The Noseband Debate

So this has been on my mind a LOT for about 6 months. I go back and forth about how I feel. I stress about it. I sometimes google. Mostly I just stress. Here’s the deal:

Your young, green horse gapes his mouth. What do you do?

I spent many solid years in dressage land (predominately training-2nd level) where it seems like EVERYONE uses a flash. I used one on my palomino paint. He was the semi-nervous type at times, and it helped him focus.

Flash noseband. Very common sight in dressage-land

When I started jumping him, which led to eventing, I naturally transitioned to a figure 8 for the jumping phases.

Figure 8, also a common sight

I never doubted or thought twice about using a piece of tack to keep my horse’s mouth closed.

When I tried Rio for the first time, I noticed he was a bit nervous and tended to gape his mouth at times. No big deal, I figured it would work itself out. No flashes or figure 8’s allowed in the hunters after all, but I wasn’t worried. As his training progressed he still did it sometimes. I began to worry. Would this effect our placing at shows? How do I make him stop? I had his teeth done (twice in a 6 month period), so I felt pretty sure it wasn’t a teeth related issue. Am I training him wrong? I began to wonder if I should use a flash when schooling. I thought that maybe he was developing a bad habit that I should break now before it got in-grained. I agonized over what was the ‘right’ course.

I decided it might be good to try out a flash. I also started to put his noseband a whole or 2 tighter, with a noseband chin pad. After all, I didn’t want to hurt him and the pad was nice and cushy. I just wanted him to keep his mouth shut, and I had one laying around.

 

 

When I tried to google what to do, various “remedies” came up. Some people said that schooling with a flash taught the horse it couldn’t evade the bit by opening their mouth, and had worked for their horses. I don’t find flashes inherently evil, so it seemed like a good plan. When I put a flash on Rio though, I had to put it pretty tight or he would still open his mouth. Tight noseband with chin pad and tight flash. He didn’t seem very happy, nor was I.

I stopped using both. Then I would use just the chin pad. Then nothing. Then I’d ride with the flash, and so on. It was the internal “what is best?” debate that I think we all feel sometimes. If only our horses could talk!

I read more articles. Recently one by Denny Emerson caught my eye, and he linked to another one on Euro Dressage. It’s a 4 part series, and talks a lot about the horrors that nosebands, flashes, and figure 8’s can inflict on horses. There is much discussion about how nosebands came to be, what their actually purpose is, what improper fit can do, etc. It is a GREAT series and was exactly what I was looking for. Additionally, there was a study that was also published on Euro Dressage about the hazards of too tight nosebands.  It was shocking to read that out of 750 competition horses investigated, only 7% of the nosebands were correctly adjusted to accommodate the recommended 2 fingers of space.

It all immediately made me feel like the WORST mom in the world for using a tighter noseband and flash, even if I only did it a few times. Too tight of nosebands/flashes can cause not only incorrect training due to horses being unable to soften and relax their jaw, but also neural pain, and in extreme cases nerve damage.

Overall, it is BAD. Really bad! I was wrong to think that I could “fix” Rio’s mouth but strapping it shut. One of the dressage trainer/rides quotes in the 4 part series said a noseband is loose enough when a horse can chew a treat with it on. I have decided that is a great guideline (along with the 2 finger rule) and I am sticking to it from here on out. No flash for us anymore. I will probably still use the chin pad to support the lower jaw, but on a much looser hole, not as a means to close his mouth.

 

Obligatory photo of the handsome devil himself

 

I have realized that Rio gapes his mouth to avoid the bit (duh), but that it is due to lack of training. As he becomes more comfortable with something, and more confident in what I am asking, he settles and goes quietly. He gapes when he is confused, or over-faced, or stressed, etc. I wish it was as easy as adding another piece of tack, but it’s not. It is just going to take some old fashioned time and training. I do not judge anyone for using a flash or figure 8 or drop noseband, but I do hope they aren’t tightening them too tight, and unknowingly doing more harm then good.

