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Nosebands – does yours pass the pressure test?

By Christie Wolhuter

Tightly fastened nosebands have been proven to exert significant pressure on our horses.  Detrimental consequences for the horse include discomfort, pain or possibly even tissue damage. Most of us are aware of this but did you know that even slightly looser nosebands (a self-measured two-fingers) can still exert significant pressure? The origins of the two-finger rule are unknown, but it has appeared in texts since 1956. The difficulty with the two-finger rule is the difference in individual finger thickness and the different opinions about where the fingers should be placed. The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) have tried to standardise the use of the two-finger rule using an ISES noseband taper gauge, a device that mimics two adult fingers.

A worrying study

A study done by researchers in Limerick, Ireland, on horses at International Level competition found that 44 % of the 740 horses tested had nosebands fastened with zero fingers! The study also raised concerns about the type of nosebands used, with thinner nosebands resulting in greater force being applied to the nose.


From Bishop Burton College in England, Jayne Peters and her research team investigated three different noseband designs and their effect on rein tension and the force being exerted on the frontal nasal plane of ridden horses in a preliminary study.

Jayne presented her results at the 15th Annual International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) conference. The conference theme of “Bringing Science to the Stable” explored the origins and evolution of our relationship with horses, the current state of equitation science and what we have learned, and the promising future for improving the lives of all equids.

Of the three nosebands tested, the flash and drop nosebands showed significantly higher pressure on the front of the horse’s nose when compared to a cavesson type. The flash created the highest pressure. With the flash nosebands being the most popular noseband seen in international competition, further research is definitely needed.

Furthermore, a tight noseband can apply unwarranted poll pressure due to the conical shape of a horse’s nose. This means that when a noseband is tight, it will tend to pull downward, thus exerting pressure on the poll. A flash noseband compounds this, as the design of a flash pulls the noseband further down. To counter the downward pull of the flash, many riders tighten up the cavesson, which will then unlikely fit the two-finger rule.  What is more, unlike a bit, a noseband’s pressure can be unrelenting on the poll.

TRY THIS TEST – Place your fingers flat under your horse’s headpiece by the crown. Tighten up your noseband and flash to no-fingers distance. Allow your horse to move his head around and feel how the pressure increases under your fingers. An anatomical headpiece will significantly reduce this effect and the pressure on the sensitive poll area, but with all other headpieces, the effect is pronounced.

A note on the crank noseband

The crank noseband is one to apply with significant caution, as the leveraged buckle design allows for the noseband to be tightened to a much greater degree than the French or classical noseband. [end box]

ISES council member Kate Fenner agreed with the welfare concerns raised, describing findings from her study, titled “Restrictive nosebands are a welfare concern as they can inhibit natural oral behaviour and cause stress.” Significant cardiac responses (reduced heart rate variability and increased heart rate) were associated with the very tight noseband fitting, suggesting a stress response. This finding was supported by a significant increase in eye temperature. An increase in eye temperature from baseline is an indicator of stress in horses.

A thicker noseband spreads the pressure over a wider area and is, therefore, more ‘gentle’ on the horse’s face.

Research implications

Peters closed her presentation at the ISES conference encouraging more focus on correct training than equipment. Ensuring that our horse understands our rein cues and then ensuring that the bit and noseband fit properly will ultimately improve our horse’s welfare.