hoping that stewards will have similar-sized fingers, the standardized taper gauge designed by ISES needs to be adopted. Furthermore, all researchers agree that this measurement needs to be taken on the front of the horse’s face (e.g., McGreevy, 2012). Denmark, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Sweden have all recently adopted the ISES taper gauge to measure noseband tightness at FEI dressage competitions and are enforcing a one- or two-finger ruling between the noseband and nasal planum.

Dressage has been the target discipline for the noseband controversy, but it is by no means the only discipline where tight nosebands occur. In her International study of FEI competition horses, Doherty found the tightest nosebands in eventing. Indeed, we might commend the FEI dressage rules for at least addressing the noseband issue, however unsuccessfully. Neither eventing (in any of the three disciplines), nor show jumping has made any attempt to regulate noseband tightness. Nor does Equestrian Canada address noseband tightness for hunters and equitation classes. These disciplines also need to step up and introduce standardized measurement and enforcement using the ISES taper gauge.

Dressage needs to rethink the “Submission” score
Ironically, the dressage submission score, intended to safeguard the horse’s welfare, may be at the root of overtightened nosebands. The FEI rules stress that “submission does not mean subordination, but an obedience … willingness … harmony, lightness and ease” and an accepting of the bit “with a light and soft contact.” Opening the mouth, pushing out the tongue, or rolling it up behind the bit are all mentioned as resistances that would lower the submission score. Judges unable to gauge noseband tension from their vantage point and seeing what appears to be a quiet mouth may inadvertently reward the very behaviours (tension, resistance, lack of acceptance of the aids, etc.) that the rules are intended to penalize. This may be the key reason that the submission score shows the lowest reliability across judges of all the collective marks (McGreevy, 2012).

The FEI needs to make double bridles optional
McGreevy (2015) notes that most horses have very little room in their mouths for a bit, let alone two bits. When a bit is present, the soft tissues in the mouth are compressed; this compression is potentially doubled when two bits are present and more still with a restrictive noseband. When the action of the reins are added, this compression is considerable. Double bridles are compulsory at the FEI higher levels, a ruling that may indeed run counter to the FEI’s goal that “the welfare of the horse is paramount.” McGreevy’s group found that seasoned horses familiar with wearing a double bridle at rest in a familiar environment and with familiar caretakers still showed increased physiological stress responses when tacked up with a double bridle. Bit restrictions prohibiting less bit are archaic, illogical, and contradict the FEI’s goals of ensuring the horse’s welfare above all else.

I need to become a better rider
As for me, researching this article has forced me to confront the potential harm of tight nosebands. Adding padding to a too-tight noseband is a fitting metaphor for covering up the harm I inflict on my horse with the soft padding of moral justification. It is time for me to loosen my noseband and learn to ride better.