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Researchers Warn About Widespread Over-tightening of Nosebands

September 2016 by Cristina Wilkins, Editor-in-Chief, Horses and People Magazine

At the recent International Equitation Science Conference held in Saumur, France, new statistics were released showing competition riders are more likely to over-tighten nosebands than adjust them correctly. The traditional standard recommending nosebands are adjusted loose enough to allow two fingers to slide between the nose and the strap is being followed by just 7% of riders.

Over a period of four years, the research team, led by Irish veterinarian Dr Orla Doherty from the University of Limerick, measured and recorded the types and tightness of nosebands in national and international (FEI) level competitions mainly in eventing and  dressage, but also in performance hunter classes.

Using the ISES taper gauge, a plastic device which is designed to mimic the average size of one and two adult fingers, and can slide up under the noseband at the nasal midline, Dr Doherty and her team collected data from a total of 737 competition horses made up of: 352 eventing horses, 323 dressage horses and 62 performance hunters.

The results were classified according to the number of taper gauge ‘fingers’ that could fit under the noseband at the nasal midline and were assigned to five groups: 2 fingers, 1.5 fingers, 1 finger, 0.5 fingers and 0 fingers.

The results were as follows:

  • 7% of nosebands were fitted to the recommended 2 finger tightness
  • 19% were at 1.5 finger tightness
  • 23% were at 1-finger tightness
  • 7% were at 0.5 finger tightness
  • 44% were too tight for even the tip of the taper gauge to be inserted (zero fingers)

There were significant differences in tightness according to discipline, with nosebands in eventing classes being tighter than dressage, and dressage nosebands being tighter than performance hunter classes.

The study also looked at the types of nosebands used and which type was more likely to be tightest. Interestingly, flash style nosebands were the tightest and ‘significantly tighter than cavessons’. This should come as no surprise since the design of the flash noseband, which is by far the most popular choice for snaffle bridles, requires the cavesson part to be fairly tight to keep it in place.

Dr Doherty noted that it seems tightening is not something that happens progressively throughout a horse’s career. Nosebands in the eventing four-year-old class were slightly less tight (but not significantly so) than in the five-year-old, class but there was no significant difference in noseband tightness between the young horse classes and the older horses, showing this practice is not confined to horses at a later stage in their training, but is applied from an early stage in their career.

Noseband tightening is a relatively recent practice that, in dressage, seems to coincide with a judging trend to prioritise and reward ‘expression’ over lightness and self-carriage in the competition arena. The trend also coincides with the appearance of ‘rollkur’ or hyperflexion in the training arena.

These results highlight the lack of regulation and monitoring of noseband tightness since the FEI removed the two-finger rule from the rule books, and replaced it with the blurry and subjective caveat that the noseband shouldn’t be so tight as to harm the horse. This has left it open to riders to decide noseband adjustment and rendered stewards unable to identify how tight is too tight beyond spotting obvious, external injury.

Nosebands are openly designed and marketed for their effectiveness in reducing and/or preventing mouth opening and ‘jaw crossing’ and, as Dr Doherty noted during her presentation, are of obvious benefit to the rider, particularly in dressage when an open mouth is penalised as a ‘resistance’ or lack of ‘submission’.

Less widely known is the earlier finding by Randle et al. which showed that, when you tighten the noseband, the horse reacts to lighter rein aids. During the conference presentation Dr Doherty said: “This is also an obvious benefit for the rider that wants to control the horse with less force. The [horses] feel lighter but, quite possibly, because the tighter noseband makes them more sensitive to bit pain.”

Dr Doherty explained that underneath the noseband strap and directly affected by noseband pressure, the horse has prominent bony structures (left and right nasal bone, left and right mandibular rami) and a bulge at the location of the teeth, which are covered by soft tissue.

Between the nasal bones and the prominence of the teeth are a number of muscle groups, which control upper lip and nostril function. The nerve supply to that area also passes directly beneath the noseband, as do some important blood vessels. Nerve endings registering pain are present in the horse’s hair-covered skin and in the mucus membranes within the mouth.

As Dr Doherty said to delegates: “None of this is a huge problem if we are looking at a loose noseband but, if we are looking at a tight noseband, we need to check what is happening to those sensitive tissues”.

Although research is still fairly limited, a previous study suggested tight nosebands may impair blood supply to skin tissues. Dr Doherty used this reference to suggest a comparison between noseband pressures and those exerted by tourniquets used in human surgery, an area which is extensively researched due to the pain and long-term damage tourniquets cause when overtightened or left for too long.

Dr Doherty and her team have been trialing ways to measure noseband tightness and pressure, and have collected data, some of which she presented at an earlier (2013) Equitation Science Conference.  “We know [from our studies] that nosebands exert transient pressures well in excess of 400mm Hg”, said Dr Doherty. “We also know that, in humans, arterial blood supply is blocked off at 230mm Hg and that tissue damage can occur at pressures as low as 200mm Hg and certainly at pressures beyond that.”

Dr Doherty also highlighted a human study that subjected volunteer healthy adults to tourniquet pressures ranging from 300 to 400mm Hg. The volunteers expressed extreme levels of pain directly beneath and beyond the tourniquet placement, and half of them withdrew from the study because they could not tolerate the procedures.

