Does My Horse Need A Noseband?

In many forms of equitation horses do not wear nosebands, the most well known probably being Western. Those following English-style riding, however, normally feel that a horse looks ‘undressed’ without a noseband, even if he only wears a simple cavesson noseband consisting of a sliphead and a horizontal band of leather round the nose and lower jaw, which buckles behind and on the nearside of the jaw. The cavesson is fitted quite loosely, so you can get two lingers’ width between the band and the face, and it should lie about midway between the corners of the horse’s lips and his sharp facial bones.

This noseband has no physical effect whatsoever, but simply provides an attachment point for a standing martingale when necessary. It can be made decorative by being padded, rolled or having stitched designs or coloured borders on it (normally white) and it does ‘set off’ a head most effectively. You can adjust its height a little, up or down, to emphasise or flatter a head: for instance, a large head can be made to appear shorter by setting the noseband a hole or two lower than recommended; by using fairly broad leather, the head can be made to seem smaller; whereas liner, even rolled leather – as on Arab in-hand show bridles and headcollars – will flatter a small, elegant head but would look ridiculous on a heavyweight hunter.

If fitted fairly low and fastened tighter (enough to fit one finger between it and the front of the face), the cavesson may encourage the horse not to open his mouth to evade the bit. However, it should not, under any circumstances, be fastened any tighter. Nosebands of all types always go under the bridle’s headpiece, slotting through the end loops of the browband to keep them in place.

The Drop or dropped noseband

Despite everything that has been written about the correct fitting of this noseband over the few decades since it first became popular, it is still commonly seen fitted too low too near the horse’s nostrils and too tight, restricting the breathing. The horse is an obligate nasal breather, in other words he must breathe through his nose, and cannot breathe through his mouth unless something is wrong with him. Therefore any noseband which restricts the airflow through the nostrils will at least partially suffocate him. Not only can this interfere with his oxygen supply and, therefore, his physical performance, it can cause great panic and correspondingly ‘difficult’ behaviour in the horse. Katie Ross from Equine insurance experts BVA Equine says: “It is not good horsemanship to try to dominate a horse by this means: it is counter-productive and can actually be classed as cruel”.

The front strap of the drop noseband should be fitted only slightly lower than the cavesson, so that the bottom edge of the band is three fingers’ width above the nostrils, on the end of the nasal bone. The back strap which is often much too short even today is fitted round the outside and below the bit, resting in the chin groove and buckling on the nearside just below the bit. If you buy a drop noseband and the backstrap does not allow the correct fitting of the front strap, get the saddler to alter it and explain why this is necessary, as some still do not seem to understand that it is the backstrap, not the front band, which is the ‘dropped’ part of the item, and this backstrap must be long enough to allow the front piece to lie where it belongs, out of harm’s way.

The purpose of the drop noseband is to prevent the horse opening his mouth so wide that he evades the action of the bit. You should still be able to slide a finger all round the straps between the leather and the horse’s head like this it is effective whilst still being comfortable and not interfering with the breathing. Any other fitting is unacceptable.

The Flash noseband

This has superseded the drop noseband in popularity, and must be slightly more comfortable for the horse to wear. It is simply a cavesson noseband (which is fitted normally or just slightly lower than an ordinary cavesson) with a second strap (or two, depending on the exact make) either joined to the cavesson at the front or run through a small loop sewn to its lower edge at the front; this strap then passes down below the bit, lying in the chin groove and buckling on the nearside just below the bit. The flash discourages any opening of the mouth, and the cavesson part also provides an attachment for a standing martingale, which should never be fitted to a drop noseband.

The Grakle noseband

This is also called the ‘figure eight’ and ‘crossover’ noseband. It consists of two diagonally-crossing straps with their crossover point usually over a little pad of sheepskin or felt on the front of the horse’s nose. The top section of each strap passes under its relevant bridle cheek-piece, and they meet and fasten near the jaw; the lower sections pass under the bit on each side, resting in the chin groove again, and fasten on the nearside just below the bit (some people fasten them so the buckle lies between the bit and the crossover point).

The object of the Grakle is to prevent or at least discourage the horse from crossing his jaw and opening his mouth to evade the action of the bit. As with any noseband which passes along the chin groove, should the horse attempt to open his mouth, not only will he feel pressure in the chin groove but on the bridge of the nose, too, which has the subsidiary effect of bringing the nose in and maybe down. The Grakle and the flash are unlikely to interfere With breathing. They must be fitted snugly but comfortably, again allowing you to slide a finger under the straps all round though if they are too loose, they will obviously be completely ineffective.

There should be a short vertical strap under the jaw linking the upper and lower halves of the Grakle; this keeps them in position and therefore more effective, and stops the top part from sliding up or twisting round.

The Kineton

These are the four most common and useful nosebands in general use, but mention should be made of the Kineton which has a fairly irrefutable stopping effect on a strong horse. It consists of a sliphead and cheekpieces, with an adjustable strap over the nose fitted about level with the bit and the corners of the mouth, these two being joined by metal loops which fit next to the face (between it and the bit-rings) and under the bit. In this way, when the reins are used and pressure is put on the bit, it is transferred via the loops to the noseband and so you have both bit pressure and more or less strong nose pressure, too. It has no mouth-closing effect, of course, but it certainly stops a horse setting his head horizontally and so avoiding bar pressure from the bit. It is often maligned as being too strong, but in itself it is unlikely actually to hurt a horse and, like the gag snaffle, it does have a place in the humane control of horses with train-like tendencies.