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Why nosebands should be loosened on dressage horses at the Olympics

Horse wearing crank noseband. Luise Thomson, Author provided

Why nosebands should be loosened on dressage horses at the Olympics

How we treat horses in the public domain always attracts public interest. That’s not surprising considering the animal protection movement started in Victorian England as a public response to the plight of pit-ponies and tired work-horses being beaten.

But despite the 2016 Olympics in Rio on the horizon, the practice of clamping together the jaws of horses has gone unchecked.

Most riders care greatly for, and about, their horses. But at the elite level, some find themselves under pressure to value their horse’s performance over its welfare. And the challenges we impose on horses often go unrecognised because horses rapidly habituate to stressors and generally complain less than other species, often to their own disservice.

As a veterinarian and qualified riding instructor, I look forward to a time when horse welfare and equestrian competition are more balanced.

Ethical horse riding calls on riders and trainers to acknowledge any harmful impact of their practices, to mitigate where possible any harm caused and to justify impacts that persist after mitigation.

The viewing public

Such a cost-benefit approach is fundamental to the work of any animal ethics committee, but sport horses don’t have animal ethics committees. They rely instead on the viewing public to decide what is acceptable. With better information, the public’s limits of acceptance may shift.

Every dressage horse at the Olympics must compete with two metal bits in its mouth, one of which is a lever that tightens a metal chain under the chin.

Called a double bridle, this head-gear demands more rider skill than a simple (snaffle) bridle. With two bits in place, horses are highly motivated to open their mouths to find comfort, especially when the reins are pulled, but in dressage competition, mouth-opening attracts penalties.

Don’t be misled, this is a good rule because it penalises rough riding manifested when the horse gapes or lolls out its tongue.

To avoid penalties, many riders crank the jaws together with a system of leather pulleys (a crank noseband). This device is permitted under noseband rules written before cranking was conceived, even though it increases pain and discomfort from the bits.

This pain and discomfort, in turn, calls the horse’s attention to the bits and boosts the rider’s control of the horse, which is why such nosebands appeal not only to dressage riders but to many show jumpers and eventers.

Relentless pressure from nosebands applies pressure similar to that from a tourniquet and can reach levels associated in humans with tissue and nerve damage. Nosebands are padded to avoid cutting the skin, but inside the mouth, they force the cheeks against (naturally) sharp molars and are associated with lacerations and ulcers.

Laceration inside a horse’s mouth at the site of the noseband. Mick Field, Author provided
Chronic ulcer inside a horse’s mouth at the site of the noseband. Torbjörn Lundström

The most recent science on jaw-clamping comes from my lab with the results published this month in PLoS One. It shows that, depending on their tightness, crank nosebands compromise or eliminate a long list of behaviours, including yawning, licking, chewing and swallowing.

Unsurprisingly, denying horses oral comfort is associated with physiological distress. Horses fight against the pressure and some end up with damaged nasal bones.

Loosen up?

So why doesn’t everyone loosen the nosebands of these valuable horses? Training horses to Olympic level takes at least five years, a long time to spend relying on a device that applies relentless pressure.

Whole equine careers have been built on this practice, which seems to sensitise the horse to the bits in the short-term but, as with any relentless pressure, eventually leads to habituation. This means a horse trained in tight a noseband must be ridden in a tight noseband.

This explains why virtually no top-level riders want wholesale noseband loosening.

Many manuals and older rule books propose that “two fingers” be used as a spacer to guard against over-tightening, but usually fail to specify where these should be placed or, indeed, the size of the fingers.

Concern over the controversial use of nosebands first emerged in 2012, ahead of the London Olympics. In January that year, the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), which I also helped found, recommended reinstatement of noseband checking at competitions and developed a simple taper gauge to standardise the gap.

Four years on, nothing has been done. Yet an Australian company, Equidae Welfare, produces just such a taper gauge and no ISES members profit from it.

A simple device can be used to measure the required two-finger gap on a noseband. Cristina Wilkins, Author provided

Approximately 30 animal protection groups around the world have endorsed ISES’s position and called on the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), the international governing body for all Olympic equestrian disciplines, to act.

Having disbanded its welfare subcommittee in 2009, the FEI bravely insists that horse welfare is paramount and has positioned horses as equine athletes. The repercussions of this are potentially far-reaching if it means horses should benefit from the Olympic charter for athletes, which requires the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to protect [clean] athletes.

But the FEI has been largely silent on the topic of restrictive nosebands and the taper-gauge solution, except to agree that using fingers to check nosebands was too imprecise. It has recently stated that elite horses are too highly strung to cope with having their nosebands checked with a taper gauge.

This issue may now be causing the IOC embarrassment. Petitioning of the IOC for noseband checking with a taper gauge has commenced. As the only animals at the Olympics, horses must have impeccable welfare if sponsors are to avoid their brands being tarnished.

For equestrian competition to be ethical and sustainable, any practice that compromises welfare must be recognised and demonstrably minimised. Without a rapid change in the rules, no horses competing at the Rio Olympics will have their nosebands checked with an objective measure.

For me, this is a great lost opportunity. Processes that ensure nosebands are not over-tightened will not only alleviate horse suffering, but also promote excellent training and give horse sports a more sustainable future.