There are obvious anatomical differences between a human limb and a horse’s head that warrant further investigation of any comparison between the use of a restrictive band on a limb (the tourniquet) and a restrictive band on the face (the noseband). However, Dr Doherty says the comparison is valid: “There is no evidence that horse physiology at the level of the noseband differs from humans in such a way as to make the horse less likely to experience pain from the sustained pressure of a tight noseband than that experienced by conscious humans wearing a tourniquet,” said Dr Doherty.

One clear difference between horses and humans is that horses are more likely to hide than show any sign of pain. Regular contributor to Horses and People Magazine, Dr Shannon Lee from Advanced Equine Dentistry regularly sees horses with clinical evidence of oral pain and trauma that show no outward sign whatsoever.

“As a prey species, horses frequently tolerate serious pain during riding and eating with no, or little, outward sign” said Dr Lee. “One clear problem with tight nosebands, regardless of whether their general use is shown to be painful and inhumane, applies to their use when there are any misaligned teeth or dental issues. In these horses, there is clear evidence this causes pain and trauma, which the horse is being forced into.”

Concern about the over-tightening trend led the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) to release, in 2012, a position statement warning of welfare and sports integrity concerns associated with over-tightening and recommending a return to the two-finger rule. ISES also proposed the adoption of a standardised ‘noseband taper gauge’ as an objective and fair way for competition stewards to monitor nosebands were not over-tightened in competitions.

At that time, the prospect of tightness checks caused riders to speak out and defend their practices. Carl Hester used his regular column in UK magazine Horse & Hound to state “nosebands are not a fashion accessory” and "the decision about how a noseband should be fitted should be left to the rider and trainer". Most members of the International Dressage Riders Club present at a meeting in Hagen that year signed an official letter to the FEI stating: "Stewards should not be required to officially measure the tightness of the noseband in FEI competitions".

While the FEI never officially responded to the proposal by ISES to adopt the taper gauge, they told Horses and People they found the noseband taper gauge did not guarantee objective measurement and they had no plans to introduce any changes to the rules.

Four years later, public pressure to loosen nosebands and adopt the ISES taper gauge has gained momentum. Although it was ignored, a recent online petition to the IOC to monitor tightness at the Rio Olympic Games was signed by 17,000 people. Other individual groups are gaining ground by lobbying their national equestrian federations, and demanding tightness checks and other rule changes.

It seems the tide may be turning against the riders since, in the weeks after Dr Doherty presented her data at the equitation science conference, the FEI issued a memo to all national federations asking stewards to check noseband tightness. This is despite any sign of introducing clear tightness rules, or a standardised and consistent checking system for stewards.

To add to the confusion, the FEI memo says: “It must be possible to place at least one finger between the horse’s cheek and the noseband.” It is widely accepted the most reliable place to check noseband tightness is the nasal midline. This area is a simple to follow anatomical landmark, which can ensure consistency in the measuring. Other sites, like the cheek are covered in soft tissue and are, therefore, highly deformable, meaning you can insert a finger in that area, regardless how tight the noseband is.

The FEI stand by their rules. In a statement to Horses and People, they directed us to Article 428 of the Rules for Dressage saying it contains: “clear rules for the fitting of nosebands of horses at international events”, however, Article 428 just says neither a cavesson noseband nor a curb chain may ever be as tightly fixed so as to cause the horse harm. The rules also include the types of nosebands allowed with snaffle bridles, but no measurable guidelines or limits on tightness.

They added: “Stewards officiating at FEI events check all the saddlery, including nosebands and bits, of every horse competing to ensure the rules are followed.” However, several dressage stewards have expressed publicly (see comments section of this article) they would welcome the adoption of the ISES noseband taper gauge as a standardised and consistent tool they can use on each horse to check the noseband is not too tight.

We asked if stewards would be expected to use their own finger or they would be supplied with a standardised gauge and they replied: “The FEI fully respects the research that has gone into developing alternative checks of nosebands, including the latest research into nosebands and prior research into the use of a taper gauge. However, at international competitions when horses - just like human athletes - can be highly-strung, it is felt that a physical check is still the safest and most effective method of ensuring that nosebands are fitted correctly.” In personal communication with Dr Doherty, she described encountering minimal resistance by horses to having nosebands tightness checked using the ISES taper gauge. "This wasn’t surprising as horses at competition level will have had extensive handling and training and are entirely accustomed to having people fit and adjust bridles throughout their lives. Once the taper gauge was introduced calmly, horses tolerated the use of the device extremely well." 

Without sports governing bodies reversing the rule change and reinstating the two-finger rule as a guard against over-tightening, it will be up to equitation scientists to prove ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that, like tourniquets, a tight noseband causes the horse discomfort and pain. Quite convenient since there is no reliable way to test for pain in horses. 

The abstract of the study "An investigation into noseband tightness levels on competition horses" by Dr Orla Doherty, Vincent Casey, Paul McGreevy and Sean Arkins can be found on Page 63 of the Proceedings of the 12th International Equitation Science Conference.