At their recent National Conference, Dressage New Zealand (DNZ) voted to amend the noseband rule which now states: "It must be possible to place one finger comfortably between the noseband and the nasal planum (front of the nose)".
Whilst not quite the two-finger spacing that was originally submitted by North Island Riders Representative Alicia Zeludlko and Jody Hartstone with the support of area group Dressage Bay of Plenty, changing the place where noseband tightness is checked is a huge step in the right direction towards welfare improvements in their sport.
The rule change process began at the annual North Island riders meeting in April and a remit was submitted to the DNZ planning meeting, where it was initially rejected on technical reasons.
The original remit asked for the use of the standardised, objective gauge (known as the ISES noseband taper gauge) by all DNZ stewards to limit the tightness to two fingers spacing between the strap and the horse's nasal bone. However, and unlike most other countries, DNZ rules do not include compulsory gear checks and the committee deemed that a rule based on the mandatory use of the ISES taper gauge by all DNZ stewards would be unworkable.
Nevertheless, there were no objections to reviewing the noseband rule and, in order to advance the cause, the committee appointed Rules Officer Scott McKenna, Riders Rep Alicia Zeludlko and dressage rider and veterinarian Susan Tomlin to "consider a fair way to measure the tightness of all types of nosebands in consideration of the welfare of the horse and re-present a new rule at the conference to reflect this."
The sub-committee re-worded the rule, lowered the tightness limit to just one finger spacing and removed references to any standardised gauge, something that still allows individual stewards freedom to choose whether they will use their finger or the ISES taper gauge when checking noseband tightness.
The new rule will come into effect on August 1st and, although it will not be applicable at FEI level competitions, it will be enforced at all other DNZ competitions across the country.
Why the need for a rule change?
While many people learned in their early pony club days that a noseband was correctly adjusted if it was possible to slide two-fingers between the strap and the nose (or the jaw bones), the FEI removed the 'two-finger' guideline from their rule books stating it was too imprecise because of the variation in finger size between individual stewards.
Far from protecting horse welfare, the current FEI rule, which simply states "nosebands should not be so tightly adjusted as to cause the horse harm", has allowed nosebands to become tighter and tighter. Furthermore, the current recommendation to FEI stewards for checking noseband tightness is to insert a finger on the side of the face, a method which contradicts all recommendations and is shown to be completely ineffective due to the soft tissues in that area of the cheeks.
Welfare and equitation science researchers have warned about the potential for increased stress, pain, blood flow restriction, tissue and nerve damage caused by tight straps, not just around the nose but the sides of the face (internally as well as externally), and the poll. There are also reports of bone remodelling at the site of the noseband straps.
In order to provide an objective and precise measure, the International Society for Equitation Science designed and manufactured a taper gauge to mimic the average circumference of two adult fingers (which is 97.92mm). The gauge has a smooth flat surface that easily slides under the noseband strap when it is correctly adjusted. The society also made the design open source and will provide the drawings and production files to organisations who are willing to manufacture their own. Despite this, horse sports governing bodies are yet to adopt or recommend their use.
A study by Doherty et al. measured noseband adjustment of 750 horses competing at FEI events in showjumping, eventing, dressage and young horse classes. It showed that only 7% of nosebands allowed the ISES taper gauge to be inserted to the two-finger mark and 44% had nosebands tightened to such an extent that it was not possible to insert the ISES taper gauge under the noseband (classified as 'zero fingers').
A more recent Danish study of over 3000 competition horses showed that tight nosebands were clearly associated with the presence of mouth lesions, a definitive finding that shows the current FEI rule (which national governing bodies follow) is not protecting horses from being harmed by tack and equipment.
The positive association between lesions at the lip commissures and upper noseband tightness is likely due to the noseband squeezing the tissues against the rostral part of premolars. If the rider applies excessive rein tension or the horse resists the action of the bit, a tight upper noseband may enhance the effect of crushing the tissues at the commissures.
The findings of this comprehensive study led the Danish Riding Federation to immediately amend their rules and adopt a standardised gauge that sets a tightness limit for all nosebands across all disciplines.
In the study by Fenner et al., naïve horses showed signs of physiological stress when nosebands were progressively tightened from two fingers, to one, to none. Wearing a noseband with no area available underneath it, demonstrated an increased heart rate, decreased heart rate variability and increased eye temperature compared to when wearing a noseband fitted with half, or more, the conventional recommended area underneath.
It is interesting to note that this study also provides evidence that was overlooked by DNZ when changing the original remit from two fingers to one. The official statement given by DNZ representative Scott McKenna that "the scientific literature shows one finger is adequate" is inaccurate, particularly if we are to consider the horse's perspective.
Indeed, Fenner et al. showed that tightening the noseband from a two finger gap down to a one finger gap significantly reduced the amount of licking, chewing and swallowing a horse could perform. Licking, chewing and swallowing are normal oral comfort behaviours, and on animal welfare grounds, comfort behaviours should never be restricted.
The research also showed evidence of Post Inhibitory Rebound Effect - meaning that when the tighter noseband was removed, the rate of chewing and swallowing increased significantly. This shows there was a build-up in motivation for engaging in these behaviours during the time when the horses were physically prevented from doing them. While Post Inhibitory Rebound effect is not well understood amongst the public, it is one of the most important measures welfare scientists use to ascertain how important certain behaviours are to the animal.
This study received unfair criticism from those who questioned the use of naïve horses (horses who had not previously worn a noseband) on the basis that horses become habituated to the equipment over time, however and in terms of animal welfare, in the same way that caged laying hens do not become habituated to being prevented from engaging in natural behaviours like dirt scratching, dust bathing and nesting, it is highly unlikely that horses would habituate to being restricted from chewing and swallowing. Evidence of Post Inhibitory Rebound Effect is the way to show the animal is more likely to be 'putting up' with the procedure rather than habituating to it.
Jody Harstone who initiated the remit says this was the right time to effect change: "It has been like the perfect storm. We had the results from the Danish study and Eurodressage has been very good at promoting all the noseband articles and raising awareness. We've then had all the other incidents in the media, like the whipping at Badminton. It all just comes together at the right time where people say, actually, this is a small step we can take to make a difference.
"What was impressive was how much the original story that Eurodressage published was shared all around the world, then, when I put up a post to say the rule had been changed it was shared more than 1,000 times! There are so many people who want this change to happen. It's unbelievable.
"Over the years I've seen dressage develop and it's very different to what it was 20 years ago. I think the opposition from riders to loosening nosebands is because they are worried they are going to lose marks. I'm sure that, at times, in the past, I've tightened my horse's noseband or curb too much but, once I became involved with ISES and Equitation Science International I started to realise just how wrong it is and, with the studies done so far you see just how much it does influence the horse.
"I think that even though we only achieved one finger it is still a big difference to what we had before and, if nothing else, it has created a lot more awareness around the topic and that has to be a good thing. I would like to fundraise to buy some ISES taper gauges to give to our stewards and I think they will use them."
So far, the Danish Riding Federation and DNZ are the only sports governing bodies to have responded with rule changes to the mounting evidence of the prevalence and damage caused by tight nosebands, although similar initiatives are underway in many countries backed by huge public support.
"I am hoping the FEI will be changing their rules soon as this will then cover the FEI competitions held in New Zealand" says Jody. "I hope the change filters up to that level in the near future."