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Tight nosebands: Do equestrian sports have a welfare problem?

Noseband tightness on bridles is a much debated topic. There could be many reasons why the riders might feel that they need to apply a particular degree of tightness when it comes to nosebands. A recent survey found that many riders use a noseband as a way to stop the horse from opening the mouth or to prevent the tongue from coming out of the mouth or to enhance control [1]. This would indicate that nosebands are often used as a ‘correction device’ and to control an undesirable behaviour. However, when there is no space between the noseband and the nasal plane, horses show signs of physiological stress and compromised welfare [2].

How often are nosebands fastened too tightly

Typically, horse riding manuals would recommend a 2-finger space between the noseband and the nasal bone. But is this guideline followed? 

Noseband fit in dressage and event horse in the UK and Belgium (2017)

In 2017, a group of researchers used the International Science for Equitation Science (ISES) Taper Gauge (picture below) to estimate the tightness of the nosebands in a group of mostly dressage and event horses from Ireland, UK and Belgium (750 horses in total) [3]. They found that only 7% of horses had a noseband fitted according to the ‘2-finger’ rule and 44% of horses had no space under the noseband. The noseband tightness was also higher in event horse than in dressage horses and performance hunters. 

The ISES Taper Gauge used for measuring noseband tightness in the studies mentioned in this blog.
(Source: International Society for Equitation Science)

Noseband fit in Dutch dressage and show jumping horses (2019)

More recent study from 2019 used the same Taper Gauge in 50 dressage and 50 show jumping horses in The Netherlands [4]. They found that 59% of the horse had their noseband fitted according to the 2-finger rule. In contrast to [3], only 4% had nosebands fitted so tightly that the Taper Gauge could not be used under the noseband at all. Interestingly, they also found a higher proportion of dressage horses (37 out of 50) had the noseband fitted according to the 2-finger rule compared to the show jumpers (22 out of 50). In addition, they observed increasingly tighter nosebands as the competition level increased – but this was the case only for the show jumping horses and not for the dressage horses.

Noseband fit in horses competing in various disciplines in Canada (2022)

The latest study on noseband tightness [5] evaluated 551 horses from Canada competing in dressage (52%), in hunter/jumper disciplines (22%), in eventing (11%) and in other disciplines (14%). This study identified even higher percentage of horses presenting with nosebands fitted according to the 2-finger guideline (71%) – certainly a positive trend. However, there was still a small number of horses (10%) with noseband fitted so tightly that there was no space for the Taper Gauge. Unfortunately, this study did not evaluate the noseband fit for the different disciplines. It would have been interesting to see if the dressage riders in this group were also the most compliant with the noseband fit guidelines as shown in the two earlier studies.

Is fitting of nosebands heading in the right direction?

Based on these 3 studies, it certainly seems that there is greater awareness of what a correct fit of a noseband should be. From 2017 to 2022 the number of correctly fitted nosebands increased from 7% to 71% which is certainly a positive trend (note – although these were populations from different countries so not directly comparable). The dressage riders appear to be more compliant with these rules compared to show jumpers or eventers so perhaps more education or compulsory noseband checks at competitions are required to shift away from the use of restrictive nosebands.


References:

[1] Clayton, H.M., Williams, J.M., 2022. Know your noseband: An exploration of factors that influence riders’ choice of noseband. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 47, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2021.09.008

[2] Fenner, K., Yoon, S., White, P., Starling, M., McGreevy, P., 2016. The Effect of Noseband Tightening on Horses’ Behavior, Eye Temperature, and Cardiac Responses. PLOS ONE 11, e0154179. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0154179

[3] Doherty, O., Casey, V., McGreevy, P., Arkins, S., 2017. Noseband Use in Equestrian Sports – An International Study. PLOS ONE 12, e0169060. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0169060

[4] Visser, E.K., Kuypers, M.M.F., Stam, J.S.M., Riedstra, B., 2019. Practice of Noseband Use and Intentions towards Behavioural Change in Dutch Equestrians. Animals 9, 1131. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9121131

[5] Merkies, K., Copelin, C., Small, N., Young, J., 2022. Noseband Fit: Measurements and Perceptions of Canadian Equestrians. Animals 12, 2685. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12192685

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