A tight noseband can cause a horse to lack natural brakes, the exact opposite of what it is intended to do. A tight noseband closes the horse’s mouth and restricts the jaw movement. This restriction can affect their balance, cause muscle tension throughout their body and restrict the cervical vertebrae. This results in the horse closing down through the poll and shoulders and hollowing the back, making it very difficult for the horse to step underneath itself with its hind legs. This effectively takes away the natural brakes as the horse cannot shift its weight and balance backwards, to lighten the forehand. Instead, the weight is on the forehand and the horse has to run on to find its balance.
A horse's jaw should be able to move fully and freely for several reasons. Firstly, the Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) has the most proprioceptive nerves of any joint in the horse’s entire body. Proprioception is the horse's ability to know where its different body parts are in relation to each other. This affects a horse's ability to balance itself and means that the jaw must be free to act like a pendulum in order for the horse to be aware of its hind leg placement. Secondly, any pressure to the jaw or mouth will restrict the pelvis and hind leg movement. The jaw is a reflection of the pelvis as it is connected via a chain of muscles and fascia, so any restriction in the jaw creates a restriction in the pelvis. Horses who are unable to move their jaw may tilt their head to allow their pelvis to move. This is clearly undesirable in a dressage test! Restricted hind leg movement obviously limits the horse’s ability to engage its hind legs which results in poor balance as the horse can't move its weight backwards making collection very difficult. Finally, restricting the jaw can block the hyoid bone, which both restricts the ability to swallow, resulting in excess saliva, and causes tightness in the muscles at the base of the neck and chest. The tightening of these muscles then has a knock-on effect throughout the body causing the horse to hollow it's back and shorten its stride. The horse may also go behind the vertical (over-bend) in an attempt to relieve muscle tension. For a horse to be able to swing through his back and lengthen his stride, the muscles in the neck and chest must be relaxed.
Horses that open their mouths whilst ridden are generally trying to alleviate pain or discomfort in the mouth. This pain could be caused by dental problems, a rider’s “bad” hands, a poorly fitting bit or tack, muscle tension, or a combination of these. A horse that opens his mouth may also display other problems in his movement, such as raising their head to avoid the contact and hollowing and tightening the back and hindquarters, or over bending to evade the bit. In these situations, the horse will likely lack impulsion, suppleness through the neck and back and lack balance as the hind legs can’t step underneath the body and engage. Again, the horse will lack natural brakes in this scenario. The first step towards fixing the problem is to find out the cause of the discomfort, NOT simply tighten the noseband to shut the mouth. This involves a dental check, checking the bit fits correctly, develop an independent seat to improve the rider’s hands, and work on relaxation during training.
In conclusion, the jaw must be able to move freely in order for a horse to move freely and therefore, to perform at its best. Correction of an open mouth cannot be achieved through restriction. Therefore, nosebands should NOT close the horse’s mouth. Nosebands should not be used to do anything; they should be purely decorative and should be considered in the same way as a browband. Horses that open their mouths do so for a reason, and that reason needs to be understood and rectified. This will require time and patience as there is unlikely to be a quick fix. There is no substitute for correct training of both horse and rider.
Some people use nosebands to stabilse the bit in the horse’s mouth, ensuring it remains quiet in the horse’s mouth and doesn't move around too much. This should not be necessary if you have a correctly fitted bridle and a bit that fits the conformation of the horse’s mouth, is the correct size and sits at the correct height.
Nosebands that go under the bit and chin to “support” the bit, can actually interfere with the bit, rub the lips and create sores from badly placed buckles. If we look at the anatomy of the horse’s face in this area, the superficial labial branch of the mandibular nerve (a branch of the trigeminal nerve) can be impinged or aggravated by these nosebands, leading to numbness or “pins and needles” in the horse’s lower lip. The vascular system can also be compromised, again causing lack of sensation and cell damage. This may present itself as headshaking and face rubbing.
Drop nosebands can also damage the delicate nasal bones which can easily fracture.
In conclusion, drop, flash and even grackle nosebands can do more harm than good, and should not be needed. A well designed, correctly fitting bit should remain stable in the horse’s mouth without any need for extra support.
