A study by the University of Sydney has prompted heated discussion about tight dressage nosebands, and whether they should be loosened.
The noseband is a standard part of any English bridle. When tightened, the noseband helps to keep the horse from opening his mouth to evade the pressure of the bit, allowing the rider to more accurately and consistently communicate with the horse through the reins.
But a recent study by the University of Sydney has drawn attention to the potential effects a tight crank noseband on a dressage bridle can have on a horse, prompting the question of whether nosebands should be loosened, or even done away with altogether.
The University of Sydney published a study in May which examined the effects a crank noseband, when used with a double bridle, can have on a horse. Twelve horses which had never before worn a double bridle received one of four different treatments.
Study subjects wore a double bridle with a noseband in four different tightness levels, the least of which involved an unbuckled noseband, and the tightest of which featured a noseband tightened so that there was no space between the horse's jaw and the noseband.
Over the course of two weeks, the horses each rotated through the different noseband settings.Their vital signs, including heart rate, eye temperature, and heart rate variability, were monitored during and after they worse the double bridle.
The study found that when horses wore the tightest noseband, they had a faster heart rate, a higher eye temperature, and a greater heart rate variability than horses did when wearing bridles with looser nosebands.
The release of the study garnered instant and heated response. Animal welfare groups, including the RSPCA, are calling for crank nosebands to be banned altogether. Spend some time on horse forums and you'll see varied responses ranging from supporting banned nosebands to encouraging improved regulation of noseband use in competition.
The move to ban crank nosebands entirely could have serious implications for the equestrian world as a whole. Let's say that animal welfare groups pursue this issue and that the equestrian world cedes to their demands, doing away with crank nosebands. This could set a precedent in which other aspects of riding come under increased scrutiny in the future.
If nosebands cause horses stress, then what about bits? What about the tightening of the girth, and the weight of a rider on a horse's back? The equestrian world may need to prepare to defend itself against other standard practices in riding.
Issues to Consider
But wait, I'm not some heartless person advocating for equipment or training methods which cause horses unnecessary stress and discomfort. I'm a lifelong horse lover, a horse owner, and a total softy when it comes to animals. I don't compete, aside from a few local schooling shows, and as far as outfitting my horse goes, I follow the adage that less is more.
That said, I have the ultimate respect for upper-level riders who are masters of their sport. These riders are better horsepeople than I have hope of ever becoming, and they know how to properly use the equipment they have to bring out the best in their horses and in themselves.
Let's not forget that in dressage competitions, the goal is to present a horse who is natural, relaxed, happy, and moving beautifully and correctly. None of that can be attained if a crank noseband is over-tightened to the point where it causes the horse distress or pain.
In the right hands, a crank noseband is a tool. It's the same as other tools which may be misused - think about what a strong bit, spurs, a whip, and even draw reins can do to a horse in the wrong hands. Yes, used incorrectly a crank noseband can certainly harm a horse. And that's why it's so important to regulate the use of such nosebands.
But regulating doesn't mean eliminating the nosebands entirely. Instead, let's come up with standards for noseband use. The "two fingers under a noseband" adjustment rule is vague and hard to apply, so let's come up with a better way to measure and assess proper noseband fit, and when "tight" may be too tight.
It's also important to realize that additional study is needed. The recently released study included only twelve horses, none of which had previously worn a double bridle before. The novelty of the bridle itself could cause an increase in stress, and while this small sampling may have produced results, a study using a greater sample size will produce more reliable and accurate results.
We know equipment can be harmful if used improperly, so we need better definitions and more research. Give riders better statistics and information on how to gauge noseband adjustment, but don't immediately move to banning nosebands. After all, we ride because we love horses, and most riders want to do better for their horses.