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Nosebands: Which is Best for your Horse?

by Michelle Holtmeyer
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Trying to decide on the best noseband for your horse? There’s a lot of choice out there and it can be confusing. In this article we take a look at three of the most popular nosebands and how they work: plain cavessons, drop nosebands and grackles.

Nosebands for horses: too much choice?

There’s a bewildering choice of tack available these days. This applies to both bridles and nosebands, which are also known as cavessons. It’s too easy to feel overwhelmed at what’s on offer. We need to remind ourselves that all the different permutations are not just about practicality. They’re also about what’s fashionable and what the retailer and manufacturer want you to buy. Good leather tack, correctly maintained, should last you for a long time, and so the manufacturers have to find other ways to tempt you to purchase new items.

No matter how radical the noseband design, horses’ heads still have the same basic construction as they had years ago! More importantly, every horse is different. One size really doesn’t fit all.

Many years ago, the few types of noseband that were available were purely functional. Today you can take your pick of the latest bridles with new noseband designs, all of which claim to offer an improved fit for the horse’s face.

Some riders are opposed to nosebands that are designed to close the horse’s mouth, while others simply buy the latest noseband in the belief that if it’s up to date, it must be good. There is a third group of riders that questions whether nosebands are necessary at all.

Nosebands: what are they for?

Both the bridle and the noseband are functional items. A bridle isn’t just about keeping a bit in the horse’s mouth, nor is a noseband simply about keeping the mouth closed.

When the horse is correctly fitted with an appropriate noseband, the lower jaw should be relaxed and not moving unnecessarily. The mouth too should be more relaxed, bringing a reduction in tension to the neck. The bit doesn’t move around in the horse’s mouth, so the rider isn’t niggling the horse as much with the reins.

Sensation through the reins is partly transferred from the bit to the noseband and also to the headpiece. The effect can be subtle or strong, depending on where the noseband is placed and the width or narrowness of the noseband strap. The horse’s response will depend very much on its sensitivity and facial anatomy, plus, most importantly, how sympathetic the rider’s hands are.

Nosebands: the usual suspects?

The three most popular nosebands are the English noseband, also known as the plain noseband or plain cavesson; the drop noseband, also known as the Hanoverian; and the grackle, or Mexican noseband. In all three examples, the noseband is separate from the cheek pieces for the bridle.

English noseband

When riding with an English noseband, some rein contact transfers from the horse’s mouth to the bridge of the nose and the lower jaw. Both wide and narrow noseband options are available, as well as rolled leather nosebands which tend to be smoother and narrower. Some riders also prefer the look of a bridle with a cavesson, though it is possible to ride without one.

The Swedish, crank or adjustable noseband has a plain cavesson and also a leather strap that fits below the horse’s chin with a leveraged mechanism. Rings or bars at either end secure the strap, which assists in keeping the horse’s mouth closed. A range of adjustment is available and there is padding at the back of the jaw for comfort. The closure mechanism is easy to adjust and it is comfortable due to its construction which reduces pinching. When fitting, always allow the space of two fingers between the noseband and the horse’s face.

The combined noseband, or flash, is another variant on the plain English cavesson. It consists of a thin strap attached to the cavesson, which fastens under the horse’s chin and helps to keep the mouth closed. This distributes pressure to both chin groove and the bridge of the nose and is often adopted to encourage horses who do not accept the bit to relax, as the side contact is often more comfortable.

Whichever variant of the “English type” is chosen, there should be no pressure on the zygomatic bone, and great care should be taken when fitting to ensure there is no pinching either on the mouth or chin.

Drop noseband

The drop, or Hanoverian noseband, transfers the contact to the nasal bone and the chin groove. It offers the benefits of the Swedish, or adjustable noseband, in that it prevents unnecessary movement of the bit and keeps the horse’s mouth closed. It works as the sole noseband on the bridle. The strap is usually narrower than a plain cavesson, and because it sits under the chin, it can have a more severe effect. Allow approximately four finger-widths above the nostrils to fit this noseband correctly.

Special care should be taken when fitting the drop noseband on horses or ponies with shorter jaws. The lower part of the nose is extremely sensitive, and it’s all too easy to damage the softer cartilage with an ill-fitting drop noseband. Made sure the noseband is lying on the harder bone of the nose, and if in doubt about the fitting, choose another option for your horse or pony. The drop noseband can restrict the nostrils more than a plain cavesson, and also has an effect on the neck when contact is put on the bit. Once the response has been achieved, pressure should be released on the reins. Also, ensure that the noseband is correctly positioned so that the connection ring between the noseband and cheek piece does not interfere with the bit.

Grackle noseband

The grackle, or Mexican noseband, is designed to create the least restriction on breathing and distribute the contact over a wide area of the horse’s nose. This makes it a popular choice in competitions, particularly show jumping. The construction of the English grackle and the Mexican version differ, but the principles are the same. Contact is transferred to the chin groove, lower jaw and bridge of the nose. The upper part of the noseband sits higher on the jawline just below the cheekbones, and pressure here will influence the neck. The lower strap sits in the chin groove, like a drop noseband.

The central piece of the cross-over straps should sit in the middle of the front of the horse’s nose. The skin is thin here and the horse will find excessive pressure painful, so it’s important to ensure the straps are fitted comfortably. There is often a replaceable sheepskin or synthetic pad at the centre of the noseband where the straps cross, to offer greater comfort to the horse.

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