Who knew their were no shortcuts in horses?

As this is something I have been considering for awhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on nosebands and how they should be adjusted, or if you have ever had a horse that gapes his mouth and what you did!

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19 comments

  1. i don’t think crank nosebands or flashes or figure 8s or micklems or just about any piece of common tack (including draw reins!) are inherently bad. but just about anything can be misused or abused, some WAY more easily than others (hi, draw reins!). mostly, imo, it matters what your purpose is in using the tack, and how well you apply it.

    equipment can help the training process…. but…. you still kinda also have to do the training. my general guidelines for testing if equipment helps is to ride without it for a little bit. if the issue i used it for stays better even when the equipment is removed, then the equipment is helping and i will continue to use it intermittently until the issue is resolved. if the issue gets worse without the equipment, then the equipment is just a bandaid covering up a training hole.

    in the case of my own horse, he gaped his mouth a LOT when he first came off the track and i mostly just kinda let him be. that went away as he got more comfortable in the “general wtc riding horse” work, and i then added a flash to his dressage bridle and eventually to his jump bridle too. both are quite loose (probably too loose) – but they add stability for *him* as he learns about contact, plus they help *me* in the instances where he wants to throw his head up and leave. which… he probably did on the track too bc he also raced in flash, something that seems uncommon to me haha.

    1. Very wise words! I think that is a great test to live by, and also agree about draw reins being incredibly misused lol.

      So one of the articles did talk about noseband and flashes supporting the lower jaw, and I still DO agree that if that is the purpose they are beneficial. They also can help help young horses from crossing the jaw and putting the tongue over the bit- but all these instances should still abide by the two finger rule. That is great that you use one and keep it loose! I think you’re 100% right in saying that it is your intention for using a piece of equipment that makes all the difference, and that any piece if tack shouldn’t be a band aid or crutch.

      Thanks for the very thoughtful reply!

  2. My horse gapes as well, and has ever since I got him 3 years ago. I went the flash route, but never overtightened it. He has a petite face and when the flash was on the last hole, you could still fit 2 fingers underneath it. Not only did it not stop him from gaping, it actually just made things look worse- then eventually he stretched out the flash so much that it would just slip off his face, so I just removed it.

    With my horse P, he does it for 1 of 2 reasons: 1) When I overuse the reins and he’s protecting himself, or 2) When he’s bored/anxious/unfocused. So I’ve been working on keeping my outside hand still and down by the saddle pad and if I need to ask for any softening, it comes only from a light squeeze on my inside rein. Much more difficult than it sounds. I also try to keep every ride as interesting as possible so that he doesn’t overthink and decide he’s bored. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t!

    1. Love the feedback! Sounds like that is exactly where I am- focusing on training methods to fix the issue and not extra tack.

      I definitely think that the issue will improve with time, because I honestly do think the gaping is a training hole. Like you said, sometimes they gape to protect themselves from too much/ too harsh a hand. I’ve been focusing on trying to ride with a super soft hand and an extra active leg to motivate the hindquarters and engage his entire body. He seems to gape less she he has a nice engine going!

  3. I pretty much ride Eli in a loose regular cavesson. I put his jumper bridle on him the other day and it has a flash-type situation and I don’t tighten it (I can put well more than just two fingers underneath it) and he seemed to revert to tucking his chin (I see this as avoidance but who knows). Sooooo … I have gotten to the point where for me, the flash or figure 8 is probably not a good choice for Eli.

    But properly fitted, they could be the right choice for another horse–that’s not up to me. I have read some of the articles related to over-tightened flashes, etc., and my hope is that the more the information gets out there, the fewer riders there will be who rely on over-tightened nose bands.

