Have we been taken for a ride?
By Kailie Nott
Have you noticed that nosebands come in two main categories: decorative and restraining? This was not always so. The modern use of restraining nosebands restricts the horse’s ability to choose his response and works at the symptomatic level. Other training methods rely on working with the horse’s psychology.
In the past, nosebands were solidly made of leather or rope and were a form of headstall, separate from the headpiece supporting the bit. We call these cavesson nosebands. You could tie a horse with the rope attached to the noseband knowing the cavesson would not break too easily. If the horse pulled on the rope, he would not be pulling on his mouth and risking injury. You can see these sorts of nosebands in old photos of the Australian cavalry. Most cavesson nosebands today are not strong enough to be used as a headstall.
If you look at old paintings, you will sometimes see decorative nosebands. Some nosebands helped stabilize the bridle and hold the bit in place by running down the front of the horse’s face and then fork each side to the bit. To use a noseband to hold the horse’s mouth shut is a relatively new idea. It seems that people are tying them tighter with every passing decade. It is rare to see one done up where you can fit two fingers between it and the horse’s jaw, no matter what style it is. There are even nosebands especially designed to be able to tighten very strongly around the horse’s nose. We want the horse to relax his jaw and quietly move his mouth, yet we tie the noseband up so tightly that it does not allow them to move their jaw at all.
Nosebands are often being used to force the horse to keep his mouth closed, but why would he open it in the first place? If bridled horses can stand quietly unmounted without opening their mouths, then it is not the bit that is the issue, but the rider. Horses cannot communicate with us verbally, but only through body language. A horse opening his mouth is doing his best to communicate. He could be saying that; he does not understand your aids; you are pulling too much without well timed releases; that your body and your hands are saying different things; that he would prefer it if you didn’t use his mouth to keep your balance. He may be telling you he feels safer in the company of other horses and is prepared to push against your hands to get there; or he may be frightened and needing to move to where he feels safe. Some horses with very tight muscles may stretch their heads and necks, open their mouth and twist their jaw in an attempt to get relief. These are just a few issues. To put a noseband on will not resolve any of these underlying issues, although you have in effect told him to shut up and stop complaining about the quality of your riding.
The horse has many good reasons to open his mouth. If you are using a single jointed snaffle, when you pull on two reins at once the joint pushes up into the roof of the horses’ mouth. This action can actually break the soft palate. The horse has some chance of avoiding the bit making contact with the palate, and avoids injury, by opening his mouth. The bit will also squeeze together and pinch the tongue. If you ride with low hands, as is commonly taught, then the bit comes against the bars where the skin is thin and the bone close to the surface. Try hitting your shinbone with a metal stirrup iron to get a sense of what this is like. Horse dentists are coming across horses with fractured jawbones because of bits. The joints on French snaffles can run across the bars more easily than some other types of bits and cause damage. Generally, though, it less about the bit than the way you use it. No bit is ‘soft’ in bad hands, but some bits will always be severe or cruel (such as barbed wire, which can never be comfortable for the horse).
Tight nosebands can interfere with the horse’s breathing and cause excessive discomfort to the nerves running down the front of his face. Grackle nosebands and the like that come from the centre of the nose before going around the front of the bit were designed to resolve the breathing issue. Any tight noseband can stop the horse from using his tongue to swallow properly. It also prevents the horse from quietly moving his mouth and salivating, considered a sign of relaxation and submission. The resulting tension will travel all the way down the horse’s back and be counterproductive to the rider’s aim of getting the horse to use his back effectively. If the noseband is done up incorrectly behind and too close to the bit, then the horse’s lips will be pinched and injured every time the rider uses the reins.
Horses live in the present moment and are on a constant search for comfort. They are social animals on the bottom of the food chain. A horses’ survival depends on being aware and responsive to tiny changes in his environment. Horses avoid discomfort, as it may signal something potentially life threatening, although, he will tolerate discomfort if he perceives his life to be under threat. We all know that horses can feel a fly and will twitch to shake it off. Yet we look at their strong bodies and assume they have strong minds to match, when actually their minds are very sensitive and timid. We actually ride the horse’s mind, which is expressed through his body. It is easier to relax on a relaxed horse than on a tense one, even if it is the same horse.
To put gear on a horse that is uncomfortable in itself is to set off on a bad footing. The horse will be trying to make himself more comfortable and may be distracted or difficult, and if he cannot get relief he will switch his mind off to some degree (disassociate). As we mostly communicate through body signals when riding, it is better if he is not trying to ‘play up’, or tune out from his body, dulling him to our aids. There will always be some level of discomfort due to our tack and to carrying us, but the capacity to hardly disturb the horse is what makes the truly great horsemen different to the rest.
If we allow the horse to open its mouth, we can use it as a diagnostic tool to inform us of where we need to improve ourselves, or the horse’s understanding or confidence. We have all done things that in retrospect we wish we had not, through lack of skill, knowledge, awareness, good guidance, or authority to do things differently. This is part of learning. Nosebands are becoming ever more common, usually being included as part of the purchase when you buy an English bridle, on the assumption that you will need one. This is not a reasonable assumption. For centuries, people relied on horses and trained them without the use of restraining nosebands, and still many working and performance horses do not wear them. Horses do endurance, stock work, trail riding, cutting, barrel racing and tent pegging, confidently and athletically, often without any noseband at all. They are often trained in snaffle bits without tight nosebands, or with no bit at all.
It is possible to train any horse in any sport without a tight noseband if you are prepared to listen to the horse, take the time he needs, and develop the skills you need yourself. You may need no more than to know how to slow your horse without pulling on two reins at the same time, or to improve your balance enough that you never need the reins for balance and are able to keep a soft hold on the horse’s mouth. Or perhaps you are asking more than his body is physically ready for, which is common among competitive riders. In all my lessons and clinics, I have never found anyone who has felt less in control without the noseband than with it. The reverse is true, as they learn new skills, understanding and strategies that improve their riding experience for themselves and their horse.
We interact with our horses with our own agenda. It would be nice if we had the courtesy to at least listen and try to understand our horse’s needs better. When we succeed, our relationship with the horse is rewarding and our shared experiences are positive for both parties.