Growing up riding in the hunters and jumpers, I remember looking at western bridles and thinking, “Where’s the noseband?” and “How can people ride without a noseband??”
Having always used bridles where the noseband was an integral part, I couldn’t understand how or why people would do without them – although I didn’t even really know why I used them. It seemed like such a simple, every-day thing that I never actually asked about it, and I continued to wonder.
Fast-forward many years to when I was first introduced to French classical dressage. There were no nosebands. In fact, all the nosebands had been deliberately taken offof the bridles.
I had ridden for years and had done up countless nosebands, all the while having no real idea about why I was using them. As it turns out, the vast majority of the time a noseband isn’t needed, especially if we develop fine hands and a light horse. In fact, allowing the mouth to be free, and encouraging it to softly chew and relax can be helpful in creating a light horse and in improving our training.
Understanding the purpose of nosebands, and how we impact the mouth and face through the bridle can help us better develop our training, and choose appropriate equipment for each horse we work with.
In English disciplines including modern dressage, the main reasons for using a noseband for training purposes are generally considered to be:
- To stabilize the bit, so it remains straight and quiet in the mouth
- To help a young horse more easily accept the bit, by preventing the onset of excessive gaping open of the mouth, crossing of the jaws, and putting the tongue over the bit
Nosebands in Modern Dressage
In dressage in particular, a foundational principle that guides most modern riders today is that of maintaining a constant, light contact with the mouth. With this constant contact, there is naturally a greater impact of the hands on the jaws of the horse, and so a greater need, in some cases, to stabilize the bit in the mouth. Nosebands are also required to use in dressage competitions, which likely contributes to their widespread use, yet surprisingly little inquiry or knowledge about their function.
At this point, a side question worth asking would be, why would we assume that we need constant contact with the mouth? This could be another article on its own! This consideration aside, it makes sense that a noseband could be needed to stabilize a bit if the rider’s hands, or quick movements (such as in polo) are causing it to shift in the horse’s mouth.
Nosebands in Classical Dressage
Classical dressage emphasizes the lightness and self-carriage of the horse as a hallmark of good training, and so doesn’t emphasize maintaining a constant contact in quite the same way. Rather, classical riders often ride with a slight loop in the reins, loose nosebands, or no nosebands at all, considering them dispensable tools for horses taught to be light in hand. In this case, the horse’s mouth is encouraged to be free and to gently chew on the bit, and there is less direct pressure on the jaws (through the bars). This lack of constant pressure naturally reduces the need to stabilize the bit with a noseband.
As expressed by master horseman Francois Baucher, it can be extremely important to allow the mouth of the horse to chew and relax to resolve tensions and difficulties in the rest of the body.
As well explained by Swiss rider Corinne Daepp for EuroDressage, with a loosely fitted noseband or none at all, classical riders aim to impact the corners of the horse’s mouth more than the bars or tongue, and so lift their hands rather than pull back. This, together with a soft hand, reduces the likelihood of horses gaping, and so reduces the rider’s need for a noseband as a preventive measure.
Nosebands in Western Disciplines
In western disciplines, there is also distinctly less direct rein pressure on the bit, as riders more often use loose reins and neck reining to communicate their aids. Thus, without constant direct contact, there is much less need for a noseband as the bit remains stable in the mouth without influence from the hands.
Nosebands for Aesthetic Purposes
Sometimes, riders will also choose to use a noseband purely for aesthetic reasons, either for the style of the noseband itself or for how it affects the look of their horse’s face. In this case, the noseband plays no real functional role and should not affect the horse’s training.
Nosebands for Preventing Gaping in Young Horses
When it comes to young horses, Olympic French dressage rider Catherine Henriquet explains very well in EuroDressage’s article on nosebands that we can use a noseband as a useful precaution to prevent gaping in a small number of horses. Having learned with her husband Michel Henriquet, who himself studied with classical master Nuno Oliveira for many years, Catherine sees both modern and classical perspectives. She notes that developing a fine hand is the best way to prevent gaping, and clearly expresses her thoughts this way:
“For a young horse which feels the bit in its mouth for the first time, it is a natural and immediate reaction to defend itself, for example by trying to put the tongue over the bit. This can become systematic. In some cases when horses have very sensitive mouths, the jaws can cross even with a rider [who] has soft hands. Here the usage of a noseband helps to prevent a problem before it manifests itself. Adjusted the correct way, a noseband leaves the horse enough room to chew on the bit. It has to be closed in a way that we can still give the horse a treat. Used with consideration and respect, a noseband is nothing else than a simple precaution to limit the gaping. We use the dropped or flash nosebands in this spirit on our saddle broken youngsters, and think it might be dispensable in 8 of 10 horses. With our more advanced horses we use the French noseband (identical to the English). However, the best prevention against gaping and crossing [of the] jaws is a fine hand. A normal mouth and a fair hand is the better way to [reach] a good contact, than [by] blocking the jaws by a tight noseband. Horses which haven’t shown specific problems in the first 18 months of their training should be able to do without a noseband.”Catherine Henriquet | EuroDressage
Regardless of the riding discipline, determining whether a horse would benefit from having a noseband depends on several factors. It’s up to us to determine how much consistent pressure there is on the mouth and how quickly the hands or horse move, causing the bit to shift, as well as how sensitive and inclined the horse is to gaping or putting the tongue over the bit.
Expression of the Mouth
For many of the issues relating to accepting and responding to the bit, the horse is essentially trying to escape pressure it does not know how to resolve in a better way. It can be extremely useful to know if a horse is trying to escape bit pressure, because this can tell us that the horse does not know of a better way to respond in order to release the pressure. So, allowing the horse to have a free mouth (with or without a noseband) can help us identify these moments, and refine our training to ensure the horse understands. For example, by using in-hand work to retrain a strong horse to be light on the bit, we can help to build understanding so that the horse learns how to respond, and so quickly resolve pressure.
The Misuse of Nosebands
Sadly, today we sometimes see riders tightening a noseband or flash specifically to do just the opposite – to prevent the horse from expressing their discomfort or lack of understanding, and limit their attempts to escape constant bit pressure such as by opening their mouths. With crank nosebands having increased in popularity, it can be easy to over-tighten a noseband which would then limit our ability to get feedback from the horse. This would then limit our ability to refine our training to the needs of each horse.
Despite their common use, for the most part nosebands are not actually necessary, though they play a useful and specific role in the training of a few number of horses. By stabilizing the bit or helping a youngster get accustomed to the bit, nosebands can be useful to help transmit the rein aids smoothly and prevent bad habits like gaping from developing.
By developing a fine hand and lightness in our horses, the functional need for a noseband diminishes, though many still choose to use one for its aesthetic appeal. Allowing the mouth freedom, either with a correctly fitted noseband suited to the horse’s needs or without one altogether is what’s key to allow the horse to relax its mouth and body, and give us feedback to help us refine our training for the needs of each horse.