University of Sydney veterinary researchers have found that an extremely tight noseband on horses raises the animals’ stress levels, calling into question whether its use should continue in equestrian competitions.
Recreation horses commonly are fitted with bridles that permit two fingers to fit under the noseband. In contrast, crank nosebands may be ratcheted before a competition to eliminate all space, a practice that restricts tongue movements and in a worst-case scenario “can compromise vascular perfusion and may even cause nerve and bone damage,” the authors reported.
Rules of the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) may penalize competitors if a horse is not submissive or if it displays normal oral behavior such as teeth grinding or tongue movement.
The study’s senior author, animal welfare Professor Paul McGreevy, BVSc, Ph.D., MACVS, said restrictive nosebands may violate an FEI rule that they 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 behaviors they can afford to see eliminated in the name of sport,” Dr. McGreevy said.
“Tight nosebands can mask unacceptably rough riding,” he said. “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 Australian researchers used 12 horses of various ages, breeds and genders. Fitted with nosebands at different tensions, the horses’ heart rate, heart rate variability and eye temperature—recorded with an infrared camera—were measured.
According to the findings, published May 3 in the journal PLOS One:
- “Horses … showed an increase in heart rate when wearing a bridle with no area available under the noseband, suggesting that equipment fitted in this way imposes enough discomfort to provoke a stress response.”
- “Eye temperature peaked when the noseband was at its tightest, also suggesting a physiological stress response.”
- Stress likely would increase further “with the addition of rein tension and a rider.”
An FEI spokesman quoted in The Guardian said the organization “has clear rules governing the fitting of nosebands on horses at international events.”
“FEI stewards officiating at FEI events check all the saddlery, including nosebands and bits, of every horse competing to ensure that the rules are followed,” the spokesman said.