Position paper brings scientific evidence of potential adverse effects of restrictive nosebands on horses
Horses are mainly trained through the use of pressure and its release, a process known as negative reinforcement. In negative reinforcement, learning occurs when the pressure is removed once the desired behaviour has been performed (See ISES First Principles of Horse Training). Horses find pressure aversive and will trial different responses to reduce it. Unfortunately, tack designed to apply pressure carries with it the risk of imposing excessive pressure or failing to release it (see ISES Position Statement on Aversive Stimuli in Horse Training). In such cases, learning will be less likely to be successful, and the welfare of the horse may be compromised. A noseband that is tightly fitted (ie. less than 2 adult fingers) is an example of a device that applies constant pressure that cannot release when the horse offers a desired response, unlike during normal use of negative reinforcement. It restricts mouth, jaw and tongue movements, and has the potential to cause pain and injury.
Horse welfare is acknowledged as a priority in equestrian sports. The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) Code of Conduct for the Welfare of the Horse states that ‘Tack must be designed and fitted to avoid the risk of pain or injury’ (FEI, 2019). It also states that horses ‘must not be subjected to methods which are abusive or cause fear’. With regard to nosebands, the FEI Dressage Rules (Article 428) state that ‘At any level of competition a noseband may never be so tightly fastened that it causes harm to the horse and must be checked as per the Stewards Manual noseband protocol’.
Current trends in noseband use
Traditional guidelines for noseband fitting have recommended that the noseband is fitted loosely enough to place two fingers under it when fastened (Klimke 1994). However, recent studies have revealed that, among nosebands on horses (n=737) competing internationally, mainly within the disciplines of eventing and dressage, only 7% were fitted loosely enough for two fingers to fit under the noseband at the frontal nasal plane (Doherty et al. 2016). In contrast, 44% were fastened too tightly to allow any measurement device to even fit under the noseband at that location (Doherty et al. 2016).