Researchers Measure Horses' Noseband Pressure

Researchers Measure Horses' Noseband Pressure

A cob wearing bridle fitted with pressure sensor beneath the noseband.

Photo: Orla Doherty, MVB, MSc, MRCVS

Many riders and trainers believe the tighter they fasten a horse's noseband, the more control they will have while riding. True, tight nosebands increase a horse's sensitivity to the bit, but they could also inflict pain and cause tissue damage, said Orla Doherty, MVB, MSc, MRCVS, of University College Dublin and the University of Limerick.

She and her colleagues recently conducted a study measuring noseband pressures, and she presented their results at the 9th Annual International Society for Equitation Science, held July 18-20 at the University of Delaware, in Newark.

"Pressure applied by tight nosebands can restrict normal movements of the jaw, such as chewing or yawning, but the potential for damage to soft tissues, such as nerves, within the head is poorly understood," Doherty said. "We're measuring pressure so we can hopefully set safe (noseband tightness) guidelines. This will help to protect the welfare of the ridden horse and will also help prevent the development of painful lesions. We will also hopefully help improve horse and rider safety, as horses in pain are more likely to display flight or fear responses such as head-tossing, bolting, etc."

As part of their background research, Doherty and her team looked at the types of nosebands commonly in use. They evaluated 850 show jumping horses, ranging from amateur to international level mounts, and found that only 20% wore simple cavesson nosebands (that encircle the nose one to two inches below the cheek bone). The remaining 80% wore flash (which features a second strap running from the cavesson around the nose in front of the bit and under the chin groove), grackle (also known as a figure-eight, which crosses from the top of one cheek bone, over the nose to the chin groove on the other side, under the horse's chin, and back up to the opposite cheekbone), or other nosebands.

Doherty's team was also interested in how tight riders were fastening these nosebands. They evaluated 140 young (4- to 5-year-old) event horses, 10 Irish Drafts, and 50 Connemara ponies competing over a cross country course and found that only 12% wore nosebands loose enough to fit two fingers underneath, flat on top of the nose (considered the standard space recommendation). Forty-seven percent had nosebands too tight to fit any fingers beneath.

To investigate possible pressures exerted by tight nosebands Doherty and her colleagues have developed two pressure detection systems: one to measure noseband tension and nose curvature and another to measure direct pressure on the horse's nose.

For the first method the team inserted a Bluetooth-equipped strain gauge device into the study horse's cavesson noseband. They fastened the noseband to two fingers tightness and collected data while the horse was fed hay and hard feed, and also while the horse was ridden at the walk, trot, and canter in both directions and performed upward and downward transitions. They used a curved ruler to measure the indentations on the horse's face where the noseband usually rode and used special software to digitize the horse's facial profile.

The bridle with strain gauge incorporated into the noseband to measure force.

Photo: Courtesy Orla Doherty, MVB, MSc, MRCVS

"We need to take into account curvature because if we tie or fasten something around an area of the body that has very sharp prominences (e.g., the nasal or jaw bones), pressure over these points (and the possibility for pain or tissue damage) is going to be much higher," Doherty noted.

Upon viewing the results of this first system, Doherty said, "We got a rhythmic peaking of force measurements as the horse chewed—so every time he opens his mouth, the noseband is being stretched."

She also observed a rhythmic peaking of force with each stride, particularly into an upward canter transition.

In the second, simpler approach, the team mounted a biomedical interface pressure transducer onto the noseband's interior surface, where it runs over the cheek teeth. They then put the same horse through some simple ridden exercises involving both flatwork and jumping. Again, they saw rhythmic peaks in pressure, but noted an alarming set of peaks during transitions, turns, and when the horse jumped.

"These peaks are of interest as they may result in discomfort and possibly pain during certain ridden events," Doherty explained. "Horse welfare and horse and rider safety may be at risk if the horse is subjected to pressure peaks which he can neither control nor escape."

The two pressure detection systems the researchers developed can be embedded into nosebands to measure conditions under the equipment itself, with the goal of helping riders recognized when they're subjecting horses to high nasal/facial pressures. Doherty noted, however, that the technology is still in development and researchers need to perform studies on more horses to validate results.

About the Author

Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Alexandra Beckstett, Managing Editor of The Horse and a native of Houston, Texas, is a lifelong horse owner who has shown successfully on the national hunter/jumper circuit and dabbled in hunter breeding. After graduating from Duke University, she joined Blood-Horse Publications as Assistant Editor of its book division, Eclipse Press, before joining The Horse.

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