Why do we use them?
It is easy to understand how a rider may be led to believe that the addition, or tightening of, a noseband may be beneficial. It is widely believed that the solution to a horse opening their mouth to evade the bit or getting their tongue over the bit are nosebands such as the drop noseband or the flash noseband of a Hanoverian. Horses rushing or bolting are said to be easier to control when their mouth is closed and they are unable to evade the bit.
It is believed that when the noseband flash is done up appropriately, with two fingers gap between the face and the band, that the flash may help to support the bit in the horses mouth. It has also been suggested that this support may somewhat help to protect the horse against unstable novice hands. Sounds plausible right? I’ve certainly thought so, and perhaps there is some truth to it.
Nosebands may mask underlying problems
A horse with a noseband on and closed mouth may look less unhappy in their work to the untrained eye. However, I encourage you to look at other grimace scale indicators to really evaluate what is going on for the horse. Forcing the horse to keep their mouth closed may address the symptom, but it will not fix the underlying cause. The very fact that the horse has felt the need to evade the bit in the first place indicates that there is a problem.
The problem may be that your current bit is not a good fit for your horses mouth anatomy. Your horse may need a visit from the dentist, or perhaps a second opinion if they have been seen recently. Dentists are mostly brilliant, but they aren’t gods. It is possible that pathologies right at the back of the jaw are missed, especially if the horse is not sedated for the procedure.
Nosebands link to Movement & Pain
Pain anywhere in your horses body may be preventing them from relaxing and accepting the bit. A sore poll or temporomandibular joint (TMJ) may directly cause your horse to toss their head in response to the bridle or bit. Hyoid apparatus dysfunction must also be considered. An issue or pain in your horses back end may cause your horse to toss their head through transitions or whilst riding. It is your horses way of saying they are having trouble with moving their body correctly and without pain or tension. Head tossing, resisting the bit and conflict behaviour whilst being ridden may not actually have anything to do with the front end of your horse!
It is also essential to consider your rider biomechanics. If you are riding in such a way that your seat is blocking your horse from moving properly, your horse may express this as resistance against the bit. Hard hands and elbows that do not allow the horse to move forward may cause confusion. In order for your horse to move forward, and halt when asked, your horse must have adequate control over their movement, which is also not impeded by the rider.
Problems may be exacerbated
If your horse is having a hard time, I can all but guarantee you that the answer is not the addition of more and/or stronger equipment. The most recent evidence indicates that nosebands, particularly tight Hanoverian nosebands, create lots of poll pressure (approximately 10 pounds of force, or 10N). Unlike with pressure-release training where the pressure is released when the horse does the correct thing, the poll pressure generated from a noseband is constant. It isn’t relieved when the horse does the correct thing.
Not only will this give your horse a nice big headache and poll pain to work through, he will also be confused when nothing he does ever earns him the ‘reward’ of the pressure going away. This can cause a horse to be anxious, headshake and rear, amongst other things.
Most of us have used nosebands at some point with the best of intentions. However, it is our job as advocates for our horses welfare to ensure we are critically evaluating the things we subject them too. If all of the above things are under control, then you will not need to tie your horses mouth shut or use a stronger bit.
Know Better, Do Better