    1. Agree that dropping down and tucking is likely avoidance. Rio tries that song and dance too and I absolutely feel it is an effort to avoid proper contact and impulsion. I also hope that education on this topic continues. I consider myself a fairly educated horse person, and it scares me to think how uneducated I was on the topic (and basically still am) and therefore how I could have been unknowingly misusing equipment in the past. I do not think I ever “abused” any of my horses, but I do now have a much stronger understanding and appreciation for proper noseband flash/figure 8 fit and will be hyper aware of it in the future!

  4. My horse gapes from time to time, but he also spends a fair amount of time chewing on the bit. My experience is that horses gape the busier our hands are. As they get confident in the work and our hands get quieter the whole picture becomes more calm. Obviously as he is young my hands tend to get busy making corrections here and there so he gapes from time to time. Other horses just have busy mouths, Carlos was one of those horses. He would regularly flip his tongue over the bit, instead of strapping his mouth shut or tying his tongue down, I got him a bit with a roller and he contented himself to playing with it while I rode him. Made us both a lot happier and all our training better.

    1. That makes sense. A roller is a great idea. I’ve never tried a bit with a roller- but might be worth looking into!

  5. I rode with Tommy Lowe as a junior on the left coast. If you know who he is, you know he is his own rare breed of a bird. (If that makes sense to you you get a bonus point.) Although, indisputably talented. At that time I had a hot little warmblood mare that I was quite successful in the Children’s Jumpers on. Back then there was only Children’s, Modified Jr/Am and Junior Jumpers. 3’6″-3’9″, 3’6″-4′ and 4′-4’6″ respectively. Those were the only jumper classes offered for juniors. Heck, the smallest jumper class period was 3′-3’3″, and it was only offered on Wednesdays and Thursdays. But that’s a whole different topic.
    Anyways, when she was still green my mare would gape her mouth. She wasn’t one that went well with a cranked tight caveson. So Tommy removed her caveson altogether. Yes, he had her school at home without a noseband. She would show in one. But by then it never needed to be tightened.

    His theory is this: The horse, by design, keeps the mouth closed. The way the jaw and muscles work, the horse has strength in closing the mouth, not opening it. For the horse to gape the mouth, they lean on the noseband. With the caveson removed the horse’s jaw will eventually become exhausted from being held open. After time the horse learns to keep their mouth closed on their own.

    Unconventional, yes. It works quicker on some then others. I’ve tried it on some that were just too big of an a-hole to begin with.

    1. I love that! His explanation totally makes sense too. I’m glad I finally wrote about this, the feedback has been incredible! I

      1. I often tend to lean towards less is more. Don’t get me wrong. I own a full arsenal of tack, bits, training equipment, etc. But I believe that other than time, I need to find what makes my horse happy. Sometimes tack helps. It is not always the answer though.

  6. OH!! I must belatedly add that removing the caveson should only be attempted by riders with soft AND experienced hands. Because as KC mentioned above, horses often gape out of self preservation and the caveson does, to a certain extent, protect the horse from a rider with uneducated hands.

  7. One of my favourite subjects. 😉

    Back in the day, I thought nothing of using any sort of noseband – flashes, grackles, drops, whatever. My trainers told me they were fine, the pros all used them, and OMG WE HAVE TO KEEP THE MOUTH SHUT because Reasons.

    Over the years, though, I’ve changed my position on nosebands, as I’m sure you know.

    The goal is a soft, accepting mouth that lightly chews the bit without resistance. Even the FEI states that this is the goal in dressage, although we rarely see this achieved in competitions, no matter how high the score.

    A great sign of relaxation in a horse is swallowing, and they need mobility in their jaw in order to do so. Taking away this freedom of movement can easily be seen in the dressage horse with saliva pouring from the mouth in abundance…unable to swallow, the saliva has nowhere to go but out.

    The cavesson lies on top of the infraorbital foramen, which is where one of the branches of the trigeminal nerve emerges. Any flash or attachment will lie atop the mental foramen on the lower part of the face – which is where another part of the trigeminal nerve is located. As horsemen and women, we owe it to the horse to be aware of anatomical landpoints such as this, and take them into account when we select tack.