The 2 wrinkle rule states that there should be 2 wrinkles in the corner of the horse’s mouth when the bit is fitted. This rule originates from the British Cavalry as a result of an incident where a horse’s bridle came off and the loose horse caused an accident. There is no scientific grounding for this advice, and it is still widely used today. However, it takes no account of the conformation of the horse’s mouth, and it may be the case that a horse is more comfortable with the bit sitting lower in the mouth with fewer or no wrinkles at all.
Using the 2 wrinkle rule may result in the bit sitting too low in horses with short smiles, which could then catch on canine teeth, or too high in horses with long smiles, which could catch on the Genioglossus muscle. The Genioglossus muscle sits in the centre of the tongue between the molar (cheek) teeth to help push the grass across and backwards in the mouth during chewing. In some horses, this muscle sits lower down the mouth towards the interdental space, making it easier to catch on a bit. Horses usually prefer to have a bit fitted to one of the 2 prominent grooves in their palate as the bit is more comfortable and stable, enabling the horse to relax. If the bit sits on a ridge, it will not be stable and can cause irritation. The grooves in a horse’s palate also help determine the shape and type of bit. If the horse prefers a higher groove, a hanging cheek might be appropriate as these bits sit higher than other bits. Altering the height of the bit can make a huge difference to the amount of pressure on the tongue and, therefore, the horses comfort.
It is a common misconception that the hanging cheek snaffle increases poll pressure over an eggbutt snaffle by rotating downwards and forward, thus creating leverage. However, the lack of a fixed fulcrum makes leverage impossible. What actually happens when rein tension is applied to a hanging cheek, is that the bit lifts in the mouth and the cheek pieces slacken, thus reducing poll pressure. In 2016, Neue Schule measured the poll pressure exerted by a variety of cheek-types in response to forces applied through the reins. Their results showed that over a rein tension of 0-3 kilograms, the Baucher reduces poll pressure as a result of the slackening of the cheek pieces, rather than increasing it, providing poll relief. At rein tension beyond this range, little more than pre-tension (the pressure exerted on the poll from the weight of the bit hanging on the bridle) was produced. A loose-ring snaffle can apply more poll pressure than a baucher as the rings drag down through the bore holes.
The hanging cheek still has plenty of benefits. It sits in a higher groove in the horse’s palate, and is therefore, an excellent choice for horses that prefer the mouthpiece to sit higher up in the mouth. It also relieves poll pressure which could be useful for horses with sensitive polls. In addition, the hanging cheek relieves pressure on the tongue and bars of the mouth as the mouthpiece is suspended above them. This could be useful for horses with large tongues or short smiles and also makes the bit a more comfortable choice for many horses. Finally, the hanging cheek is very stable in the horse’s mouth, making it great for clear communication and good for horses that become stressed with movement from the bit.
This is a very similar misconception to that of using a noseband to shut the mouth and therefore, improve control. Competition horses have become bigger and courses in both show jumping and cross country have become more technical. This has created a need for more control. Sadly, people often want a quick fix and so choose a stronger bit, putting the welfare of the horse behind control at all costs. However, bitting to gain control causes problems in itself.
Stronger bits encourage hollowness. Any excess pressure applied to the horse’s mouth, tongue or poll will affect its biomechanics. Resistance in the jaw leads to the head raising up, hollowing the neck and back and blocking the shoulders. This in turn leads to less responsive steering, less engagement in the hindlegs, the rider stops using their legs and the rein aids become dominant. This hollowness affects the horse’s ability to jump. The horse is likely to be unable to see what he has to do until the last second, lack roundness in the jump, drag his hind legs (knocking down fences), have tight shoulders (knocking down or hitting fences), is more likely to take off from far away and will have more speed and less impulsion. The result of these are more poles hitting the ground and an increased risk of rotational falls or falls on landing.
If a horse can no longer engage its muscles correctly to lift through the spine and allow its weight to shift backwards and its hind legs to step underneath, it cannot lighten and lift the front end. The result is that the horse runs on the forehand in an attempt to keep its balance and the perception is that the horse lacks brakes. As the rider attempts to rebalance in front of a fence, the horse inverts and the ability to ride from the leg to hand diminishes. The irony is, by adding stronger brakes, the rider actually disables the braking system. The only way to gain more control is to have a correctly fitted bit that enables optimum communication combined with correct training methods and patience! There are no quick fixes or short cuts to gaining control! The canter and gallop must be trained to be balanced and come from the rider’s leg aids to engage the hind legs in a way that doesn’t increase speed but encourages the horse to adjust their stride in a round and rideable way. The horse can then jump as cleanly as possible, thus making it more likely that he will jump clear and avoid falls.
