A welfare issue for horses fitted with tight nosebands has been highlighted by new research from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science.
‘The Effect of Noseband Tightening on Horses’ Behaviour, Eye Temperature, and Cardiac Responses’ was published in PLOS ONE journal in early May, and finds that horses experience physiological stress responses when prevented from moving their jaws.
The study reveals instances of horses’ resting heart rates rising from 34bpm to 100bpm following noseband tightening.
The use of restrictive nosebands to bind the jaws of sport horses is a common practice according to the study’s lead author, horse trainer Kate Fenner.
A 2013 study by Irish researcher Orla Doherty found that up to half of the horses competing in dressage, show-jumping and eventing are prevented from opening their mouths.
“The tight nosebands decrease signs of resistance,” Fenner said.
“Dressage riders lose points if their horse is resistant, and one of the indicators of resistance is horses opening their mouth.”
The increase in aversive pressure also increases the rider’s control of the horse.
Fenner said that when she and her fellow researchers were carrying out the study, there were few outward signs that horses with tight nosebands were distressed.
“There was nothing other than the fact that horses were chewing less and not licking that suggested anything out of the ordinary was happening,” she said.
“However once we got information on the increased heart rate and eye temperature, those physiological responses stuck out immediately.”
Fenner added that many horses in the study did not swallow during the 10 minute period that researchers affixed a tight noseband.
“What was interesting was that when the noseband was fitted such that you could fit two fingers between it and the horse, there was no physiological reaction,” she said.
“Two fingers was always the conventional way that I learned, and the horses were not stressed with it.”
Study co-author, Paul McGreevy, said the research shows restrictive nosebands may violate the International Equestrian Federation’s (FEI) rule that nosebands are “never as tightly fixed so as to harm the horse.”
“In light of the current results, horse sport administrators may need to decide which oral behaviours they can afford to see eliminated in the name of sport,” he said.
“Tight nosebands can mask unacceptably rough riding.”
“While wearing a bitted bridle, horses are highly motivated to open their mouths to find comfort but in dressage competitions, this response attracts penalties.”
The International Society for Equitation Science is also calling for a limit on noseband tightening, as well as for the use of a standardised taper gauge to measure a comfortable fit for horses.
“I really hope that the issue will be looked at closely and that a taper gauge will be introduced; it’s an easy and objective way to measure these things,” Fenner said.
Fenner added that she hopes the study can make an impact at a grassroots level.
“I see a lot of new riders using tight nosebands because they see them in use in competition and follow suit,” she said.
“There are a lot of these horses out there being ridden in tight nosebands. They don’t make the news.”
“Once we make people aware of the impact these nosebands can have, we can start to have an impact.”
Picture Luise Thomson