In the October issue of Horses for Life, an Internet magazine, there is an
article on the anatomy of the horse's face and how tight nosebands are
problematic and probably painful for horses.
In this article, the author writes:
"The noseband fits two to three fingers down from the cheekbone. And some
tend to pull it quite tight. Arguably, there will be a lot of pressure when
you do this. This happens to compress the area where the "infraorbital
nerve" comes out of the infraorbital framen. This nerve supplies sensory
perception of the nose. If you put a lot of compression on a nerve there
should be an assumption that it could either cause pain or a lack of
What a cavesson (noseband) is for: It is to stabelize the bit in the horse's mouth -- not
to keep the mouth shut over the bit, although that is the way it is frequently used on Icelandic Horses.
The cavesson should not serve any purpose in
training a horse. It is there for decoration and not even necessary to
have on a bridle unless required for a show purposes as correct
equipment. It should not be tight and if it is felt necessary to be
used to keep a mouth shut on a horse then the training is not being
In English riding, nosebands are a requirement to all bridles. The hunter
horse only wears a conventional noseband as they are supposed to be more relaxed temperment, not "needing the restraint" of the dropped noseband and the figure eight noseband. Both of
these types further restrict the mouth's opening away from bit pressure by
applying a second restriction below the bit.
Older English bridles did not come with the type of things they
have now -- many had a simple noseband that fitted through slots to keep the
cheekpieces from moving around a lot when a snaffle bit was used. If your
cavesson is so tight that you can't get two fingers sideways between it and
the horse's jaw, it is too tight.
Currently, the noseband is used to keep the horse's mouth closed and
eliminate the possibility of the horse opening his mouth against this
pressure. This was not it's original, intended purpose.
Force is a bad thing, when dealing with horses. It is especially a bad thing
when dealing with their mouths. I know there are plenty of trainers who
take short cuts and force horses to accept bits with strong pressure by
using a tight cavesson. Pretty poor horsemanship. A horse should be
able to work with the weight of the reins only in his mouth, and not be
forced to do so.
If the noseband or cavesson is loosened and the horse's gait changes, it might be
because he is confused by the idea of freedom. He is probably used to being forced into a frame and / or being held up. It will take some re-training to help the horse achieve self-carriage and lightness.
The page on "lightness" will also list some non-acceptance of the bit behaviors which you might watch for.
The noseband is seen being used for the wrong reasons very often when just good
complete training will work much better than forcing and trapping the
mouth. Oftentimes, it is when the incorrect bit or problematic use
of hands with a bit as the reason for mouthing the bit but not
really realized by the rider and one problem is just thought to be
corrected by another not really teaching the horse anything.
For information about the "leveller", a severe noseband allowed by the rules to be used on Icelandic Horses, click here.
Let's take a look at what the nosebands are doing to the horses (click on the photo for a larger size of the image):
This horse is obviously fighting the bit. What else is happening? His head is tilting at odd angles. He is trying to open his mouth. Look at his nostrils--attempting to take in more air? How tight is the noseband? Can he breathe adequately? Can he swallow? Is his parotid gland squashed?
Look at any publication that has to do with Icelandic Horses. Pictures in the Quarterly (put out by the United States Icelandic Horse Congress), and even Eidfaxi (the horse magazine of Iceland) will show horses straining and fighting against tight nosebands.
Does anyone see that this is not a good thing? A friend said "we all see 'correct' in some context of what we are used to." Do we accept this so obvious discomfort and strain from the Icelandic Horse as correct since we are so used to it?
"...the key to understanding bitting extends far beyond the horse's mouth,"
according to Joyce Harman, DVM, "...the horse produces a large amount of
saliva both while eating and while carrying a bit. It is imperative for him
to swallow, and to do so, he must move his tongue. When he swallows, the
tongue goes to the roof of the mouth."
"On your horse, if you tighten the noseband or lock the jaw joint, you
alter the motion through the entire spine to the tip of his tail." In other
words, you make it impossible for him to swallow comfortably while he's
working. The typical snaffle bit puts pressure restricting the tongue, and "...has a nutcracker action of the sides of the jaw," Harman says. The horse
cannot freely raise the tongue to the hard palate, and when he tightens his
tongue against the bit, the action affects other structures in the head and
Through the muscle structures connecting the horse's tongue to the rest of
his body, "...when there is tension in the horse's tongue, there is tension
all the way down to the sternum and shoulder along the bottom of the neck,
where you actually want relaxation. Once you have tension at the sternum,
the horse cannot raise his back and use his 'ring of muscles.' In other
words, he can't become properly engaged."
In the history of bits and bitting, the following noseband information appears: "The addition of a nose-band made control of the mouth easier, preventing it being opened too much - one can only pity the early horse who had such a bit and was unable to avoid the discomfort because a nose-band was also fitted.
What is quite clear is that the history of bitting is based around the control
of the horse by pain. The horse learned, no doubt painfully, to obey the reins
as quickly as possible in order to avoid any pressure coming on to the bit.
Refusal to accept the bit would have resulted in instant punishment, pain and fear.
No wonder these horses are depicted as excitable and 'hot'. An absolute case of negative classical conditioning.
No doubt horses ridden in this way attempted to avoid the bit by raising the head and closing the angle between head and neck.
It boils down to riding the horse's face. This is how inexperienced, unknowing riders ride the horse--by his face only. Riding like this however, is not in cooperation with the horse, as he does not and can not completely give his body and mind to the wishes of the rider.
How are Icelandic Horse riders perceived by other horsemen? A few comments about the nosebands:
 If the horse opens it's mouth too much, a true horseman
would take a step backwards and find out WHY.
 Quite often with a horse that already has a problem, tight nosebands create more problems
than they solve.
 There is a reason why these nosebands they are so fond of are not used
on TBs. I really don't think any of the TBs I own would permit someone to use
most of those things on them a second time.
 A horse which is properly trained and handled does not NEED a
noseband to keep his mouth shut. To have to use tight nosebands and severe
ones just means that the hands holding the reins are not educated or sensitive. If
they were, the horse would not have any reason to open
his mouth, hence those devices would be entirely unnecessary.
 most noticeable to me is the lack of willingness to learn more.