    Because the body is entirely made up of connected parts, tension in one part of the horse easily reverberates to other parts of the horse. Tension leads to soreness, soreness leads to injury, and so the cycle continues.

    Horses can only talk to us through their behaviour. Strapping the mouth shut, no matter how padded the gear or what the manufacturer claims, is just another way to silence the horse. It’s unethical and unfair.

    Kudos to you for not drinking the Kool Aid, and doing some research outside of the box!

    1. I was hoping you’d chime in! You are so well read in these topics, I always love to hear your insight. Sometimes I’m slow to the finish line, but I usually get there eventually 🤣. The whole thing just hasn’t been sitting well with me for months (my ambivalence in the issue) and I feel so relieved to finally have come to a decision that “sits right” with me 😊.

  8. I love this topic, and it’s one I write about a lot. I don’t use a flash. My cavesons are always loose enough that my horses can eat hay while being tacked up. My personal opinion about why horses gape their mouths is because of bits that aren’t comfortable.

    I’ve been doing a lot reading and researching on this subject. Not that I am in any way an expert, but I have a horse who has been quite vocal about his bit. The thing I am discovering is that horses unhappy with their bits are unhappy with the amount of tongue pressure their bit is causing.

    All of the snaffles, even the double jointed ones, have been impossible to use on my sensitive horse. The other horse goes just fine in a French link. Sensitive guy has gone from a gentle snaffle that he hated to a correction bit that was a relief to him to a milder curb mouth piece. He is getting happier and happier.

    I recommend that everyone should have a copy of the book, The Level Best for Your Horse ($16.95) – http://www.ridingwarehouse.com/Myler_Bitting_System_Level_Best_for_Your_Horse_Book/descpage-MTLBFYHB.html?from=bakdre

    It’s a great book that talks about all of the issues you’ve brought up.

    1. Thanks for the informative response! That book sounds great, I’ll habe to check it out. So what bit ended up working for your guy? I am open too trying something different to see if it makes a difference.

      1. I’ve been writing about the bit journey for the past 6 months or so, but here is the post that kind off summarizes where we are: http://www.bakersfielddressage.com/home/more-bit-experimentation . I am riding in a Myler low medium port mouth piece 33 with Kimberwick cheeks – NOT dressage legal, but it is working! I am trying to transition him to the legal mouthpiece/cheeks that is similar. It’s an extra wide low mouth piece 33 with loose rings.

        The first time I used it, he went great! By the third ride, he was quite comfortable, but out of control. I still need the leverage of the Kimberwick cheeks for control. Dale Myler told me to use it once a week, but I got greedy. :0)

        After having tried a lot of things with Mr. sensitive, it became quite clear that tongue pressure was not to be tolerated. The problem is that it is with tongue pressure that we keep control. That, or a leverage bit which isn’t legal in dressage. My plan is to keep working on the control while going to the legal bit every now and again to check where we are. And that’s where your post comes in – now that he is comfortable in his bit, it’s training that we need more of! :0)

  9. My BO’s young jumper used to gape a bit and removing the noseband all together has helped a lot. Because he is a jumper I am pretty sure that he doesn’t have to ever have a nose band – I think the plan will be to keep him sans. I do know some horses that go very well schooling without at home though and just a loose one on for shows. 🙂 I don’t think nosebands or flashes are evil but I do think that they need to be used in moderation. I have gotten to where I rarely use a flash now.

  10. My half-lease “jumper” mare goes in a figure 8, but I follow the two finger rule. On her, I ride in a hollow-mouth, single-jointed D-ring and the flash gives me that little bit extra when I need it (which isn’t often), but allows me to not bit up. But it’s also loose enough, that it’s not strapping her mouth shut, which I don’t believe you can really do anyways. If a horse wants to open it’s mouth, it’s going to.

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