Nosebands – how tight is too tight?

Standard equipment in English disciplines. Training equipment in western.  While nosebands are designed to prevent bit evasion, in the horse business, we’re inclined to think “If a little is good, more is better!   Are we masking bit evasion without asking WHY the horse might be resisting?

Who knows where the “two-finger rule” for fitting bridle nosebands came from? But by the results of a recent study on noseband tightness, it makes sense.

Using a standard dressage noseband and pressure sensor technology, Dr. Orla Doherty shared her research at the equitation science conference at U. of Guelph in Aug.

Her team discovered that pressure at individual sites along the horse’s face increases substantially as the noseband tightens, hole by hole. Pressures started to rise dramatically at slightly looser than one-finger tightness.  For example, they confirmed it’s much higher on the bones than on the softer tissues, which can compress in response to pressure.

“What’s more, the shape of the horse’s nose at the area under the noseband makes it particularly susceptible to high pressures. The left and right nasal bones create two ridges running down toward the nostrils, spaced a few centimeters apart, with a slight dip in the center. Between the two ridges is soft tissue. It’s the width and roundness of these bony ridges that make the difference, biomechanically…These are hard bumps that can’t move or squish or flatten out to distribute the pressure in any way….At zero-finger tightness, the pressure level was equivalent to 10 times a human limb tourniquet…We don’t have studies on how horses feel pain in this area, but we can only assume that it must hurt, and probably quite a lot.” Dr. Orla Doherty

My summary from her presentation:

  • the point isn’t to get rid of nosebands, but rather to change the way we use them and, in particular, how much we tighten them.
  • as knowledge on noseband tightness expands, horses might start to benefit from more precise training rather than reliance on training tack to “fix” unwanted behaviors such as a gaping mouth
  • “Clamping it down is not the answer,” she said. Instead using learning theory and aids that are very clear and effectively executed so a horse understands what a bit cue is.

The International Society of Equitation Science responded to the dilemma of cranking nosebands in equine sport with a study and by designing a noseband gauge for competition ring stewards.  Testing 737 horses at a variety of national and international competitions, 44% of nosebands were found to be too tight to insert  the taper gauge under the noseband.

“By extrapolation, this revealed that we are routinely preventing swallowing, chewing, yawning and licking in the name of sport.” I.S.E.S.