Study: Nosebands Can Cause Horses Stress

Study: Nosebands Can Cause Horses Stress

As noseband tightness increased, so did horses’ heart rate and eye temperature—two recognized physiological signs of stress.

Photo: iStock

Nosebands can restrict horses’ natural jaw movements, often preventing them from indicating discomfort when ridden. But whether this restraint method is stressful to horses has never been proven—until now.

In a recently released study, Australian researchers revealed that horses wearing nosebands show physiological signs of stress, which increase as noseband tightness increases. What’s more, they “rebound” from their physical restrictions as soon as those nosebands come off—suggesting that welfare has been compromised.

“The horse has a lot of information to give us about how we’re riding, but it has to be allowed to open its mouth to do so,” said Paul McGreevy, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, MACVS (Animal Welfare), professor of animal behavior and animal welfare science at the University of Sydney.

“As a community of riders, we could be a lot more thoughtful about the price our horses pay when we prevent them from moving themselves in the way they would wish,” he said.

In their study, McGreevy and his fellow researchers evaluated 12 horses fitted with a double bridle and crank noseband (prior to the experiment none of the test horses had ever worn either piece of equipment), which are commonly used in elite dressage competitions, he said. They tested the horses with four different noseband settings: unfastened (loose); respecting the “two-finger” rule (two fingers can fit between the noseband and the horse’s nose); wide enough for a single finger to pass through; and adjusted so tight that no fingers can pass.

They found that as noseband tightness increased, so did horses’ heart rate and eye temperature—two recognized physiological signs of stress. Meanwhile, heart rate variability (HRV) dropped, another known indicator of equine stress.

“We did the experiment for only 10 minutes at a time and didn’t apply any rein tension, so it’s hard to imagine what the effects would be if the pressure lasted longer or were combined with reins,” McGreevy said. “What we’re seeing could be the tip of an iceberg.”

When the researchers removed the nosebands, they observed a significant increase in the behaviors the noseband had restricted, such as yawing, chewing, and licking. This “post-inhibitory rebound response” suggests the horses felt deprived of the opportunity to perform these actions, and is therefore counter to good welfare, McGreevy said.

The extent to which the stress parameters and post-inhibitory rebound responses increased with the tightness of the noseband was somewhat surprising to the researchers, McGreevy said. “There was really a dose-dependent reduction in these natural behaviors,” he explained. “Even at the two-finger level, they won’t show yawning. And that opens the question about what behaviors we’re willing to see be denied in the name of sport. It’s an issue that horse sport organization need to decide.”

James Yeates, MRCVS, chief veterinary officer at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in Southwater, England, agreed. “These findings are the sort of thing that make us sit up and think and question ourselves about how we’re training our horses,” he told The Horse.

During Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) dressage competitions, judges penalize riders if the horse opens its mouth—a rule originally designed with good intentions, “to make sure that horses are being ridden sympathetically,” Yeates said.

“But those rules miss their original intent if they lead to methods being used that prevent horses’ responses physically, such as very tight nosebands,” he said. “Such methods may not only compromise equine welfare, but also impair judges’ ability to assess good riding.”

Currently, FEI dressage rules maintain that competing horses must wear nosebands as part of their compulsory equipment. However, they specify that neither “a cavesson nose band nor a curb chain may ever be as tightly fixed so as to harm the horse.”

“The FEI has clear rules governing the fitting of nosebands on horses at international events,” said one FEI representative. “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 noseband check includes a physical check by the steward to guarantee that the noseband is fitted properly and is not having an adverse effect on the horse.”

The FEI Code of Conduct for the Welfare of the Horse states that at all stages during the preparation and training of competition horses, welfare must take precedence over all other demands, the representative added. It specifies that horses must not be subjected to any training methods that are abusive or cause fear, and that tack must be designed and fitted to avoid the risk of pain or injury.

On a practical level, McGreevy cautioned that not all horses will show obvious signs of stress or post-inhibitory rebound responses. Riders at all levels should be aware of the risks to their horses, even if they seem to be fine with wearing a noseband. “Just because the horse doesn’t show an overt behavioral reaction doesn’t mean that he’s coping,” he said. “Horses are very often their own worst enemies.”

The study, “The Effect of Noseband Tightening on Horses’ Behavior, Eye Temperature, and Cardiac Responses,” was published in PLoS One

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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