There are several shortcomings to many "anatomical" brides. It is important to note that some are not easy to fit as there is limited adjustability and the straps to adjust bit height can be fiddly. Many anatomical bridles have a lower strap that acts like a flash noseband. This can compromise a horse's movement by closing the mouth and preventing full and free jaw movement. Another design fault lies with the monocrown headpiece, which can either be too wide for the poll space, causing pinching at the back of the ears, or excessively padded which adds weight and can crease, causing pressure points on the sensitive poll. The headpiece may not sit flat, but may tip up at the front, digging into the horse’s neck along the back edge and concentrating pressure there. Similarly, some are very wide around the browband attachment, forcing the bridle forwards and into the ears and increasing pressure on the sensitive TMJ area. It can catch on the transverse process of the Atlas (first cervical vertebrae), causing irritation and a reluctance to bend and flex. Some anatomical bridles can also have excessive padding on the noseband. Excessive padding can increase bulk at the site and width of the leather piece. The increase in width can cause pinching and rubbing on the cheek bones, or face. The increase in bulk can create increased pressure points, on the face, under the chin or against the molars. Another design fault lies with the throat lash which is fitted flush to the horse’s skin. This can cause pressure at the poll and TMJ by pulling the headpiece and browband down Throatlashes should always be fitted loosely.
Excessive pressure to any part of the head or face will compromise neural and vascular structures and invariably cause discomfort and/or damage, the exact opposite of what the anatomical bridle is designed to do. Restricted jaw movement will result in restricted hind leg action which is also undesirable. All horses’ faces are different shapes and proportions, and some bits have very big rings! If you have a horse whose face is between sizes, it can be difficult to get a perfect fit.
For a bridle to be considered truly anatomical and comfortable the following should apply:
· The shape of the headpiece should fit the horse’s head.
· There should be little or no padding.
· The leather should be good quality and in good condition so that it is supple against the horse’s head.
· The side buckles should sit at around eye level and be side by side, not on top of each other so as not to impair the horse’s vision or create pressure on the TMJ.
· The browband should not be too small or be pushed up into the base of the ears by any buckles.
· There should be no strap underneath the bit.
· Buckles underneath the chin should be fastened loosely and not restrictive.
There is no one bridle that will fit all horses. Every horse is an individual and its particular anatomy must be assessed to determine if a bridle fits correctly and is comfortable for that horse.
Popular believe is that thicker bits are kinder because they spread the pressure from the reins over a larger area. However, when you look inside a horse's mouth you will see that there is little or no room for any bit. Bits that are 18 mm thick or more, can actually cause increased tongue pressure. In some cases, just the weight of a thick bit alone can cause excess tongue pressure. In extreme cases, a thick bit may prevent the horse from moving its tongue or closing its mouth and therefore impairing its ability to swallow. An anatomically shaped bit that is 10 -14 mm thick (max 16mm for youngsters) is far kinder.
Many French Link's are sold as kind bits, comparable to a lozenge. This is because it has always been thought that the plate lies flat on the horse's tongue. However, this is not the case when rein contact is taken up. The plate actually sits upright, with the edge pressing into the tongue. This excess pressure increases with increased rein tension. The plate concentrates the pressure into a very small area which most horses will find uncomfortable. The Dr Bristol, on the other hand, has a central plate that sits flat against the horse's tongue on rein contact and therefore, creates less tongue pressure than a French Link.
3 ring gags are probably one of the worst designed bits available. They are supposed to be leverage bits, but thanks to their design, generate very little leverage whilst having the potential to cause serious damage to the horse's face and mouth. They have straight sides that sit at odd angles against a horse's face which is not straight. When a contact is taken up, the sides splay out, taking away most of the leverage and potentially damaging the horses face and lips. As there is no fixed fulcrum to create the leverage, the horse's mouth (which is not fixed) becomes the fulcrum and causes damage to the mouth. The more the rider pulls the reins in search of control, the greater the potential for damage to be caused.